the girl’s got pluck

Like a lot of 14 year-old girls, Hannah Ishizaki reads Percy Jackson books, thinks about what she’ll be when she grows up and hangs out. But when it comes to how she spends most of her time, well, there’s where Hannah’s a bit different. “As a little girl, Hannah used to pretend she was writing music,” remembers her mom, Kerry. The pretending evolved into real composing and when she started Mt. Lebanon High School this fall, she had multiple performances of her classical pieces on her resume. She also plays the mandolin and performs both instruments in two professional youth orchestras. Oh yes, and there’s the conducting she’s gotten into lately.

Hannah started playing the violin at the age of 6 and very quickly realized that she had a knack and passion for composing. Early on in her tenure as a member of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, she came home one day to report to her parents that the viola players were complaining that they never get a good part. She took it upon herself to remedy that by writing a piece for them. That was the start of her composing for strings. She taught herself the complex, professional software Finale, which is used by professional composers. Instead of hand-writing notes on music paper, the software interprets entries as notes and plays back the music in real time. It requires great patience, a keen ability to read music and an understanding of music theory. Her dad, Suguru, a member of the Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra who also dabbles in guitar, tried to figure it out and couldn’t, so it’s all hers now.

Hannah Ishizaki

When it became apparent that she was serious about music, her parents hired professionals from Duquesne University’s school of music to teach her formal music theory. She’s been thriving, loving the expression of it all. Last fall, she composed her first orchestral piece, “The Forest,” at 10 minutes in length. No small feat for someone who is barely a teenager. Like many famous classical composers, Hannah draws inspiration from art and literature. This one was inspired by a painting of the same name. She’s also been prompted by nature and has composed pieces entitled “Lotus,” “Birds” and “Wind.” Right now she’s reading about Greek gods, so upcoming pieces will be “personality impressions,” as they are called, and will no doubt evoke mythology.

She plays violin and mandolin in the Pittsburgh Mandolin Orchestra, Three Rivers Youth Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra (PYSO). The young musician cites Shostakovich as her favorite composer and this summer enjoyed a three-week stint studying at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. She regularly writes ensemble pieces when asked. With great right brain-left brain modernity, she relays that she hopes to either “do film scores one day or to study environmental engineering.” She’s already looked into Harvard where it’s possible to take classes at the New England Conservatory and double major.

It was not hard for Hannah to learn the mandolin, which shares the same strings and clef with the violin. If there is a secret to Hannah success, “I would say the mandolin orchestra has been the most influential. Through them she has been exposed to everything from Japanese to Celtic music,” says Kerry. Last spring, Hannah was asked to conduct a piece she wrote based upon a Japanese folk song. On November 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Hall, she’ll be back on stage playing her violin with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra.

For now, Hannah is reveling in memories of a European tour with the PYSO. Will it be hard to adjust to the life of a high school freshman this year? Probably not, considering she takes practicing in her Mt. Lebanon home as seriously as performing in Dvorak Hall in Prague.