NEWPORT BEACH — Natalie Cernius took a liking to the piano even before she was big enough to reach the keys.
As a toddler, she enjoyed crawling under the instrument during her older siblings' lessons. The notes from those sessions resonated in the toddler's ears and throughout their Dover Shores home.
It was Natalie's early beginnings playfully scrambling between the piano legs and hearing those notes that likely helped give the 14-year-old the perfect pitch she has today. That's the rare ability to sing, identify or re-create any note without a reference beforehand.
And after years of lessons since about age 4, Natalie is now the pianist for the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra, an educational ensemble under the auspices of the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony.
Though not a musician herself, mother Poita Cernius wanted to expose all of her four children — Natalie, Andrew, Jason and Ariana — to music at a young age. Such motherly wisdom paid off for all of them, and especially for Natalie, the Cernius family's youngest.
The Newport Harbor High school freshman loves playing with the orchestra and music in general, which is a cornerstone of her young life so far.
"It's such a huge thing and it teaches so much," Natalie said. "It teaches you discipline and that you have to put work in; you have to be a hard worker. It's a huge part of my life."
Jason, now a senior at Newport Harbor, recalled his little sister wanting to catch up to her older siblings when they were all younger.
"Natalie was always there," he said. "She would always try to do everything we do. I remember when we were learning to read, she would pick up a book. She wanted to read, too."
Those acts of Natalie's early sibling catch-ups have turned into what will surely be a lifelong skill.
"Now she's the best of all of us," Jason said.
Past teachers Laura Adams, Trudy Anshutz and current teacher Ana Marie Eckstein helped harness Natalie's skills, which have earned her awards at solo competitions.
But eventually Natalie knew she wanted to do more with the piano, both musically and socially.
"That's why I wanted to join the orchestra," she said. "I'm always, as a pianist, practicing and performing by myself. I thought it would be a good experience for me to play with other people."
Her audition earlier this year for the competitive group was in front of its conductor, Maxim Eshkenazy. Natalie said Eshkenazy already knew her audition piece, and as she played the Bach piano suite he just "sat there and closed his eyes and listened" — thus, she didn't feel too nervous.
The nerves came later on her first rehearsal with the youth orchestra. The young pianist wasn't used to the act of playing with an ensemble and taking cues from a conductor.
"I walked in with my music and everything," Natalie said. "Then he started. They were going so fast."
She did her best to count her periods of rest and come in at the right time. But she rested too long.
"By the time I was ready to come in, right about when I was going to come in, they finished," Natalie said. "I missed the whole thing!"
She laughs about her missed musical entrance these days even more when she said that, at the time, conductor Eshkenazy said something along the lines of: "Everybody play softer … I need to hear the piano!"
Since starting her first season with the orchestra, Natalie has new friends who also enjoy the same classical tunes she does. She has more practice playing in the orchestra and a more developed musical maturity.
Outside the orchestra, the classically trained pianist can be occasionally spotted within the pages of the Daily Pilot's sports section. She's a tennis star of Newport Harbor's varsity tennis team.
Right now she's still honing her classical piano skills, but her mother thinks she may have a knack for jazz improvisation.
"On my birthday, she did this really cool rendition of 'Happy Birthday,'" Poita said. "I was in tears. She just sat down and did it by ear."
Natalie's musicality and that of about 100 others from throughout Southern California will be heard at the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra concert this Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Tickets start at $18 and are available at PacificSymphony.org.
The ensemble will play "Slava! A Political Overture," by Leonard Bernstein; the John Williams suite from the "Star Wars" films; and "Thracian Dances," by Petko Staynov.
Natalie has expressed interest in learning more about percussion instruments. She'll maybe even major or minor in music when college time comes.
But in the meantime, after coming home from a tough tennis match, she said she sometimes likes just to unwind and sit at the family's Yamaha piano.
"I just play," she said. "It calms me down and soothes me. It's a huge part of my life."
BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.