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Helaine Zhao

Helaine Zhao

2023 Davidson Fellow
$25,000 Scholarship

Age: 16
Hometown: Irvine, CA

Music: “Finding Focus: A Musical Medium to Increased Attention Span”

About Helaine

My name is Helaine Zhao, and I have been playing piano for the past 13 years of my life. I am currently a rising senior at Pacific Academy in Irvine, California. Growing up in a musical family, I have been surrounded by classical music since birth. As a kid, I was immediately drawn to the piano and music has become an extremely significant part of me.

Outside of music, I enjoy writing, baking, and reading books. I have published five novels online, and as an avid food enthusiast, baking has become one of my favorite pastimes, and recently, I even started my own cookie business! I am also extremely passionate about giving back to my community. Back in 2018, I founded the Between You & I Organization, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that has joined over 300 student volunteers in events that aim to build productive relationships and make a positive impact on the community. 

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"When I first heard about the Davidson Fellows Scholarship a few years back, I was amazed by the diverse ideas and remarkable projects my peers were doing, and it became my goal to join them. Being able to become a Davidson Fellow through music is a dream come true for me, and I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to share my project and musical ideas with more people."

Project Description

Although the current society sees a collapsing attention span due to several facets of modern life, focus is essential for success in all pursuits and is the key ingredient to problem-solving and critical thinking. Playing a musical instrument is one instance where intense concentration is necessary, but furthermore, it is also an effective way to engage the brain and improve concentration. In my project, “Finding Focus: A Musical Medium to Increased Attention Span,” I explored the connection between the need for focus in performing music and the benefits of playing an instrument in enhancing attention span. Through perfecting some of the most challenging piano repertoire in my musical experience, I recognized the value of instrumental practice in strengthening concentration and developed a framework utilizing intense focus to most efficiently achieve goals. Using music as the main approach, increasing focus can improve performance in all aspects of life, provide solutions to complex tasks, and pave the way toward satisfaction and well-being.

Deeper Dive

My project, “Finding Focus: A Musical Medium to Increased Attention Span,” explores the connection between instrumental music practice and the ability to concentrate. As a pianist and a piano teacher, I recognized the benefits of instrumental practice in developing concentration and increasing attention span. I was inspired to create this project when I began teaching piano, and I realized that concentration was a substantial obstacle for young children. I frequently questioned why they could not focus, but with each piano lesson, I observed their improvement as their attention spans gradually increased. This experience made me truly appreciate and recognize how instrumental practice could be a mechanism for increasing attention span. Our world today greatly lacks the ability to stay focused, yet concentration is critical in problem-solving and achieving goals. I believe that the significance of my project lies in its connection to music, which few people recognize as a possible solution to improving concentration. However, music is perhaps one of the most valuable tools in being able to train and improve people’s concentration abilities, and this can result in greater productivity and more possibilities for solving our world’s existing problems.

During the creation of this extensive project, a major challenge I faced was finding a balance between my academic and musical responsibilities. I had to learn how to focus on my priorities and goals, and also develop my own method of using time efficiently. In overcoming this challenge, I am very thankful for my school, Pacific Academy. Their understanding and support has allowed me to prioritize piano practice while also not falling behind in school. I am also beyond grateful for the support I received from my parents and piano teacher in my development of this project and as a musician. I would certainly not be the pianist and person I am today without my mother, who has been there with me every step of the journey and has always supported me. My piano teacher has also consistently encouraged and guided me along the way, serving not only as a teacher but also as a mentor and an inspiration. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, my progress was greatly stifled due to lessons turning online and a decline in performance opportunities. During this time, my teacher advised me to focus on my music and never ceased to help me improve, expanding my imagination and sound. Looking back now, every setback I experienced along the way was only an opportunity for growth and a window in which I was able to discover new ideas and expand my musical imagination.

As focus continues to disappear in the world around us, the purpose of my project is to serve as a call for greater attention on the development of concentration and inspire more people to embark on their musical journey. I believe that music can serve as a gateway to more effective critical thinking and problem-solving, which can help increase progress and productivity in all fields. Music can also provide further social benefits, including increased cooperation and empathy. Music certainly has the greatest capacity to convey shared emotions, making it the most likely thread to connect all of our hearts and bring communities together. With these benefits, playing an instrument is definitely an invaluable and worthy experience, and I hope that my project will inspire and introduce more people, especially younger children, to the promising benefits and endless possibilities the world of music offers.


If you could magically become fluent in any language, what would it be?

Minionese, or the Banana Language. I’ve always dreamed of being able to speak the Minion Language as a kid, and I think it would be cool to be able to understand the Minions and know your own secret language in this world.

What is your favorite tradition or holiday?

I really like Chinese New Year and its traditions although our family does not follow a lot of them due to the distance from our extended family in China. Nonetheless, I still love eating Nian Ye Fan (New Year’s Eve dinner) with my family while watching the Chunwan (Spring Festival Gala). On top of that, I really appreciate the unique historical backgrounds and cultural expressions behind the traditions. 

What is your favorite hobby?

This would obviously be piano, but I talk about it a lot in my project already, so I will talk about something else here: baking! I have fallen in love with the process of different ingredients coming together to create a delicious treat, and the reaction I get from family and friends when they try my creation also ignites my passion for baking. Most recently, I have been making a lot of giant NY-Style cookies, but my most popular recipe is my cheesecake!

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In The News

Los Angeles – The Davidson Fellows Scholarship Program has announced the 2023 scholarship winners. Among the honorees is 16-year-old Helaine Zhao of Irvine. Zhao won a $25,000 scholarship for her project, Finding Focus: A Musical Medium to Increased Attention Span. She is one of only 21 students across the country to be recognized as a 2023 scholarship winner.

Download the full press release here