Privileged Sounds

I started a Keyboard Club at my school in February this year. Earlier this month my kids performed at Steinway Hall. 

I want the world to understand the importance of this.

I had a (pretty intense) goal at the beginning of the school year to create a keyboard lab. Now if you know me, I’m not one to wait for presents or things to fall into my lap. I aggressively make things happen. So I went on a crazy hunt on Craigslist for keyboards and wrote everyday to people who posted keyboards they were selling. For every hundred emails sent I would maybe get one response. I asked these people around New York City to find the kindness in their hearts to donate their keyboards for my students’ use. 

Through this I found so many giving people willing to help me out. Every weekend through December, I would travel by subway to far Queens or Brooklyn to pickup the donor’s keyboard and lug it back on the subway. Sometimes I even dragged friends with me if I was making more than one trip that day. I remember the hardest pickup on the day of wind gusts over 50 mph! But somehow I did not get blown away and on the weekdays I would bring the keyboards back on the subway to the school. Casio found out about me and donated keyboards to the school right before Christmas. And with the help of DonorsChoose I was able to fund ~$1000 in headphones and wires to power up the keyboard lab. It truly felt amazing on the weekend of my birthday when my boyfriend came to work to help me physically setup this lab.

Invitations went out for Keyboard Club to the students of my school, and while my students were filled with such excitement, I was so caught up with managing all the equipment that I often forget these precious moments from my kids when they played their first notes on the keyboards:

“This is the best day of my life!”

“I’ve been waiting to play keyboard since the day I was born!”

Each one of my students received special binders with music I prepared for them to practice. And I made a BIG deal about practicing (cue tiger-parenting tactics). But practicing, for most of my students, meant taking out that sheet of paper with the keyboard printout and moving their fingers on the paper. Most of them could not afford a basic keyboard and practicing meant playing the keyboard paper.

Just think about that for a second. Practicing on a sheet of paper. Isn’t that crazy?! I know my students were happy enough to be able to be in Keyboard Club and be able to practice on keyboards twice a week, but it wasn’t enough – at least not for me. How could I truly make them fall in love with the piano?

So I organized a special performance trip. I told my students we were going to a very famous place. And they HAD to practice to make sure their pieces were perfect for the show. That week of the show meant no recess and instead, practice time for them. I spent my lunchtime drilling notes and being extremely tough on my young four to seven-year-olds. I had a high bar set for them and I expected no less than for them to reach it.

The day finally came for the big trip. My students fancied up with their parents as we took the train from Crown Heights to Midtown Manhattan (we even did a flash-singing-mob when the train was extremely crowded between Union Square and Grand Central and our audience loved it!) and walked the fancy streets filled with shops where my girls could not help but look at the dresses and shoes in storefronts and my boys were looking at the men walking around in suits.

When we walked into Steinway Hall, my kids could not stop staring at the sheer grandioseness of the landmark. The performance began, and one by one my students brought their music to the piano and climbed atop the bench looking for Middle C. It all went so quickly, but their level of concentration coupled with their happiness once they finished their songs written all across their faces made me speechless. My Pre-K student even memorized her song! In two months of practicing on mainly papers and only keyboards, my students were playing on an $86,000 Steinway grand. They were so proud during the certificate and rose ceremony after playing. They were so happy to have played the grand piano. They hugged and thanked me, and one of my kids even started hysterically crying that she wouldn’t see me until Monday (it was a Friday afternoon).

I tell the world this story because the week after, I got a drawing from one of my Keyboard Club students with him playing at a piano on stage with tons of chairs for the audience because he told another teacher that he wanted to be a pianist and that it was his dream.

That was and is still my dream – and I get to live it.

But how are kids supposed to discover their dreams without these experiences? It’s not fair that kids around the world don’t have equal access to music. It’s not fair that my kids have to practice on papers because they cannot afford keyboards. While some people think that playing the piano is just for the privileged, particularly a piano like a Steinway, it certainly should not be. Every child deserves to fall in love with music making. There is no such thing as sounds for the privileged. 

Music education is not a privilege; it’s a birthright. And through music, I hope to inspire dreams. Not just dreams relating to music – dreams of all kinds. I hope that in full immersion of whatever crafts, something might click inside them that allows them to say “Hey, I want to do that when I grow up!” I want to create experiences my students remember forever. 

Tomorrow night is my school’s Spring Arts Festival. Here’s to another out of this world experience as I celebrate my own 20 years of piano playing!

