3-year-old plays the piano in the key of red, blue, green

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

At 3, Richard Hoffmann can’t read or tie his shoes yet, but he can play the works of Johann Burgmuller, his favorite German composer.

His secret: colors.

Instead of seeing notes like C or F sharp, Richard sees purple and dark green, and knows their corresponding piano keys.

It’s a homespun technique developed by his parents -- Annie Wang, a piano instructor, and Heiko Hoffmann, a researcher at the University of Southern California.

Richard played nearly a dozen pieces Friday, including Burgmuller’s “L’Arabesque” and German composer Heinrich Kohler’s “Polonaise,” before a group of nearly 50 at the Pasadena Central Library.

When Wang wanted to teach her son piano last December, she said, she worried that the small black notes in sheet music would be too difficult to read. So she developed a system -- the rainbow piano technique -- in which each piano key and pitch has a corresponding color.

“In the beginning, he wasn’t really learning music, he was learning colors,” said Wang, a Taiwan native.

Within about three months, Richard could play “simple songs” with both hands and he was weaned off the color stickers, one by one, said Heiko Hoffmann, who was born in southern Germany.

In August, Wang donated copies of the printed songbook to several local libraries and scheduled a public recital at the suggestion of the Pasadena library, she said. Wang and Hoffmann said they have sold nearly 40 copies of the songbook online.

Attendees at Friday’s recital included families with children and passing observers. Many smiled and snapped pictures with their cellphones as Richard played.

His arms are so short he would occasionally have to scoot himself a few inches to the left to reach the lower notes on the piano.

After every song, Richard hopped to his feet, took a bow and stared intently at his audience.

As he waited for his mother to introduce each piece, he fidgeted, tapped his feet and once reached to pick his nose.

Stella Karuwin of Monterey Park brought along friends to see the little boy she had read about in the local Chinese-language newspaper two weeks ago. His ability was amazing, Karuwin said. “To get a 3-year-old to stand still, it’s tough enough,” she said.

Richard, who can now read musical notes, played stoically, powering through the occasional mistake.

His shiny leather shoes dangled from the piano bench -- his legs too short to touch the ground. By the third piece of his first piano recital, one of his shoelaces had become untied.

It wasn’t until the end, and after receiving three gifts from family and friends, that Richard flashed his biggest grin.

After all the applause and the final bow, Richard’s father bent down and tied the loose shoelace.