Interview with FANFARE magazine
An Interview with Pianist Jeeyoon Kim
BY JACQUELINE KHAROUF
Pianist Jeeyoon Kim first began to study the piano at age four. Originally from South Korea, Kim earned her undergraduate degree in her home country but then earned her Master’s and Doctoral degrees in piano performance from Indiana University’s Jacob School of Music. She has also earned another Master’s degree in Music Education Piano Pedagogy from Butler University. Following the release of her album 10 More Minutesin December of 2016, Kim debuted at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in 2017. (It was a sold-out performance.) And in December of 2018, she released Over. Above. Beyond., with an accompanying concert project and music video. In fact, the video for Over. Above. Beyond.was selected for several film festivals, such as Red Wood Film Festival, and won Best Music Video Platinum Award from the Independent Short Awards in Los Angeles, CA.
As the first part of a pair of interviews (stay tuned for Robert Schulslaper’s interview on her second album Over. Above. Beyond.), I asked Kim about her background, her work as an advocate for classical music, and about her stellar debut album 10 More Minutes.
I wonder if you would first tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to study piano. What was the moment or time in your life when classical music made an impact on you and was that part of the reason why you wanted to study piano?
I grew up in Korea and I started to study the piano when I was 4. In fact, 3 or 4 years old is fairly normal age to start as a musician. If you ask any pianist, any violinist, it’s like yeah, so did I! It’s the norm. Some audiences ask, “Really, how can that be possible?” For me—I mean for others too—it’s not surprising that I started at that age. So first I remember going to the institute in Korea. How it works in Korea is that you go to the institute everyday. My mom signed me up when I was 4, but she didn’t have to worry about me. I went to the institute on my own everyday. Right now that I’m thinking about it, it’s kind of bizarre being just 4 years old and walking around the town, just getting to the institute everyday, saying hello to the vendors and going out and about. I remember my first lesson, actually. My teacher taught me a few notes C-D-C-B-C—or something like that—and then at the end she said, “Let’s play together.” She played the accompaniment, which sounded so gorgeous and I always felt that I was the one making that music. I was enchanted by sound of music and piano, and it was so much fun!
Regarding how Classical music impacted me, I think this analogy might make sense to you. When I first came to Germany, that was the first time I realized that I am Asian. As I was growing up, I was Kim Jeeyoon. I never thought of myself as Asian. When I grew up, I never distinguished between different types of music: classical music or folk music or pop music. To me, it was just music. I was totally into music; I was that musical kid. Then later on I realized that, at college, oh I guess that maybe I am majoring in classical music. But it was as if I was growing up in 1750 or 1800 at the time of Bach or Beethoven, when there was no sense of “classical” music. I mean, there’s some separation with sacred and secular music but there is no clear line between classical music and other genre. I felt the same way, growing up. I really always was a musical kid. The choice was already made for me. I’m not a big fan of the notion of talent because I feel like there’s so much discipline required to polish talent in order to make it work. But if I have a talent at all, it’s the crazy love for music. I think that seed is always there and I was always singing in the classroom and happy and I was always the musical kid that loved to be doing music. The only thing I guess I could contribute to what I did when I was young is that I continued playing piano. There were a lot of times that it was difficult, but I followed through with what my heart said, which is all about music.
Was your family at all musical?
You know, again, it’s a cultural thing too. Korea is a place where every other block is karaoke. So when I’m at a family reunion or New Year’s Day or something, they know I can play piano, but they always ask me to sing! “Can you sing something?” Why do I have to sing? But then I end up singing instead of playing the piano. Music is part of the culture. In my family, my mom was a great singer and my dad was always a proud singer. So I guess music is so much a part of the culture, and with my family, that we never really made it like, “Oh Jeeyoon is the only one playing piano.” In a way, piano was not really emphasized in any way. It was something that I pursued. My aunt is actually a classical singer, but that doesn’t really put any weight into my background, because everyone else is a singer, everyone else was into music. So it was only natural, very natural for me to just do what everybody loves.
Your debut solo album, 10 More Minutes, was released in December 2016. On your website, you describe the album as a collection of encores, “when both the audience and the performer long for ‘10 more minutes’ of connection before the concert concludes.” Although each of the pieces are encores that you have performed after various concerts, do any of these particular encores remind you of a particular performance (or perhaps even a particular place where you gave a particular encore)?
