Shaping Prodigies

“The Advocate”
Sunday. August 10. 2008

Svitlana Fiorito snaps her fingers emphatically as her student, Sean Lee, performs the closing section of Carl Maria von Weber’s “Rondo Brilliante”, an up-tempo, Romantic-era piano piece with dynamic tonal shifts. There are few 13-years-old with the skills – like his rapid finger movements and quick reaction time – to perform such a complex piece. But he wasn’t always this sharp.

“The first year with him was hard,” says Fiorito, who gives lessons on the ground floor of her Stamford home. “His hand position was out of control.”

But after just two years of instruction from Fiorito, Lee won the International Piano Competition in Puigcerda, Spain, and later performed with Greenwich Symphony Orchestra for Mozart’s 250 Birthday Celebration Concert.

Lee, a seven-grader at Middlesex Middle School in darien, is one of several local piano students Fiorito has fashioned into award-winning child prodigies. There’s also 8-year-old Annling Wang of Stamford, who won the Washington International Young Artist Piano Competition in June and will perform for Condoleezza Rice at the U.S. State Department on Wednesday. And 7-year-old Sean Yu of Stamford, who recently won the Young Pianist Competition of New Jersey and Performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Fiorito, who began her own musical journey as a child prodigy, credits these achievements to a pedagogical approach that draws on teaching methods from her native Russia and Western world. Taking inspiration from Russian system, Fiorito beginsteaching children as young as 4.

“I pay a lot of attention to kids at a very young age” says Fiorito, who started playing when she was 5.”If they can learn the letter alphabet, they can learn the musical alphabet.”

In a Western-style approach, Fiorito holds informal lessons and makes it a point to develop friendly relationship with her students. Fiorito says that by gaining their trust and maintaining a welcoming atmosphere, students are more inclined to listen.

“We don’t just talk about music, but also about their hobbies and priorities – about their lives,” says Fiorito. in a move that would make her Russian teachers shriek, Fiorito asks parents to sit in on lessons. The benefit, Fiorito says, is that parents can supervise and encourage their children and ensure they are practicing properly at home.

“I don’t treat lessons like a drop-off, like when some parents leave their kids to go grocery shopping or for a walk in the park,” she says.’Parents have to stay here. They’ve got to sit. They’ve got to watch and observe.”
Donk-Ok Lee, Sean Lee’s mother, admires Fiorito’s nurturing approach.

“She cares about her students and comforts them,” she says. “It’s not like kids are by themselves. They become one team and develop things together.”

Fiorito doesn’t just teach child prodigies – she has about 30 students who she considers “very,very good.” Among them is Stephanie Stich, a Greenwich High School senior who has taken lessons from Fiorito since she was 14.

“She really puts everything into teaching, she really dedicates herself,” says Stich, who won the top prize at the Connecticut State Music Teacher’s Association Competition in May. “You put in the hard work, she puts in the hard work, you get results.”

Fiorito, 32, first started playing piano as an elementary student in her hometown, Prokopievsk, a small city in Western Siberia. After moving with her family to Kharkov, Ukraine, when she was 12, Fiorito continued playing and eventually enrolled in the Institute of Music at the National Academy of Arts in Kharkov, where she went on to become, a member of the school’s faculty.

Students like Stich often think of her as a second mom. Like a proud mother who tacks A-plus papers to the family fridge, Fiorito keeps notices of her student’s achievements on the bulletin boards of her lesson room.

Says Fiorito: “I have a lot of kids! After a full day of teaching, and dealing with kids and educating parents, i really feel like I do.”

By Scott Gargan, special correspondent