When five-year-old Travis Wong earned a distinction in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music’s (ABRSM) 8th grade violin exam in London in April, his family was surprised.
Travis, who turned six last month, learned the violin at the age of three. He had less than four months to master four pieces of music after his first exam, the grade 5 violin performance exam, last December.
“His teacher thought he could do it, so we decided there was nothing to lose and just let him try,” said his mother Joleen Toh, who is in her 40s.
For the ABRSM violin exams, the 8th grade is the highest level before the series of diplomas, which are passed to the professional level.
It is unclear whether he is the youngest to earn a distinction on the 8th grade violin exam, as the ABRSM only started grading the age of applicants as of last December.
But Ms. Rita Yeo, founding director of the Stradivari Strings School of Music, says it is rare to achieve such a distinction within two years of learning the violin.
She has seen students pass the grade 8 exam in four years, but usually adults have chosen the violin as their second musical instrument.
“For this child to achieve this feat, he is likely to have innate musical abilities, to be cognitively more advanced than children his age and to have the support of his parents,” she adds.
Ms. Yap Shu Mei, director of the music school at Mandeville Conservatory of Music, says the youngest person she knows who earned a distinction in the ABRSM grade 8 violin exam was eight years old. .
But the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about major changes in the conduct of classical music exams. Applicants now submit the best version of a recording of four pieces of music in continuous take instead of playing in person in the presence of an examiner.
“Online exams give candidates who learn music by hearing and rote learning an advantage,” says Ms. Yeo.
Normally, candidates are also tested on skills such as sight reading. On the grade 8 exam, the candidate must have listening and analytical skills and be able to speak eloquently on the hearing test, says Ms. Yap.
Young children are generally not good at hearing tests and sight reading, she observes.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s certainly quite difficult for a five-year-old to do it.”
She adds: “However, it is not difficult for talented and hardworking children to perform the high performance pieces simply by imitating the emotions of mature players.”
As for Travis, he will now be working on mastering the rest of the repertoire in the exams he skipped.
Mrs Toh, a stay-at-home mom, is hoping to put on a concert for him when the Covid-19 restrictions ease.
Before the pandemic, he had performed his favorite plays for seniors in a day care center for the elderly.
âWhen I play for others, it makes me happy to see them smile and seem to enjoy music,â says the only child.
Ms. Toh first discovered Travis’ affinity for music when she took him to a toddler music class when she was 18 months old.
âHe exhibited a strong rhythmic sense and was able to understand the mood of different songs, for example by heartbreaking when listening to slow or sad songs,â she says.
Travis also has a perfect pitch, says Ms. Toh, a former flight attendant. He can easily play a song after listening to it, she adds.
Having graduated in 8th grade piano at the age of 14, Ms. Toh initially wanted him to learn piano.
But the boy, who loves dinosaurs, decided to learn the violin instead after seeing a YouTube orchestral video featuring songs from Jurassic Park.
To guide Travis, Ms. Toh picked up the violin with him but stopped after two months as she was unable to follow him.
To cultivate her interest in music, she often plays classical music at home. She also lets him escape every night to the sound of the violin.
âI even played classical music when it was still in my stomach,â she says.