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Youth Spotlight: Justin Cai plays it forward

UPDATED: Thu., May 24, 2018

Justin Cai is a senior at The Oaks Classical Christian Academy and a recent winner at the Spokane Scholars awards. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Justin Cai is a senior at The Oaks Classical Christian Academy and a recent winner at the Spokane Scholars awards. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

You could say that Justin Cai is playing it forward.

After winning the top music prize at the Spokane Scholars banquet last month, Cai did something even more remarkable: He donated half of his $4,000 prize to a nonprofit – one he founded – called “Music for Kids,” which provides music lessons to poor children.

A week later, at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, the virtuoso pianist raised $8,500 to help send his fellow students at The Oaks Classical Christian Academy on a choir trip to Texas.

For Cai, the gift is a gesture to the school and the classmates who’ve meant so much since he was a kindergartner.

“Most of all, I’m going to miss the relationships,” said Cai, who will study this fall at Boston College. “Not just the classmates, but the interaction with my teachers.”

All this from a piano prodigy who’s performed at Carnegie Hall and the capitals of Europe but doesn’t take himself too seriously.

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Cai also happens to be The Oaks’ unofficial champion of a game that calls for players to stuff as many marshmallows in their mouths and still be able to utter the phrase “Chubby Bunny.”

“I did seven marshmallows, but I’ve been told I have a big mouth,” said Cai, who uses it to deliver an important message: Music matters.

“Being musical has helped me academically,” said Cai, a straight-A student who recently wrote a thesis on “how a musical education can help your brain.”

“It’s important that schools don’t give up on music education,” said Cai, who probably never will. His nonprofit also directs money to help music programs in rural China, from where both of his parents emigrated in 1992.

Today, his father, Vinson, is a finance professor at Eastern Washington University; his mother, Weiling Zhu, is a certified public accountant.

“My family taught me how to work hard and persevere,” said Cai, who has visited China with his parents.

The first lesson came at age 2, when Cai stuck his left hand underneath the belt of a moving treadmill.

“It ground everything away,” said Cai, who underwent surgery that removed skin from his torso and placed it on his fingers. The scars are still prominent on two fingers.

When it was evident that his surgically repaired hand would curl into near-uselessness, his mother placed him in piano lessons.

“Over time it got more flexible,” said Cai, who found his passion on the keyboard.

Serious lessons began at age 4. A year later, Cai first participated in MusicFest Northwest and went on to win 27 gold medals. As a Young Artist Winner in 2017, he performed Beethoven Concerto No. 3 with the Spokane Symphony.

Cai is one of only 89 Young Steinway Artists in the world, performing at Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Berliner Philharmonie in Berlin.

This summer, he will return to the Philharmonie and play a duet with younger sister Jeslyn, an eighth-grader at The Oaks. By August, Cai will be pursuing an unlikely double-major in music and finance.

That’s not all.

“One of my goals is to create my own musical style,” said Cai, a classically trained pianist who also finds inspiration from unlikely sources.

Referencing The Piano Guys, a classical crossover group, he hopes to “create something with its own flair that’s different from any other musician … and hopefully present something new to the public.”

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