I guess I would actually have to go back to how 10 More Minutescame about. I wanted to create something that gives a feeling of an encore, but “encore” is almost not the right word to use. It’s that longing feeling of an experience being together with a friend, or like a great experience that you just want to last an extra ten more minutes—not like ten hours or ten years. It’s a very humble longing, which I wanted to create to capture that very moment. And so when I came out with that idea, I wanted to bring all my close friends which are those musical pieces that I have played over the years that always stayed with me or that I always ended up bringing back. Maybe the concerts change, but I end up bringing that guy back, that friend again as an encore—so these pieces become my personal friends, but I wanted to bring them all together into one concept, one idea. So then I present this idea to the world. This was actually a kickstarter, crowd-funding album. I had a total budget of $30,000 for creating this album. I wasn’t even sure this album was going to come through, but then when I put that idea to the world, a lot of people really liked the idea and supported it. Everybody who contributed, even like one dollar toward that project, felt like this was their baby too. So it was really kind of momentum-building for so many people for this project to be alive. And after this album was obviously released, I did a tour of these concerts and people would follow me to the different cities. That happened when I did the Carnegie Hall debut, which was a year after the album was released. Some people from Indiana came and people from San Diego came, so the Carnegie Hall concert was sold out. I had no connection in New York, so that was in a way like unheard of. How did that happen, you know? But those people were so invested in me and in the project that they wanted to experience the 10 More Minutesconcert one more time, in that very space. I don’t know—it’s so personal and dear to my heart and I think it will always be like that—kind of like a first child, kind of thing.
I would like to mention a couple of pieces in that album, even though every piece has a personal story and personal experience in when and why to me. One is that Schubert Impromptu (No. 3) in G-flat major. That one I played at one concert that, at the time, I was going through a really personally hard time of my life and I was feeling a deep sense of loss. I was basically going through the stages of grief and loss and this piece really gave me a lot of strength and hope within that dark stage of my life. After that concert was done, I wanted to play that piece as an encore, and I said to the audience, “If given a choice and I had one piece to play and that’s the last piece I play as a pianist, I would choose this piece because this piece gives me so much strength and hope that’s in line with what I’d like to do as a pianist. That’s my mission to lift you up and I hope that you get the same message from this music, which is no matter what you are going through right now it’s ok, it will be ok.” So when I said that then played it, for the first time ever, I actually cried on stage. It wasn’t anything like big sobbing, but I had tears in my eyes the whole time. I thought inside that I shouldn’t be crying as a performer, maybe audiences should be the one who could cry. But it was a very organic moment because of the personal hard time I was going through. I remember it was very difficult on stage, yet I felt that everyone was with that deep emotion of that piece also. Afterwards, I felt I’ve got so much stronger as a person, and in a way, for me, it was like another chapter began after that concert, being able to move forward better. I always wanted to cherish that very feeling and wanted to carry that message whenever I play that piece again, for 10 More Minutes.
And another piece is that Nimrod variation (Elgar). I dedicated this piece to my friend who used to be my mentor and great friend. He was my pastor too, Rev. David Bremer. He passed away during the time of my making 10 More Minutes, unexpectedly. I performed this piece for his last service as a pastor. At the time he was still in his sixties. I chose that piece to play for him because the piece feels noble and very stately. I wanted to give some sense of a notion of that crown over his head by almost saying, “you did the beautiful job in your life, how you served people,” or something like that. But then in the midst of making this album, he passed away and I had to dedicate this piece to him. Whenever I play this piece now, I feel his presence is always around by me. And whenever I miss him, I play the piece and I know that he’s around. So that’s the music that I feel that represents friendship and love and support whenever I need that.
10 More Minutesseems to be an album all about connection, not only in the sense of performer and listener, but in a sense of time and place. Perhaps solo piano is one of the most vulnerable musical shapes representing the goal of being both present in time and occupying a space filled by an audience. As I listened to your album, I had the deep sense that, at least in some way, all of the composers had a similar notion of the central importance of the piano. In other words, an encore is not just an afterthought, or a platitude, but an attempt to maintain that ineffable connection which seems so unique to music. As a performer, do you feel a certain loss when a performance is concluded? Or is it more of a relief to conclude and return to your own life, your own space?
