Phenomenal 17-year-old pianist proves she has what it takes

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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The world's top concert pianists usually emerge when they are small children -- grade-school age -- already demonstrating the ability that will get them recognized world-wide. That's a big reason why this week's FOX 4 Young Achiever is so extraordinary. Sarah Rasmussen, 17, from Platte City, Mo., is a year away from college -- and just showed the music world how exceptionally talented she is.

Her long, slender fingers race across the keys. It's the way Rasmussen loves to play the piano -- fast! But whether it's fast or slow, powerful or quiet, Sarah is very, very good -- technically, musically and with great passion.

"I think the thing that really strikes people about Sarah is the sincerity of the playing," says Steven Spooner, Sarah's private instructor. "She's not thinking about what other people are thinking about her. She's just pouring her heart. In her best moments, she's able to pour her heart out into the piano. I think that's the compelling thing about her playing. Also, what makes her really distinctive as a pianist is that she has her own sound, what I would describe as a very ethical and delicate sound. It kind of matches her as a person, actually. She plays how she is."

Sarah's been an excellent musician since she was a little girl, but in recent months she's taken great leaps forward.

"It's unbelievable," Sarah says with a laugh. "I don't know how much further I can go at that rate but it's definitely really, really fast."

Sarah says with Spooner's help she's been able to overcome some performance anxiety. And she found strong motivation.

"Because I could still become a great pianist in the world," says Sarah. "And I might as well do the work now than later because if I wait any longer, I definitely won't be able to."

Everything changed for Sarah early last year when she and her parents got Spooner, a University of Kansas professor and noted international concert pianist himself, to take Sarah on as a student. They wanted Spooner to help Sarah improve so she could get into a top music performance college and, perhaps, realize her dream of becoming a concert pianist. At first, Spooner says, he discouraged them because of what he calls Sarah's 'advanced age'.

"You know, pianists really start getting good about age eight," says Spooner. "So we're talking, we had this conversation when she's 16." But Sarah convinced Spooner and took on an exhausting practice schedule -- three to four hours a day -- every day -- as opposed to the one hour a day she had been practicing. And she dedicated herself to pushing and challenging herself -- technically and musically.

"I have to say, she then comprehensively and definitively proved me wrong," says Spooner. How far has she come in that short period of time?

"She basically went from being off the radar in the state to being on the radar in the world," Spooner says. "So, it's an incredible accomplishment for her."

This has been a phenomenal breakout year for Sarah, especially the past couple of months. She soared in top tier international competition and at a major music festival in Europe.

"I just played my heart out," says Sarah. "It was like, you've got to risk it all. Nothing to lose, you know."

That's how Sarah performed in this summer's International Institute for Young Musicians International Competition in Lawrence where she seemingly came out of nowhere to finish second, the only girl and only pianist from the Midwest to make the finals. And then she traveled to Italy last month for performances and lessons with the masters at Music Fest Perugia, her international debut.

"I would love to tour the world and play solo recitals, solo concerts and play with an orchestra," says Sarah. "That would be like my absolute dream. And once you see your dream coming true, it's like, I'm just going to go for it."

Sarah will start applying soon to some of America's great music colleges like the Peabody Institute, the Cleveland Institute and Julliard. And she'll do auditions after the first of the year

Meantime, you can see Sarah's practices with Steve Spooner live and watch as Spooner works with other students and as he and his musical family play piano themselves. With cameras and microphones set up all over his Lawrence home, Spooner and his wife, Jung, have created a web-based reality-type program called A Life of Music.

FOX 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on FOX 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on FOX 4 News at 8 a.m. and noon.

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