Hitting All the Right Notes

April 10, 2015 • Entertainment, In-depth

By Tiffany Ujiiye, Assistant Editor

For 13-year-old Ray Ushikubo of Riverside, Calif., life for the most part consists of typical teenage things — completing homework on weeknights, wearing braces and enjoying hobbies that include billiards, math, wakeboarding and admiring the latest Mercedes Benz automobiles.

However, what sets him apart is the fact that he just also happens to be an incredibly talented musical prodigy.

As a pianist, Ushikubo has already performed at Carnegie Hall and Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, as well as on NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” He also has performed alongside world-renowned pianist Lang Lang and with pianist-conductor Jeffrey Kahane at Royce Hall on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles.

By age 10, he made his solo orchestral debut in the Young Musicians’ Foundation Gala concert at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Last year, Ushikubo made his debut with Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in two performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Double Keyboard Concerto BWV 1061” and was a featured guest artist on composer-conductor Rob Kapilow’s “What Makes It Great” series, performing Frédéric Chopin’s solo works. In just 13 years, Ushikubo’s list of accomplishments is impressive as a pianist, but he’s also an incredibly gifted violinist.

Ushikubo performed at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 2014 Gala celebration “StedFest.” He also was part of the New West Symphony Orchestra’s Symphonic
Adventures Program.

“Not many people are successful at playing two instruments at a high level let alone build a sustainable career with both instruments,” Ushikubo’s piano instructor Ory Shihor explained. “But if it can be done, Ray can do it.”

Shihor is the co-chair of the piano department at the Colburn School and the dean of the pre-college Colburn Young Artists Academy for gifted young musicians in Los Angeles. Ushikubo’s incredible career began when he was just 5 years old after watching the Japanese music drama “Nodame Cantabile.” Like any fan of the show, he wanted to be just like the drama’s hero, aspiring conductor Shinichi Chiaki. So, he begged his parents to buy him a $20 violin.

Today, he has outgrown seven violins and has been a student since 2010 at the Colburn Music Academy, an intensive and prodigious training program for gifted precollege students. The days are dedicated to three hours each of piano, violin and homework. But it’s not a big deal studying for nine hours a day when there is passion behind it.

“Without passion for music, you won’t feel like you want to play music,” said Ushikubo, whose dedication to his performances fuels him to continue his passion and sparked his “Circle of Life in Music” project.

In his “Circle of Life in Music” pursuit, Ushikubo looks to strengthen the relationship between the performer and audience, involving the teachers, parents, schools and organizations that support them.

He received a national scholarship of $50,000 from the Davidson Institute for his project and became a 2014 Davidson Fellow Laureate. In 2013, he was a featured speaker at TEDxRedmond, an international nonprofit dedicated to spreading innovative ideas, where he shared his “Circle of Life in Music” project.

Other awards include the Young Artists Piano Prize at the 2013 Mondavi Young Artists Competition, the 2012 Colburn Academy Steinway Prize awarded for the best performance of a Beethoven Sonata, gold prizewinner in the 2009 AADGT International Music Competition for piano and violin and first prize at the 2010 International Russian Music Piano Competition in San Jose, Calif.

“He’s a rare individual to put in this kind of work,” said Robert Lipsett, Ushikubo’s violin instructor. “It’s a struggle to just play one instrument and put in the arduous work required to be a fine violinist, to be great.”

Lipsett, a faculty member at the Colburn School for 25 years and the Jascha Heifetz Distinguished Violin Chair, has never seen a problem with Ushikubo’s sustainability in continuing his studies.

While Ushikubo stands as an incredibly talented young man and despite his list of accomplishments in violin and piano, it’s easy to call him a genius.

“I try to avoid the ‘G’ word as much as possible,” Shihor explained about describing Ushikubo as a genius. “Musical talent comes in many shapes, forms and levels. A lazy Mozart would have amounted to pretty much nothing — super, supergifted, but no one would have known.”

For Ushikubo, it’s more than musical talent, hours of practice and rigorous instruction.

“When I can make others happy through my music, it makes me happy,” said Ushikubo. “That’s one of the reasons why I love music so much.”

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