Again, for me, going back to the encore concept or space, an encore is, as you stated, an extension of what we have already gone through together as an experience and there’s a mutual longing for another 5 minutes or 10 minutes. So we are responding to that need and I think the composer probably—or no composer—doesn’t compose and think, “ah this is for an encore.” For me, if I choose anything for an encore, that’s a really high honor, a place that I want people to leave with. And for me, connection is the most important thing. That is my core mission as a pianist—to connect me to people and to composers. When I play it, I do lose a sense of time and space, even actually in the sense of who I am or where I am, what I am, and I just dive into the experience. I’m just becoming a messenger of this music. And I sort of disappear and in that cycle, I become transparent through the music. Obviously, inevitably, the audience is going to feel me, but it’s so transparent that at the end they’re going to feel that it’s my version of Tchaikovsky or Beethoven, but it’s so much more, that the music speaks for itself and I become a glass cup, not a plastic cup, so they really resonate with what the core is. And oftentimes when the concert is over, I’m awake again and there’s a sense of, “I need to celebrate with the people who just experienced this together. I just cannot disappear.” Obviously during my whole concert I am communicating with them, in a sense I am communicating to each of them individually because I feel like my soul and the composer’s soul and the listener’s soul meet in the fourth dimension, wherever that is, and when I wake up from it, I need to talk to them. If not there, then in the reception area we need to talk about the experience that we went through, like let’s talk about it more. I can’t just go away. It’s like any event of life. We need to share and I think that I always felt that I have a need to talk with the audience afterwards. It’s almost as if we went to boot camp together, so we had a deep sense of bonding afterwards. And oftentimes I can’t go to bed that night. I still have music going through my head, music keeps playing though I want to turn it off at that point. And it takes a minimum of two days or sometimes longer, a week, for me to come down to the earth and that, sometimes, it could be a sense of loss or almost postpartum (like after delivery). Nothing bad—I’m so happy that I gave, I’m so happy that I received, but you have a sense of loss or difficulty coming back down to the earth. And I do go through that personally—I don’t share this part of me as much in public. Because I give so much, there is a sense of loss and maybe after that period is over, then I know I got stronger, because of that experience, and then I can use that strength to move forward again. So, it’s really that pattern of the concert to be the most celebration and the most shared experience and then afterwards there is some sense of loss. Then after that, there is the strength and the courage that was given to me during the concert and from the people and then I move forward again.
I love that image of you as a glass cup.
You cannot hide from music. It’s going to come through, so really there’s no where I can hide. So really to me, it’s not only a reflection of who I am as a person, how I live my life, it’s going to be reflected into music and that really shaped me to who I am.
The final piece on the album, which is your own composition, is a bit like hearing your voice and your reaction to the performance, or the experience of creating the album. Do you regularly compose, as well, and are you writing other pieces that you might like to include in future albums?
I don’t know if I can say that I compose. I improvise, I always improvise and let my random thoughts come through me. It’s a really vulnerable place for me to try to share what I do in my pajamas and try improvising with the world. Of course, in the past the composer was a pianist, pianist and a composer all in one, and I think that’s really the essence of being a pianist—being able to create something. But at the end of the day I feel like my best suit is to be a good messenger, like a good actress should be able to deliver the message of what the script writer wrote there. Because for me, there’s also what’s best suited for me is to be able to connect with the composer and try and empathize with what he or she is trying to say. And I try to deliver that in the most clear, transparent way. But in my improvisation, there is no other middle person. There’s me to me, and that’s a very vulnerable and humble stage. I find that the improvisation is so nakedly me, that when I listen to it, I go [mockingly], “Oh next to Beethoven and Chopin, there’s the Jeeyoon piece.” And I find that in my pieces I improvise, that it is pure and melodic, which seems to reflect who I am inside. I do plan to share, one by one, maybe if the timing is right in one project or another, to share with the world. I did get a great feedback from the listeners for my “10 More Minutes” composition. That was my rendition of longing for that 10 more minutes.
