When an unassuming 14-year-old walked into David Russell's office about a year ago to audition on the violin, the international orchestra judge didn't know what to expect.
Russell, University of North Carolina-Charlotte's Anne R. Belk Distinguished Professor of Music, evaluates top performers from around the world. He's not easily swayed.
But when Victoria Pan played that day, Russell was blown away.
"She's a fabulous, fabulous talent," Russell said. "She was so quiet, almost demure. There was a beautiful humility to her playing. Someone of her age that has that depth ... that's increasingly rare."
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At 15, the Tega Cay teen has acquired a pile of accolades, including a spot in the Charlotte Youth Symphony Orchestra at age 9 and the top award in the most recent Carolina Youth Symphony Concerto competition.
Last fall, Victoria was chosen for the national Honors Performance Series Orchestra and will travel to New York City in February to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Those around Victoria are awed by what they see as an innate and remarkable talent.
"There's an intelligence and seriousness in her work," Russell said. "But it's always tempered with this knowing smile."
A visiting master teacher who saw Victoria play at UNCC recently called her playing "perfect."
But ask Victoria, and her take is: Not so much.
"I don't believe that," she said. "I practice so much because I'm kind of a perfectionist. I want to perfect at least one part. If I don't, I feel kind of uneasy."
At the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, where Victoria is a sophomore, she practices four hours a day, sometimes more.
Friends tease her about how much she rehearses.
"I'm a really strong believer in hard work," she said. "That's what distinguishes people. Not so much talent, but really hard work."
A bright future
There's no question where Victoria learned her work ethic.
Her mother, Violet, who grew up in Beijing, was 15 when she was chosen to play violin in one of China's most lauded opera houses. But she felt hindered by long-held traditions that kept her from flourishing.
At 21, with $30 in her pocket, she left to live with family in New York City with dreams of attending The Juilliard School.
She started work on her second day in the U.S., first at a factory, then in a photography darkroom.
Even working seven days a week, she couldn't save enough for Julliard. She enrolled at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.
After graduating, she met George Pan. The couple later moved to Charlotte, got married and bought a home in Tega Cay, where Victoria was born in 1996. Today, Violet teaches 45 violin students.
"I still work seven days a week," she said.
Victoria was 4 when her mother began teaching her to play. After a year, she grew tired of the violin and quit in favor of piano lessons.
Three years passed before she returned to the violin.
From the audience at a concert, she saw a young woman in a bright red dress perform a violin solo.
"Her passion and her playing inspired me," Victoria said.
She never turned back.
For fun, some Fridays, Victoria visits her mom and jams with her students.
One of her favorite songs to play is The Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," a country song that features a rousing fiddle (violin) solo.
But dedicating herself to the art hasn't always been easy.
"The average teenagers, they love to hang out, go to concerts and go to football games," she said. "That's something I had to give up. But I don't miss that so much now."
At times, Victoria thinks about quitting.
"Every time I go on YouTube, I feel that way," she said. "There's so much competition nowadays. There's now 5-year-olds and 9-year-olds that can play like I can."
But passion sustains her, and her mother remains an inspiration.
"Her story has influenced me a great deal," Victoria said. "She would practice like nine hours a day - and she would tell me about it every day."
The feeling is mutual.
"Victoria is such a kind person," Violet said. "You can hear it through the music. I can see her potential."
Life as a musician can be difficult - perhaps even more so for a violinist.
The successful become soloists, join orchestras or chambers. Some teach. Many do a bit of all.
"Most people see it as entertainment," said Russell, who came to Charlotte from the Cleveland Institute of Music. "In reality, it's something much deeper.
"They have to transcend that perception and become an artist who can reach into the very soul of every listener."
Victoria considers teaching. She's also interested in music therapy.
"Anything will be fine, as long as it's music," she said.
Russell sees a bright future.
"Her perseverance and dedication to hard work is the really extraordinary thing," he said. "She could very well do anything she sets her mind to. Her talent is of that nature.
"If she continues down this path, I see absolutely nothing standing in her way.