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VIDEO: Gainesville girl's passion gets her to Japan
Marisa Woo back from global piano competition
Marissa Woo
Marisa Woo, 15-year-old pianist from Gainesville High, plays piano at her home in Gainesville on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Marissa was one of five high-schoolers selected for the Southeast region of the United States to compete in the Osaka International Music Competition in Japan - photo by Austin Steele

Making it to the Osaka International Music Competition was never really Marisa Woo’s goal as a pianist, but her fluttering fingers flew her all the way to Japan just the same.

She’s been learning since she was 3 years old, but is admittedly shy and doesn't like the spotlight. Still, she qualified for the competition in Osaka, Japan, putting herself against other high schoolers from around the world in the global piano competition. Though Marisa, 15, didn’t place, she said it was a fun, if a little stressful, experience.

“It was really nerve-wracking because it was my first international competition that I’ve ever participated in,” said the 10th-grader at Gainesville High School. “I have so much admiration for the other competitors because they’ve been doing it for their entire lives just as I have, and they’re so passionate about their music.

“I learned so much from them just hearing what they're doing and I feel like I learned a lot from being there.”

In February, she recorded two pieces and submitted them for the competition. She was selected and went on to compete at the United States Regional Osaka International Music Competition at Georgia State University for a chance to go on to the international level. She received an honorable mention at the regional competition allowing her, and just four others, to move onto the international competition in Japan to compete against 47 others, a feat even her parents weren’t expecting.

“I was surprised because it’s intense,” said Janelle Woo, Marisa’s mother. “She’s gone to state in piano, but going to Osaka is a completely different level.”

Sitting on a stage, performing in a global competition: Marisa had come a long way from miming keystrokes on a paper piano as a three-year-old.

She remembers learning the basics when she was in preschool. Teachers gave students paper keyboards and taught them notes using stickers on the keys.

“The first song I remember learning, it’s called ‘Sugar Cookies’ and it’s only three notes,” Marisa said. “It’s a little song that just goes back and forth and it’s really simple, but it just resonates with me because it was just easy to learn. And then from there, I just learned more and more.”

She moved from a piece of paper to a real keyboard and now a real piano, playing classical music she’s come to love over the years. She said she used to just play from her music books, going through page after page. Once she started playing classical music, her love for piano grew even more.

“It’s just a way for me to be able to express myself because I’m pretty shy,” Marisa said. “You don’t have to talk to play piano, you just have to play. And it’s easy to put your emotions into that. It’s fun.”

Her favorite composer is Joseph Haydn. When Marisa was in the fifth grade, she played one of his pieces, a sonata, and said “it was one of the first songs that really fit me.”

“It was kind of bubbly,” Marisa said. “And my fingers, the slow songs for me are harder, because I like being active when I play, and it was one of my first really long, bouncy pieces and it was a happy piece.”

For the Osaka competition, she played Frédéric Chopin’s “The Tarantella in A-flat major.”

Marisa Woo plays piano

Marisa Woo, 15, plays “The Tarantella in A-flat major” at her home in Gainesville on Friday, Oct. 12. It's the same piece she performed at the Osaka International Music Competition in Osaka, Japan, where she competed against 47 others from across the world.
By: Layne Saliba

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“I’ve been playing it for a little while,” Marisa said. “It’s actually my favorite piece I’ve ever played, and that's why I think it’s one of the reasons I was able to play it so well is because I enjoyed the piece so much.”

Her formal practice comes once a week with You Ju Lee, an associate professor of Piano at Toccoa Falls College and a piano instructor with Preparatory Music, a program offering music lessons to students, at Brenau.

But Marisa is on the bench much more often than that — she said she practices at least an hour each day.

“I’ve never seen her work so hard at something,” said David Woo, Marisa’s father.

She’s normally working on two or three pieces at a time, so she practices one and goes over sections she’s having trouble with, then moves on to the next piece.

“I think after playing a certain song for a long period of time, I can perfect a song, but there's always more I can add to my playing,” Marisa said. “There’s always more maturity I can add.”

While in Japan, she didn’t just compete. She took everything about the country. She had never been, except for a quick layover, so she wanted to take it all in while she had the chance. She visited Kyoto and the Osaka Castle, one of her favorite parts.

And of course, the food. She said her favorite was the ice cream.

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Marisa Woo, 15-year-old pianist from Gainesville High, has been playing piano since she was just 3 years old. Those dozen years of practice took her to Japan this fall, where she performed in an international competition in Osaka. - photo by Austin Steele