In preparing for this interview, I listened to your podcast interview with Lew Smoley of Classical Podcasts. It’s an excellent interview not only because it seemed that Mr. Smoley understood and appreciated your work both as an artist and an advocate for classical music, but because I heard, in your voice and your way of speaking, how this work is so necessary and vital to who you are as a person. From this interview, I learned that during your live performances, you include some commentary about what the pieces you have chosen to play mean to you (like “little poems,” you said, which I really like). And as I listened to your album, I wondered about how instead of liner notes it might have been interesting to actually hear you speak in between the pieces on the album. I know that sounds a little jarring to my more experienced classical music readers/listeners, but I’d argue that after hearing you speak, I felt a deeper connection to your performance. Do you think classical music has lost some of that ability to engage with an audience, especially as music and audiences have changed? In what other ways do you hope to break down some of the barriers (or perhaps performance “rules” or expectations) that may hinder your engagement with an audience?
I think classical music was always, always there. What changed is us. Inevitably! For me, as a musician, as a pianist, my mission is that without cheating the core, of staying true to the content of classical music, but wearing the contemporary clothing so that people can really get a little closer to this classical music, to the beauty of it. I think that is basically my mission as a pianist: I want to bring people of the other corner to this corner. Some audiences commented that I am like a gateway drug to classical music [Laughs]. I guess that’s a good thing! Classical musicians, we are often our own worst enemy in the way that we’re supposed to do this and we’re supposed to do that, clap this way, you shouldn’t build a program without certain movements because it has to be a set, etc. We’re living within the rules and I think it’s really—especially with people who actually have a higher degree, which most musicians do—hard to break out of those rules. It worked then in 1800, it may not work right now, in this time of ours. So I think this really requires an open mind and flexibility too. And hey, nobody dies if you only play one movement! I had to break all these rules for myself, a lot, and I still ask that question of myself too, “Is it ok?” Sometimes I program a piece, like Clair de Lune, that everybody plays. And then you know maybe those classical musicians might comment that that this is an easy piece or it’s heard so much. But at the same time, there is a reason why it was loved for many generations. There is a reason this piece is so loved and needs to be given another perspective or purity. So I always ask that question to myself, am I capturing myself in the box and how can I break that too to reach the actual people who are living in this century.
The first thing I did to break some of my own shell was I started to talk on the stage. Even in Carnegie Hall there was a microphone and there was no program given, other than my bio, and people were probably uncomfortable, like they didn’t know what was going on. They thought I was singing or something, you know. But I came out and I told them, “I know you’re a little nervous, there’s no program. But that’s how I envisioned this concert to be, no agenda, but a shared experience. I prepared this course of musical meal carefully from the appetizer to the dessert, let’s just dive into the experience together.” Another thing I always try to do, if I could, there is no intermission. I try program things a little shorter than a tradition piano concert, which would be 45 minutes, a 15 minute intermission, and then 45 minutes. But I would always like that whole experience to be one sitting. I don’t want to risk that, coming out chit-chatting or checking their phones and then I’m losing them again, and it takes another five to ten minutes to bring them back into that dimension with me that we beautifully entered together. I also (in other concerts, Over. Above. Beyond.) I collaborated with an illustrator and 13 different commissioned art works to couple with my live performance of Brahms’ Original Theme Variations for each variation. Before trying this, I really questioned hard how could I enhance the concert, not distract from the music. And that was the core question I kept asking myself and at the end it worked beautifully. I think it helped people to linger on each variation more with the art than without. I am glad that I risked it.
Another thing, which might not be so new, but I really always try is to meet everyone after the concert. In my concert, many have commented that it is like a pop concert because of the energy from the audiences after the concert. They don’t leave because they want to talk to me, they want to share, or talk to each other. There is a sense of strong connection and community that we created together. I think that’s where we’re headed, to the classical music scene, it’s in a way, human interaction again. We can’t just pretend they know, pretend that it’s supposed to be a certain way—there’s no assumption and yet there is a core beauty here and I just want to share it. And when I come down to that, people really appreciate and react to it.
At this point there’s no going back for me and I just wish all other musicians would try to find the ways to really connect with the audience also. When I talk on the stage, it is not about the history of the piece. Sometimes, I bring in some historical notion, but it is more about how I feel about the piece personally. And I plan what I say as much as what I play, so that means that talking is part of the art form that I think through. Maybe it starts out as twenty sentences, but then it comes down to two or three sentences because I thought about it and only share the ones that are necessary. Often times we find difficult to connect with musicians who talk on the stage because maybe they are not prepared, or they can only provide a historical note, and we cannot connect that way. I think the best way to get to music is by bypassing me, to actually feel me and getting to know me as a person actually helps to get to a composer faster. If some musicians try to block that, then I think we’re sort of just stopped in the gateway, without getting to the composer.
