Wonderful Wunderkinds

Meet the local residents who have conducted groundbreaking scientific research, performed in front of standing-ovation crowds, and brought home a slew of awards and trophies—all before their 19th birthdays.



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Additional Research by Matthew Klampert and Marisa LaScala

in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously writes that to truly succeed at something, you need to work at it for 10,000 hours. By our estimation, these local teens and pre-teens have already made a huge dent in that figure. Meet 13 local “wunderkinds” who have not only found their life’s passions before they could cast their first vote but have already received some recognition for it.

Nicholas Barasch

 Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Sony Masterworks

Age: 12 Town: South Salem Excels in: Acting

CV: Parents might know this John Jay middle-schooler, even if they’ve never seen his face: Nicholas Barasch is the singing voice of Austin on Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans. Then again, they might have gotten a glimpse of him—from a Broadway audience, no less—when he appeared as Kiddo in Broadway’s most recent production of West Side Story.

How did you get started acting? I’ve been singing my whole life, but I moved to South Salem from the City, and my mom started doing some community theater. We both auditioned for The Music Man and we both got parts—she played my older sister actually. I kept doing community theater and then did Random Farms Kids’ Theater, which is how I found my manager. Through my manager, I got West Side Story on Broadway and Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans.

What was West Side Story like? It was really fun. I met so many awesome people and I learned so much. And I got to sing 'Somewhere' almost every night—six shows a week out of eight.

Did that ever get tiring? Sometimes. Now that I’m done, I sort of miss it.

➜ Legan Bayombo

Age: 15 Town: Mount Vernon Excels in: Spelling

CV: Bayombo is nothing if not persistent. After competing yearly in the district-wide Scripps Spelling Bee as an eighth grader, he finally brought home the trophy. Winning also meant a trip to DC to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, where he made it to the third round.

What prompted you to enter your first spelling bee? I started in fourth grade when my teacher noticed I was a good speller. She suggested I get more competitive. I did Scripps year after year and lost, but in eighth grade I won.

How did you get to be so good at spelling? Just repetition. You have to know which language the word comes from, and how they write in that language. Certain rules you’ll know—like in Greek they don’t use certain letters. It’s just memorization after that. I usually say the word a few times and have it in my thoughts. Then I’ll try to spell it and keep on doing it over and over.

Is this what you want to do for your career? I want to be an aerospace engineer and work for NASA.

➜ Eugene Bender

Age: 18 Town: Elmsford Excels in: Classic Violin and Irish Fiddle

CV: By day, Eugene Bender may study classical violin at the Music Conservatory of Westchester, but, by evening, he moonlights as an award-winning Irish fiddler. In 2007, he won the North Atlantic Competition for his Irish music stylings.

Which do you like better—Irish fiddle or classical violin? I’ll always have a great love for Irish music because that’s what I started with. My dad loves traditional Irish music, and he introduced it to me when I was young. He had a few contacts in the music scene, and I started playing with Brian Conway, my first fiddle teacher. I then moved to classical.

What’s the difference between the two in terms of skills? In classical music, everything is learned from a sheet. In Irish, it’s all by ear.

What should people know about Irish music? You know that show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? They always go, “eidey didey didey didey.” There’s a lot more to it than the jigs, the reels, and the River Dance. It’s a very broad style of music, and there’s a lot of interpretation and self-expression.

What’s the hardest thing about playing Irish music? There are lots of huge parties going on with inebriated people while you’re trying to play in the background. It’s all for the music, though.