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Young violist performs at his family's buffet

Posted: May 19, 2014 8:40 p.m.
Updated: May 19, 2014 8:40 p.m.
Jacob Zheng, 9, poses with his viola at Ocean Seafood Buffet. Zheng often plays for customers at the restaurant. Jacob Zheng, 9, poses with his viola at Ocean Seafood Buffet. Zheng often plays for customers at the restaurant.
Jacob Zheng, 9, poses with his viola at Ocean Seafood Buffet. Zheng often plays for customers at the restaurant.

Nine-year-old Jacob Zheng emerges from a back room at Ocean Seafood Buffet in Valencia. He wears a multi-colored button-up shirt and shorts. It’s a Monday night so the buffet his family opened in January isn’t nearly as full as it will be on the weekend.

He settles in a chair for a minute. Then as his mother introduces him to a table of eight, he tucks his viola under his chin and begins to play “Happy Birthday” for a young boy.

His performances aren’t planned, his mom, Cynthia Goh, says, just to celebrate customer birthdays or by request. And they aren’t coerced either. Jacob says playing for guests, although it was his mom’s idea, keeps him from boredom, since he’s at the restaurant seven days a week.

Guests’ reactions to his music vary: at times they applauded politely, other nights they’re rowdier.

“Sometimes everyone in the restaurant claps and sings along,” Jacob said, “And I can’t hear myself play because the party is so big.”

By popular demand, Jacob played 10 songs in a row one night, he says.

He’s only been playing the viola for around two years, the piano for about three. No one else in his family plays an instrument, in fact, he started piano at the suggestion of a friend’s mother.

But it was Goh who picked the viola for him.

“My goal (for Jacob) is a scholarship through music,” Goh said. “So many (people) play violin, (so) I’m hoping his chance to get (a scholarship) with the viola is bigger than with a violin.”

More basic than their choice between the viola and the similar but higher-pitched violin was the choice between music and sports, which Goh sees as the two keys to a college scholarship. But a red-laced ball made that decision easy.

“I used to play baseball but I kept getting hit with the ball,” Jacob said.

And while Goh guides Jacob towards excellence, it isn’t forced, she says.

“Choose what you like and do it best,” said Goh of her philosophy.

Jacob’s schedule is certainly tuned towards helping him be the best.  

Throughout the week he practices each instrument for an hour every day, takes a private music lesson, and plays in three orchestras, one of which is the Kadima Conservatory of Music Junior Philharmonic. Jacob is the “first stand” violist and assistant principal in that orchestra, which means a leadership role.

“He is very focused,” said Beth Elliott, director of Kadima. “He has a lion’s heart for the viola. He plays with great conviction.”

He loves math, too, and is a heavy reader.

But math has begun to bore him now that time spent in an accelerated program has left him with nothing new to learn, he says.   

And despite all the academics, Jacob’s dreams for his music talents are more starry-eyed than simply attaining a scholarship: he wants to play at the Hollywood Bowl.

And although the family buffet gives Jacob a small taste of such fame, he says he doesn’t feel like a rock star.  

“No, I’m a classic star,” he says without hesitation.

And he finished that Monday night in a way that would’ve made his heroes Mozart and Beethoven proud, as he proceeded to play a more complicated piece for the birthday family, one he said was Bach’s “Bourree.”

Then he retreated to the back of the buffet. Returning without the viola, he said if it wasn’t time to go home, he might play the video game “Minecraft” with his brother.


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