In October 1999, when Halina and Voytek Wirkijowski were expecting their third child, they decided if they had a son, he would be named Frédéric Chopin in honor of the pianist and composer. The expecting parents grew up in Poland, and Chopin exudes Polish nationalism—plus, Halina was due around the 150th anniversary of his Oct. 17, 1849 death. Though they ended up having a daughter, Eliza, she often invokes Chopin not in name, but in her piano playing.
Seventeen years later Eliza, pronounced “Aleeza,” is a Lawrence High School junior who performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City Feb. 25. She played Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 55, No. 1 in F Minor. It was her second time performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the audition-based Young Artist Competition Winner Recital.
Eliza’s Carnegie Hall experience “was definitely fun,” she said. “Everyone dressed nicely, with long dresses. I was not too nervous, until right before I went to play. I put my hands on the keyboard. When I played the first note I could sense everything flowing back, even though I thought I forgot everything. It is partially muscle memory. They have a piano in the back where we can practice before going on the stage.”
This year, she had the reassurance that it went well last year, it will go well this year, but “I was really blanking out and freaking out at the time. I would sit down and say to myself ‘let’s hope it happens again, that it all comes back.’” And it did.
Though not named for Chopin, he is a strong force in her life, and her self-declared favorite composer. “His style is unique for what he composes,” Eliza said. “A lot of classical music is based on his style. A lot of it is difficult, not what I can play yet. Hopefully I can learn it.”
Eliza’s favorite type of music is classical, no doubt influenced by her parents who always listen to the classical music station WWFM 89.1 out of Mercer County Community College. “We mostly have the radio on, not the TV,” Voytek said. “We have a lot of classical records and CDs, but it is easier to put on the radio. We are lucky to be in this area with WWFM and WRTI [90.1] out of Temple University in Philadelphia.”
‘By 7th grade, I realized I did like playing a lot. All I wanted to do was play the piano.’
The constant exposure to classical music encouraged all three Wirkijowski siblings to want to learn how to play the piano. Eliza, the youngest, is the only one still taking lessons. Her brother, Dominic, recently started playing again when he sat down at a friend’s piano and realized he still remembered how to play, and that he enjoyed it. “He hadn’t played for years and years, and now he plays all the time,” Eliza said. Sister Asia is busy as a sophomore at Rutgers University.
After listening to Dominic and Asia take piano lessons, Eliza begged for her own lessons. She was in first grade at the time. Her mother said she had to prove she was really interested in learning by working on some of the basics before she could take lessons. She proved to be serious, and they signed her up with her siblings’ teacher, “Mr. Jack,” the organist at St. Hedwig Roman Catholic Church in Trenton. He taught them how to play from a piano book, but it wasn’t the approach that worked best for Eliza.
She switched teachers in fourth grade to Teresa Sygnarska. “She was the teacher who made me like and enjoy playing again,” Eliza said. “My old teacher wasn’t bad, but his goal wasn’t to enjoy it.” He was more into teaching technical skills than passion. With the change in instructors, Dominic and Asia also began taking lessons again. “There was no music theory,” Eliza said. “By 7th grade, I realized I did like playing a lot. All I wanted to do was play the piano. Play classical piano.”
Sygnarska had taken her as far as she could musically. It was time to find a new music teacher, one who could elevate Eliza to the next level. It was also time for a new piano, one with better a better quality sound, and one that stayed in tune. It was time to upgrade from an upright piano set against the wall to a baby grand piano.
Once again, Eliza had to convince her parents she was serious. Her piano teacher told them about a sale on refurbished pianos. Voytek admits he told her “You won’t play that once it is in the house. Why buy a piece of furniture, then she’ll stop playing the instrument.” Once again, though, she proved herself. “The baby grand elevated my playing. It has a great sound. It is way more beautiful,” Eliza said.
“In 7th or 8th grade I would say I was very good, or subpar or average,” Eliza said. “I had some catching up to do. There are a lot of very skilled players. I didn’t have any formal training until lately.” Sygnarska recommended Eliza attend the summer camp at Westminster Choir College in Princeton.
In hindsight, Eliza said she was probably one of the worst players there. “It shed a light on where I needed to improve,” she said. “It helped me realize then I loved my teacher, but if I really wanted to advance, I would need someone more than ‘fun’ with me. My old teacher taught me a lot of emotion, but I wasn’t playing in the actual era of the music.”
In September 2014, Dr. Larissa Korkina became Eliza’s piano teacher. Eliza takes private lessons at her studio. Korkina teaches at both Westminster Choir College and The Lawrenceville School.
“I came into her studio playing very sloppily, but with a lot of emotion,” Eliza said. “I was playing with the wrong style. Things that were slurred shouldn’t have been. She made me achieve what the composer wanted with the music. I’m not any faster when I am playing but the pieces I am playing are more difficult. It takes me less time to learn a piece. The teacher controls what I am learning. She makes me play it so exact.”
A year and a half after beginning her lessons with Korkina, Eliza performed for the first time at Carnegie Hall last year. She performed Franz Schubert’s Impromptu 142 no. 2. “I had to learn it at summer camp. I came into her studio with it very roughly prepared.”
Korkina works her very hard. Eliza cited a time she gave her “a piece half as hard to learn, but she said I was stubborn because I could learn it if I put my mind to it. I kept making small mistakes. I had to give up on the piece. After that I began to play the Chopin piece,” the one she performed this year at Carnegie Hall after working on it for four months to perfect it. Prior to her Carnegie Hall audition in 2016 and again this year, “she didn’t think I would learn it in time for the audition. I was still able to learn the pieces by putting in so much effort and time to the pieces. Afterwards, she said, ‘If you really want something you can do it.’ I was motivated to practice more.”
Halina said Eliza always tries to get at least one hour of practice in each day, but often plays upwards of three hours without noticing how much time has passed. In addition to playing the piano, Eliza is very involved with high school activities. She thought about playing piano in the pit orchestra for Lawrence High School’s recent production of “Disney’s Little Mermaid,” when she realized that conflicted with the school’s four-day trip to New York City for the Model UN. The Model UN won their competition.
Eliza is an officer for the school’s Science Olympiad, STEM, and Materials Science clubs. She is in the STEM Academy at LHS. Musically she in the orchestra, jazz band, and Tri-M music honor society. In her sophomore year, Eliza decided to focus on her classical music and not be in orchestra or jazz band. She missed it, so she went back. “Surround yourself with people who feel the same way you do, they motivate you,” she said.It makes it more enjoyable. This year I made sure orchestra and jazz were on my schedule,” Eliza said. “I find myself happier in general because I surrounded myself with people who enjoy it, too.”
The orchestra teacher at Lawrence High School, Maggie Kehoe, describes Eliza as “a dedicated student devoted to her music. She has performed multiple times at our Tri-M Coffee Houses. She is a very social student and well respected from her peers.” Eliza also plays piano in orchestra.
Her favorite subject is physics. “I’m not too good at it, but I like it,” she said. “I’m better at English and Language Arts and the humanities, but they don’t resonate with me like math and sciences do.”
For the past six years Eliza has enjoyed performing at the Children Helping Children Performathon at Westminster Choir College. “Over the course of two days, a weekend, there was concert after concert,” Eliza said. The money raised went to the Ronald McDonald House.
Eliza is in the process of shopping for the right college for her. She is looking into engineering schools, possibly Rutgers University or Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). One thing is for certain—she will continue to play the piano in college, either in a practice room or with a good quality electric piano.