LITTLE BIG SHOTS WITH MELISSA McCARTHY -- Episode 405 -- Pictured: William -- (Photo by: Flannery Underwood/NBC)
Photo: NBC/Flannery Underwood/NBC
Photo: NBC/Flannery Underwood/NBC

Milton piano prodigy William Zhang will appear on “Little Big Shots’ at 7 p.m. Sunday March 22 hosted by Melissa McCarthy

Originally posted Sunday, March 22, 2020 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

A Milton seven year old William Zhang will be featured on tonight’s NBC “Little Big Shots” as a piano prodigy. The episode, hosted by part-time Atlantan Melissa McCarthy, will air at 7 p.m.

The show was taped in January and NBC shot video of William at his home in November for the package. He plays a bright, well-known Chopin piece as well as an original song. NBC released some of his performance on YouTube a few hours before the episode aired. 

His parents admit to having zero musical talent so his exposure to a piano at 16 months was accidental and his talents God given. 

Todd Zhang, William’s dad who runs a web design/e-commerce business with his wife Julie, was killing time at Georgia Tech one day while his wife was doing some work so he entered an empty classroom with William that happened to have a piano.

William was instantly captivated by the white and black keys. When he turned two, his parents decided to make an investment: a stand-up piano. And they avoided a cheaper “starter” piano, investing instead in a quality $20,000 mahogany wood German-made Schimmel. (Steinway’s were too pricey and overrated, Julie said.)

The next step was to find a piano teacher. That was much tougher than they had anticipated. Many teachers turned them down, saying William was too young, suggesting they wait until he’s closer to seven. Other teachers were, as Todd said, “sketchy.”

When William was four, they finally found a woman at church willing to take William on and possessed a real passion for music. She soon realized he was excelling too quickly for beginner piano textbooks. She switched him to actual classical pieces. Even then, it didn’t take long for her to admit that he was too good for her.

So off the parents went hunting for another teacher. They emailed music professors at local universities who had piano experience. Most responded with firm no’s. But one man offered to meet with them: Georgia State University associate professor of music Raffi Besalyan, a 47-year-old piano prodigy himself when he lived in the old Soviet Union who has had an impressive music career himself. 

Besalyan at first suggested he could find a grad student to teach William. But after speaking to  William in person, then hearing him play, Besalyan offered to teach William himself. 

That was three years ago. They continue to meet almost weekly. 

“He’s extremely intelligent,” Besalyan said of William. “That was one of the biggest reasons I took him on. He’s patient. He’s hardworking. His parents are supportive.”

In early 2019, after 18 months of lessons, Besalyan said William was ready for competitions. William in 2019 won the American Protêgé International Piano and Strings Competition and later, the American Protêgé young musicians category. As part of the reward, he was able to play at Carnegie Hall in New York. 

William practices two to four hours a day. He loves playing because it makes him happy and, as he said in an interview, “I project images in my head, like rabbits hopping around. It’s fun.”

Going on “Little Big Shots,” he said was great fun and he loved meeting with the other musical prodigies featured tonight. 

Besalyan said at age seven, William is as good as - if not better - than many of his college student players. 

William, he added, has a good feeling not just for music but for his surroundings and other people. And he’s self motivated, not needing much if any prodding from his parents. 

And is not just obsessed with piano: “He is a regular kid who plays outside and likes basketball and other things,” Besalyan said. “Altogether, he’s a good package, a rare thing,”

Here is Wiliam’s public Facebook page

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.