It doesn’t seem like a revolutionary way of thinking about music or concerts but it is, if you go to a lot of classical music concerts because there is such a difference in expectations. The expectations of a pop concert, for example, differ from the expectations of a classical music concert.
I know! The young generation of audiences might think, “It is like grandpa’s music and I don’t know how to behave, they’re probably going to scold me.” In a way, you lose a lot of actual audience members in their twenties, thirties, and forties because the coding looks so rigid—not that they’re not interested in it. I think that if they are exposed to it in the right way, they will get into it as much, but there’s a lot of steps blocking them. So I am trying to create some bypassing way for people to understand the core. And again, it’s not part of the show, it’s a mere wish to bring people into this corner. And afterwards it’s like what they say, it’s like a gateway drug for people to then go to operas or symphonies or whatever they want to do. Getting them into this corner is the hardest job.
My Fanfarecolleague Robert Schulslaper will ask you more detailed questions about your second solo release, Over. Above. Beyond., in a subsequent interview, but I wanted to ask you generally about releasing a music video, which accompanied that album. In your concert performances, you have strived to be more interactive with the audience. You share brief anecdotes about the pieces you are going to play (much like the liner notes for 10 More Minutes), instead of providing printed program notes, and for your concert project for Over. Above. Beyond., you performed with the visual artist Moonsub Shin, who made illustrations during the concert. Is the music video an extension of that intention to engage, or almost collaborate, with the audience?
I guess that making that kind of music video is common culture of pop music. With my seeking how to break the barriers or how to bring people into this corner of classical music, I also learned that we are very visual, YouTubers. We’re watching YouTubes and that’s just part of the culture we cannot deny. And the reason I created that particular music video, is that is there anyway I can create something to enhance understanding of that piece. So some of the scenes of the music video include me canoeing in a pond—it’s not just me in different angles playing piano. I think it was helpful for the viewers to get into that zone of that particular music. I was imagining that they have an active participation of listening. After watching it and listening to it at the same time, that particular music video, hopefully you come out of it after three minutes like, “Wow, I went in, I felt it and I went out.” There’s no multitasking. Let’s dream and let’s dive into that piece together. Let these images from the video help you to appreciate the piece better. It’s just a mere seeking again, to where I want to, how can I communicate. If I can play them in person, that’s always my first choice of experiencing classical music, but there’s always a physical limit that I can’t play for everybody. Someone in India, for example, could watch that video and say, “Oh, I didn’t know that classical music could be cool, I should look for another classical music video.” Then my job is done.
Inside the album notes, you provide some handy listening instructions. There is a little bit of gentle humor here, which I think hints at the deeper message that sometimes we have to make time to engage, not to just let music be a sound that fills in the background. What do you hope listeners will hear or experience by tuning out the world around them and sitting with you for an hour?
I created that manual for the album as if you bought an electronic device. You buy it and there’s a manual for it. There’s a certainly sense of humor there. What I wanted to come across with that message was not telling them what to do, but more of a gentle suggestion. I often think that there is no real education of how to listen to a classical music, without being a musician. I don’t think there’s a class. Maybe we’re wired to multitask and that is praised: you should always be doing many different things at the same time to make productivity higher, or listening to music is something often done in the background of doing something else. What I suggested was to listen and listen fully, not with ear buds, but actually with headphones and closed your eyes without any other distractions for that time of listening. And actually there are people—I’m so thankful for that—some people after months later they said, “I couldn’t make my hour yet, but I will and I will listen to it.” Of course I heartily said, “Thank you! That’s how you listen—do not attempt unless you have that time. Thank you for following the manual.” I also find that, despite easy downloads that we all do often, there is a beauty in holding the CD and looking at that manual and the descriptions that I write—makes me chuckle that description—and there is a sense of a connection, again, and through some physical thing. So my wish is that they gain a sense of joy, a sense of clarity, and peace and actually meeting me in the real really, not just as a background but actually listening to that particular music for that first time. And I just want that experience to be an actual experience, not pretending experience because if you really meet someone, you really met them. It’s not like you were introduced to them and then got the name, but then you don’t remember the name because you never really talked to them or listened to them or look at their eyes or look at their face—then, there’s no way that you cannot remember that particular person, although you may forget the name. So I wanted that experience to be real and really receive it and I think that if they really receive it, then they will want to do that again.
