At 5, he took his first class at Darien Town Hall. At, 9 he's winning international piano competitions.

DARIEN — When fourth-grader Christopher Li was 5 years old, he took a keyboarding class at the Darien Town Hall that would launch a love for tickling the ivories.

Now Li, a student at Hindley Elementary School, can call himself a piano champion after taking a first-place win in an internationally-streamed piano competition last month.

Li was the top performer for his age bracket in the 2021 Piano Star International Competition, a virtual piano competition that started in 2020 during the pandemic. It was his first competition, and he competed against 37 players from 13 different countries.

During the three-round competition, Li submitted pre-recorded pieces and also played live for judges — including professional musicians and college professors — via Zoom. Li performed “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” by Claude Debussy in the final round, a feat that landed him the victory.

Li was slightly nervous about performing competitively, he said. But he had a trick before playing live:

“I think ‘It’s just practice and not performing,’” Li said. “And then I just got through that piece and then ‘Oh, I'm done.’”

Li’s parents, Eric Li and Anh Tang, first gave him a keyboard when he was a toddler, they said. When he was 5 and began taking a deeper interest in making music on it, his parents signed him up for the town music class. It did not take long for Li to develop an affinity for the instrument, leading his parents to enroll him in music lessons, they said.

According to his piano teacher, Stamford-based Li-Pi Hsieh, Li has perfect pitch and a nearly photographic musical memory.

“He just absorb things very, very quickly,” Hsieh said. “He’s like a teacher's dream.”

Li said he practices between one and two hours a day. Music helps him relax. It’s also a way to honor the memory of his maternal grandfather, who used to visit frequently and developed a close bond with Li, his mother Anh said. His grandfather died in 2021.

“When I practice, I always think of him and I know he can hear me,” Li said. He dedicated his final performance piece to his grandfather, Li said.

Li received $200, a trophy and a certificate for his first competitive win. He is set to perform in his first live competition in Hartford in February.

And as for what he wants to do in the future: “I haven’t really thought about it, but I think I’m going to be a pianist,” he said.