DUNEDIN — When she wakes in the morning, her fingers move along the pillow.
Eleven-year-old Nadia Azzi is playing piano in her mind.
As a pre-schooler, her teachers worried she didn't know how to speak. Quiet and shy, she could get through a school day in virtual silence.
Then came the piano.
Azzi's mother, Kaori Azzi, was a casual pianist in her youth. When pregnant with Nadia, she played a little Mozart in hopes of helping her new baby's development.
She did not know this would happen.
Nadia took her first piano lesson before she turned 5.
On Sunday, she plays at Carnegie Hall. A week later, she joins some of Tampa Bay's finest classical musicians on a local stage.
One teacher calls her a prodigy. She says she simply loves music.
"I'm obsessed," Nadia confided Thursday in between orchestra class at Dunedin Highland Middle School and her violin lesson with Florida Orchestra member Karl Bawel.
Oh, yes, she plays violin now, too.
• • •
At the end of seventh period, Nadia's orchestra class wants to hear her play.
The sixth-grader is 92 pounds and about 5 feet tall, a small person in this large, high-ceilinged room.
As she approaches the seat on the upright piano, she kneads her thin fingers to warm and stretch them.
Her eyes look down through her tiny glasses, her pony tail points up. Her legs are striped with black and white piano key knee-high socks. She sits on her poofy black skirt. Narrow shoulders hunch. And it begins.
Khachaturian's sonatina for piano.
Fingers dance like jumping spiders, spreading and moving. Her black size 6 ballet flat pumps the piano pedal, pulling her weight from the seat then down again.
In her mind, she imagines war and blood, what it must have been like in the composer's war-torn country of Armenia in the 1940s. Sound swallows the room, a succession of quick notes that signal power and fullness so much larger than she.
She's practiced this. And practiced this.
She spends at least 15 hours a week practicing on one of the three pianos in her family's Palm Harbor home. Then, she devotes another 30 to 45 minutes a day to the violin.
Add to that once-weekly lessons both with Bawel and piano teacher Kinuyo Engelbrecht and two hours on Sunday with the Pinellas Youth Symphony.
"Every night we have to fight that she has to go to bed," her mother says. "Otherwise, she will be playing until 2 or 3 in the morning."
• • •
"Nice. Good," the teacher says as his student finishes playing a Bach air for violin. "What's your analysis?"
"My bow needs to be flatter," she says standing before him.
"Why?" he asks.
Bawel, a 30-year member of the Florida Orchestra, first met Nadia in September 2008.
"I didn't have any expectations," he remembered.
She was new to the instrument, said liked the way it sounded. Some of her friends played it.
"It became very apparent at the very first lesson that she had some major talents," he said. "I've had some good students in the past, some very good students who have gone on to major orchestras. … But this one's special. Very special."
Within a year, Nadia was concert master for the All-County Middle School Orchestra. She walked into her middle school and played her way into first chair for the advanced orchestra.
"She gets a fullness out of it that she shouldn't at her age," Dunedin Middle teacher Katherine Laursen said.
Nadia's developing so quickly on the violin that Bawel has decided he must relinquish her to another teacher at the end of the summer.
Bawel is a trained violinist, but viola is his passion. To continue to challenge Nadia on the violin would mean reacquainting himself with violin pieces that are buried in his memory.
"She's going so fast and at this stage of the game, I don't want to pull out those major concertos and relearn them," he said with a chuckle.
Nadia is a little heart-broken about the transition.
Bawel, she said, challenges her. He doesn't simply let her slide on talent.
Bawel sees it another way: He's warding off ego by keeping her feet on the ground.
• • •
Nadia will play the Khachaturian sonatina at one of the world's most famous music halls on Sunday during the International Young Musicians Festival.
Her mother, worried Nadia would be rejected, had sent the audition tape in secretly. Nadia won a gold medal in her age group.
At the end of their lesson Thursday, Bawel asked Nadia to put away her violin and play what she'd be playing at Carnegie Hall.
She sat at his upright piano and swept the keys.
When she was finished he asked: "What's your analysis?"
"It needs to be louder at the end," she said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]