In addition to your piano performance studies, you are also a lecturer and a teacher of piano pedagogy and, in fact, you were awarded the Top Music Teacher Award from Steinway & Sons for 2016, 2017, and 2018. How has piano pedagogy made you such an advocate for classical music? Or, in another way, why is it so important to you that people find a connection with classical music?
I’m a firm believer that music is a gift to this earth, to me, from God. Some might say it’s from the universe. And then there’s, some might say life is full of troubles and challenges and obstacles we go through but there is also the keys, the treasure hunt, like music will help you go through life. And I think we’re ever hunting for this treasure and I fell like I’m selfish if I found this treasure and I did not share. Because it’s for everybody, to be connected. The form of classical music is so raw, so many human emotions and the expressing of it. And if you are really connected to it, it will help you to go through life. It will give you joy, it will heal you, it will give you that peace. As a pianist it’s my mission, as a person it’s also my mission to guide, maybe, or help people to understand why I’m so crazy about classical music like this. It’s very contagious. If I say it, then people think maybe like there’s got to be something, maybe I should pay attention. So one person at a time, one concert at a time, one album at a time and I feel like I’m making a little bit of change. And that’s in a bigger mission for me as a pianist and as a person, it’s not like I play this note more perfect than the other, it’s way beyond that. It’s really for me to serve, to be able to help people to discover that. And the teaching is part of it. I was always intrigued by the art of teaching, even early on, because it’s just a totally different, creative art form to bring one person to the other, point A to point B. And it’s not saying if someone can give the most beautiful performer doesn’t mean they’re the best teacher, because it’s just a totally different field. For me, I would say it’s like a bonsai tree and I’m a gardener and everybody comes with their own shape of tree and I help to prune it and to help them become their better shape in what direction they are going. It requires a lot of patience and empathy but then what I do is help them to express. I cannot help the audience to express, but I can help my students to actually become a giver again. So, I’m basically raising another version of me to spread the beauty of it and it’s actually more direct if more people do that. And I help them to become—I have a lot of adult students, actually—it’s almost like piano therapy. So they are coming to piano lessons, they thought they are just learning how to play piano, but they learn about themselves and they learn about how to open, how to actually be vulnerable and bypassing them to actually become a giver to the universe for the beauty of music. Not to worry about the judgment of other people or to play for some people to show off, or just play for your own joy but knowing you got to share in order to be vulnerable. And all of these aspects make them much stronger and helps to shape them to be a more holistic person, and by doing that they become a better musician. But if you just teach them how to play that particular passage more accurately, or with better rhythm, all of those things will help to some degree, but they won’t get to where you want to go eventually. So that is all holistic approach to teaching really is the same line of who I am as a performer and thus I am an advocate of classical music and whole person connection with students to help them to become that giver. And when I am on the stage, I just hope to do that on my own and go through that and know how difficult it is. And when I teach my students, I tell them that I wish there was a shortcut, or an easier way, but unfortunately, this is very difficult. And if I do that for 35 years, it’s still difficult. I know it’s going to be difficult, but is it worth it? Yes, so that’s why you are here too. So it’s a really humble process for me to teach. It’s not like I know better, it’s more of another who went through more events giving them a wisdom, this sort of thing helped me, it may work for you, it may not, but let me guide you, I think that will help you, but it’s really understanding that particular person and their particular background and personality. Everything has to be, understanding them. And again, it’s the empathy of where is this person coming from and trying to understand why this person cannot express this phrase or maybe has a hard time with the public performance. It’s all trying to tune in and at the end of it, it’s all the same thing.
Your performance on 10 More Minutesis so seamless and so delicate that I would like to ask you about your approach to the music and how you hear it. Do you record yourself and work on sound quality by refining from a sort of objective place or is it more organic and you rely on the feedback from an audience?
