At 14, high school junior Vaibhav Mohanty composes music, excels in math courses
In fairness, Jim Braunreuther expected to hear something simple that spring evening when he drove to hear West Ashley High's band perform a piece composed by a local middle school student.
Instead, the Charleston County School District's fine arts coordinator sat listening, stunned.
"I was just really blown away that it was a fully orchestrated piece of music," Braunreuther says.
The composer? Vaibhav Mohanty, an 11-year-old so academically advanced he had skipped two grades (three in math).
Vaibhav now is a 14-year-old junior at the Academic Magnet High School. He's the youngest ever to take its most rigorous math course, AP Calculus BC, competing with top 17 and 18 year old students.
He's already seen a professional wind ensemble play a piece he composed when he was 13.
And for three years now, he's been one of three students chosen nationwide to win the PTA Reflections Awards of Excellence for his music compositions.
Vaibhav turns 15 today.
"He's one of those students Leonard Bernstein would have picked up and groomed," Braunreuther says. "I can't wait to see where this kid lands."
In some ways, Vaibhav's academic advancement began with a toy car zoomed across a kindergarten room. It should have been walked to the toy bin, and he knew it.
Then there was the 5-year-old advising his teacher how to use control-alt-delete to unfreeze her computer.
There also was the clock watching.
"I realized that he might be getting bored," says his mother, Sangeeta Mohanty, a neuroscience researcher at MUSC.
Astute teachers, a willing principal and attentive parents agreed that Vaibhav needed challenge.
Just a few weeks into kindergarten, he joined the second-graders for math and reading. One of his new friends later confided: "It was really weird having a kindergartner in our class."
Vaibhav loved the teacher and, though not often invited to things like second-grade birthday parties, he settled in.
Then he skipped all of first grade.
Straight into second, he joined third-graders for math and reading. He still earned top grades.
A quarter into third grade, a teacher recommended Vaibhav move entirely to fourth grade.
Sangeeta Mohanty said yes. Bidyut Mohanty, his father, worried. What would it mean for his son's development, his social acceptance?
Vaibhav went to fourth grade and hasn't looked back.
By eighth grade, he took ninth-grade math at James Island Charter High, three grade levels ahead of his age.
Through it all, he formed strong friendships with a handful of kids from that day back in kindergarten when he walked into the second-grade classroom.
"I haven't really felt isolated or different," Vaibhav says.
At 12, he joined the Academic Magnet High's freshman class. There, he met a school full of Vaibhavs.
"It felt almost like home. But I always had friends I believed to be as nerdy as me," he says, grinning.
The 14-year-old now is taking seven Advanced Placement classes during his junior year - all of his courses except one required class.
Sully Johnston, his AP Calculus teacher and the school's math department chairman, calls Vaibhav one of the most intelligent students he's had in 17 years at a school where many have skipped grade levels.
"He approaches his mathematics coursework, as well as the competitions and other events, much like Jadeveon Clowney approaches a football game. He just owns it," Johnston says.
Vaibhav even speaks with the maturity of an astute junior.
"I always forget he is 14," Johnston admits.
Composing a future
In other ways, his advancement began with taking piano lessons at age 4.
Composing a future
A few years later, he met a beloved music teacher, Carolyn Turner, at Stiles Point Elementary, "one of the teachers who made me passionate about music," he recalls.
Turner died during spring break of Vaibhav's fifth-grade year. He was shocked. He had no idea his teacher was battling cancer while raising up a new generation of musicians.
So, when the 8-year-old heard about a memorial for Turner, he began composing a song.
Given she stirred his own musical interest, "I thought it would be appropriate if that could be the one thing I gave back to her," he recalls.
"Mrs. Turner" sounded a solemn tone that he hoped shared mourning but also encouraged his friends and teachers.
He later joined the Fort Johnson Middle School band, playing alto saxophone and sometimes baritone sax and continued to take piano lessons.
"I don't like to pick favorites when it comes to the instruments I play," Vaibhav says. "When I play saxophone, saxophone is my favorite. When I play piano ..."
Mostly, however, he loved composing.
In eighth grade, Wando High School's symphonic band played his original piece "Fanfare of Unity" so he could enter it in a national contest (which he won).
West Ashley High played it too, about six months later. That time, Vaibhav conducted it himself.
Nothing could prepare him for the feel of waving the baton through the air and hearing his music rise up, a living sound filling the space around him.
"It was the best thing ever," he says.
With no formal music composition training, he continued creating pieces for concert bands, chamber ensembles and others.
He also entered competitions.
For three years now, he has won the national PTA Reflections Awards of Excellence in music composition.
"I really do love all kinds of music," he says. "But musical composition really attracts me because it's something of my own that I can share."
Now, he is trying to publish his compositions.
He recently wrote to a wind ensemble in North Carolina to ask if they would play his "Altitude." He wanted professional musicians to record a live performance so he could submit the piece for review for publication.
On May 30, the Piedmont Wind Symphony performed the piece, which Vaibhav wrote when he was 13. After, the conductor praised its depth and complexity.
However, he doesn't plan to make music composition his career, not now anyway.
"That would be like Beethoven going to do something else," says Braunreuther of the school district. "This kid has prodigy written all over him."
At home, the Mohantys speak the language from his parents' native region of India.
In 1991, Bidyut Mohanty came to the U.S. from India and returned home several years later. He and Sangeeta married and moved to the U.S. in 2001.
Several years later, they came to MUSC where Bidyut is a research assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.
He works in biochemistry, his wife in neuroscience. In whose footsteps will Vaibhav follow?
"Let the kid learn and do what he or she wants," Bidyut says.
Yet, he smiles a bit when Vaibhav says he wants to pursue a joint MD/PhD degree with an emphasis on ... biochemistry.
In the meantime, for the Academic Magnet's required senior thesis, Vaibhav is studying chicken embryo heart development with Edward Krug, MUSC's assistant dean for postdoctoral affairs.
With some prodding, Vaibhav admits he's eyeing Harvard, Duke and MIT.
His mother explains the Indian emphasizes humility.
"He has to be humble and see everyone in the same way," Sangeeta Mohanty says.
Even if they see him as a prodigy.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.