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Dynamic duo

Brother and sister piano duo Randy and Elaine Yeh teamed up to win their third state title last October in the duet competition.

Jenna Weyforth, Writer

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After playing piano together for fun as children, junior Randy Yeh and his older sister, senior Elaine Yeh, began playing piano together competitively in 2014, and won the annual Kansas Music Teachers Association State Competition for the third time in Oct. 2018.

Combined, the duo has eight state piano titles, both individual and as a pair, and received multiple honorable mentions along with many outstanding ratings in their five years of competition.  

At four years old, Elaine’s mother, Grace Xu, played piano as a hobby, which Elaine said pushed her to start playing the piano herself and she eventually learned to enjoy it.

“I picked up piano around my teenage years and reinforced it with Elaine and Randy,” Xu said. “I think it’s good for their techniques and because I can inspire them to get more interested in music.”

Although his mother was also an inspiration for him to play piano, Randy said hearing his sister practice her lessons also influenced his choice to play the instrument at the age of six.

“When I was around two, I was always sitting next to her on the floor and just listening to her lessons,” Randy said. “We were always under the influence of having a piano at home and then you just want to learn to play it.”

When her children first started playing, Xu said she often helped them, but with more experience playing together, they can work as a team and correct each other’s mistakes.

“They need more freedom to express their own opinions and how to play, not just limited by the skills that I taught them,” Xu said.

Since moving to the U.S from Shanghai, China in 2014 for a better and more advanced education, the two musicians both said they began to practice piano more frequently as individuals. Soon after, when the siblings started playing duets together on the piano, Elaine said they balanced well together naturally.

In order improve their skills, the siblings started taking weekly piano lessons in Feb. 2014 with coach Tatyana Rubchinsky. From moving to the United States from Ukraine as a piano teacher, Rubchinsky said she has taught many different students in her 50 years of experience, but that the Yeh siblings are among the most prepared of students she has instructed.

“They’re very talented kids, and they hear each other well,” Rubchinsky said. “Elaine is more serious, and Randy, he likes to sit at the piano…he just likes to improvise.”

Each year, the siblings participate in the duet competition together as well as individual solo competitions in the KMTA (Kansas Music Teacher Association) Statewide Competition, competing for the top spot and to win the state title.

In their first duet competition four years ago, the pair brought home the state champion title for grades nine through 12 as the youngest members of the age group, at ages 13 and 14. Randy and Elaine also won the duet competition for the second consecutive year in 2016, and got second runner-up at the competition in 2017.

“I feel like we already had piano skills at that time, so when we were put together it was kind of natural,” Elaine said. “At that time my freshman year, me and my brother were best friends, so we used to get along quite well.”

This past October, they won the duet competition again, making them three-time state champions in the duet contest, and they received a $50 reward for their achievement each year.

“Playing and winning with my sister gave me motivation,” Randy said. “It also makes me feel my whole year of practices are not going to waste.”

Since their first competition, Randy said their sibling rivalry has grown, although he said this does not affect how they play the piano. While practicing, the siblings said they normally focus on their music and don’t talk often during rehearsal.

“It’s really mainly my fault. I don’t really like working with her, just in general,” Randy said. “I think she is really talented though, much better than me.”

Randy said that they have a typical brother-sister bond and they often tease each other when one of them messes up.

“We challenge each other by planning out different speeds, so sometimes I go really fast,” Randy said. “Usually I’m the one who’s trying to catch up when we play a different speed, but I’ll kind of slow down a little and see if she can follow my feet.”

Recently, the partners also said they have had trouble bonding, but playing piano together still allows them to connect on a deeper level.

“Usually, it’s a struggle in the first place,” Randy said. “We tried to kill each other, and then slowly just evolved to the point where it doesn’t sound complete without playing together.”

Not only is finishing their music is very rewarding, the siblings said it also motivates them to work harder during rehearsals. Getting the final product requires a lot of concentration and preparation, Elaine said, but it’s worth it in the end.

“I feel like Randy is the best partner that I can find because we’re so related, and we know each other so well,” Elaine said. “I feel like sometimes we just know simultaneously, when to come out, when to end and how we express the music is kind of the same way.”

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