I wish I was twenty again and I had a teacher telling me what to do [laughs]. So, I’m 39 now and I did my master’s and my doctorate and went back to get my master’s again for piano pedagogy. What I learned after going through all that long process of education, is that I don’t know. I realized that I don’t know enough. And that was, in a way, the beginning of this journey. I thought, after a doctorate, you should know better, that’s what I thought that after all this hard work. You’d better know better. But in my late twenties, I thought ok, now I know I don’t know. Now I can honestly begin the humble process of learning it again, but then from different perspectives, because I went through that hardcore education and now I don’t have a teacher. I’m on my own and I’m swimming through this ocean. But I use all the tools that I learned, all my processes, and I guess after my degree was completed, in my late twenties, and now I’m late thirties, that ten years taught me probably more than I learned in school, because I had to navigate on my own, without having another person telling me. It would be so much easier if there was another person telling me that was beautiful, that’s the right track. I so wish that I had that, but I know that’s not the way that I get stronger.
So now I take any piece, any sort of music that I begin, and for me the most important thing is to get that first impression correct. When I play that piece of music for the first time, it’s like meeting a person for the first time and I try to capture that very early moment of the emotion that I’m feeling and I try to really store that, in me. So for me the first impression is very important. And after that I do every angle—I study, I actually almost like stalk the composer (what they’re doing, reading their own diaries, and reading their letters), and find the context of what they’re doing or any other pieces that are similar in context, or chamber music (is there a similar language going on there?) who are they close to, what are the contemporary composers doing, what is the historical context of that time period, what are the harmonies that are talking to me, what are the melodic lines telling me, what are the rhythmic things teaching me here. And then I feel also that what are the emotional underlines going here. I feel some sections have heartache—like unbearable heartache—I actually don’t know what this composer is going through, but then the harmony is telling that way, the rhythm is telling that way, the melodic is telling that way and I feel it. I feel the historical context of the composer’s expression and that is where I sort of interject my interpretation of their expression.
Everyday I practice and try to see the piece with different eyes. I practice about five hours a day and it takes about six months until I am ready to play the piece in front of an audience. When I play in front of an audience, that is another revelatory moment. Because another human being is in that space, it becomes a three-way convergence, or a completion of the circle—between me, the composer, and the audience. And that first impression that I felt from the piece is magnified a hundred times more. I try to capture that for the next performance too. You really get to know the pieces because you play them throughout the concert season, so it’s a bit like a human relationship. You develop a relationship with these pieces over that time.
Finally, I’ll just conclude by asking about your future projects or concerts. Do you hope to create more albums with accompanying music videos?
I think you can always safely assume that I’m working on something. Next project, following Over. Above. Beyond.is another album. This is kind of the way of presenting concerts that I developed, and it works for me, which is release an album and that album becomes the concert also and I tour with it. It’s maybe very pop-culture-ish, but it works because I created that project and I lived with that project for a certain period of time. So, next project I’m thinking (wink-wink), I don’t know, I’m not all there yet, but I want to work with a poet and actually commission poetry coupled with my recorded piece. So for that album, the poetry is always preceding the music in one track. And I want to experiment in that direction. Like I did with Over. Above. Beyond. with visuals, I’d also like to make this album interactive and invite listeners to create and share their poetry or haiku or some words to go along with the pieces that I play.
And this might be a longer project, but I want to write a book. But it’s along the same lines of what I’ve been talking about. Who I am as a pianist, helped me become a better person in my life. I would like to share the things I do that helped me and maybe they will help you. Preparation for music and approach to life.
I will also launch my own Podcast in the first week of January 2020, called “Journey Though Classical Piano.” The podcast will dedicate to helping people of all musical tastes and backgrounds discover the beauty of classical music. Every other Wednesday, I will feature concert-like musical experiences and in-depth exploration of one classical piano composition, bringing the splendor of classical music right to your living room in 15 minutes segment. All of performances in the first season will be my own performances. I am very excited about this project, as this is another extension of what I do as a pianist. I am not sure how this will play it out yet, but I think it will be fun to communicate with listeners in an intimate setting like that! Please check it out when you have a moment after it is released in the first week of January 2020!
So I’m trying to reach as many people as possible in various ways—YouTube, podcast, book, concerts…And I think I will have a cartoon manual for my book too! [Laughs] 24 hours a day or a lifetime seems just not enough time for me to do everything I want to do, spreading the beauty of classical music. I just do it one note at a time.