Published June 08. 2011 4:00AM Updated June 08. 2011 8:43AM
East Lyme — Max Tan's journey in classical music - which, thus far, has led him to elite music schools to study violin and will take him to Harvard next year - started with an episode of "Barney and Friends."
That's right: Barney, the plush, purple dinosaur.
Not Mozart or Mahler, not Stravinsky or even a bit of Strauss.
"I remember watching an episode of 'Barney' when I was 3, and there was someone playing piano," Tan said. "It looked like so much fun."
Actually, that the East Lyme High School senior's first influence is something as mundane as a children's television character isn't all that surprising once you talk to him.
Most of Tan's teachers and even East Lyme High Principal Michael Susi note the senior's humility before they get started on his breathtaking mix of technique and soul on a violin. He's unfailingly polite and deferential.
"I don't really like talking about myself," Tan said in an interview last month just a few hours before the school orchestra's spring performance.
Karen Carson, the orchestra director, called Tan "humble" and "down to earth," despite the fact that he's studied with Itzhak Perlman.
"Max never talks down to anyone," Carson said. "He's really a sweet kid."
Tan tends to parry questions about himself and frames his responses with nervous laughter.
He is mildly effacing about verbalizing his thoughts about music, calling it "stream of consciousness," but is eloquent on his thoughts about the audience.
"Stravinsky said that music is one thing that just exists and is always there," Tan said. "An artist can grasp this music and materialize it and (make it) presentable and understandable to an audience. It's conveying a story."
Tan has also played the role of student-teacher for East Lyme music students, assisting in Carson's classes.
"I've learned from him," Carson said.
After his Barney initiation, a 4-year-old Tan began taking piano lessons at the Hartt School in Hartford. He later moved to lessons at the New England Conservatory in Boston and won a place in a youth program at The Juilliard School in New York.
At around age 7, Tan switched from the piano to the violin.
He said he took some advice from a teacher that there was a greater market for string players than for pianists, should he later aspire to join an orchestra.
"It was an abrupt switch," Tan said. "But I'm passionate about the violin. It's at the heart of everything I do."
Tan said the strings play "the part of the human voice" in an orchestra.
"A violin is like a soprano, a cello is like a tenor," Tan said. "We technically embody what a singer might do. We use a stick and horsehair to create something musical related to the voice."
During his time at East Lyme High, Tan has spent nearly every weekend at Juilliard, riding back and forth on a Metro-North train with his father.
"My father is really supportive. It's amazing how he is able to balance his life," Tan said. "I don't think I've ever said in front of him how much it means to me."
While on the train, Tan slept or studied, mindful of the competitive atmosphere at East Lyme.
Tan admits there have been a couple of times when he's wanted to give up the violin.
"A teacher told me that if you never felt like you want to quit, then you've never studied music," Tan said.
"But when you continue with your studies, you achieve an awareness of attention to detail. … I love it so much more, and I'm able to appreciate it so much more."