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The $86,000 piano my kids performed on. Photo Credit: Brittany Wilson

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Autograph

At NYCAASC 2014, a conference on Asian American issues and culture, I led a breakout discussion group entitled “Piano Lessons: Why 99% Quit.” I had been thinking about this a lot recently, especially having recently finished Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (a must-read!) in which Amy Chua talked quite a bit about raising her kids with music lessons (piano and violin, as being the two most popular instruments for Asians to pursue). 

I mentioned that most piano teachers taught us (us being the Asian American community) classical piano, and we were not exposed to other musical genres of jazz, pop, and of course not the forbidden fruits of hip hop or rap. I would venture to say that the beyond overwhelming majority of us did not even think about improvising or connecting our thoughts and emotions to our music. Teachers just didn’t introduce us to it, nor did they initiate a curiosity within us to even explore other ideas in music. And, unfortunately, we didn’t know better.

Anyway, that was just one part of my presentation that I hope resonated with my audience of college students and former piano lesson-takers. At the end, one guy come up to me and asked for my autograph.

This was the first autograph I ever really signed – and for speaking. I was shocked. Had what I said really resonated that my signature suddenly become of “worth”? Did sharing my thoughts suggest that I may be someone of importance? It felt a bit silly, to be honest, signing my name as I do when I am at a restaurant – but it held more weight now… or did it?


The headliner for NYCAASC was MC Jin. In Asian American music, he is a legend – the first Asian American who rapped for OUR culture. The ABC (American Born Chinese) culture that is, with his famous chorus (translated):

ABC that’s me that’s me 
No matter how you look at it, that’s me
That’s right, that’s right
ABC that’s me that’s me
(You know that’s me)

He continues with the constant “struggle” of “not Chinese enough” and “not American enough”:

An ABC has to look carefully in the mirror
They want to know how I speak Chinese so well

 

Don’t worry about where I was born
A birth certificate is only a sheet of paper

I ask you, “What’s so bad about being an ABC?”
Even if I am, don’t take me as an idiot

 

You say I’m not officially Chinese, “Who are you?”
In the eyes of foreigners I am “yellow skinned,” just like you
Even though we come from two different worlds
But it’s pretty much the same, so don’t treat me otherwise (literally translated, “don’t step on me”)

I identify so much with these lyrics. He came onto the stage and prior to performing, things “got real deep” (straight up quoting him). Commenting on Asian American cultural preaching beforehand, MC Jin stated,

“It’s a fine line to walk between [representing] our Asian American culture and breaking out of that same box.”

 

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(From Lost Laowai)

I struggle with this everyday – playing and thinking with cultural sensitivity versus doing “my own thing” and trying to figure out what that even means. We embrace our culture and should be proud of who we are, but we are also  WAY more than just that. It is difficult to have that happy balance of both, and I think everyone can relate to that. But it was incredible to hear someone I listened to as a kid tell me my own thoughts out loud in the spotlight. 

I waited in line for his autograph and overheard so many conversations talking about how amazing MC Jin was in his performance and what he said. When it was finally my turn I told him how I am a pianist and I really identified with what he had to say. He thanked me, and kept telling all of us how inspirational we were. After MC Jin autographed my program, I thought about the autograph I myself signed earlier.

No two people have the same signature – there’s no box for it. So why should we even have a box for culture? 

SEE YA BOX, here’s a swan song for you:

You may not know me, but I know you.”

(P.S. MC Jin, if you’re reading, can we collaborate? Seriously.)

 

Memories of Strings

I am bursting internally, externally and all over with excitement right now because my Donors Choose project of starting a Strings Program has just been COMPLETELY funded ($4000+ for 50 violins). I want to share just how much this means to me. 

When I was in 6th grade, I started playing the violin as part of orchestra in middle school. It was my third instrument that I had started, (after piano since forever long ago and flute in elementary school, or fourth if you also counted the recorder). I don’t remember exactly how I learned the violin, and I don’t remember much about our first year teacher. To be quite frank, he was not a good teacher at all.

In 7th grade, we got a new Strings teacher, Ms. J. We didn’t know what to expect, but almost instantly the vibe of our learning had changed. Considering that studying Strings was my “middle school major,” our new teacher had demanded much more of us. We reworked the fundamentals, the technique, our blending, our togetherness as an ensemble. It was the hardest thing to satisfy her, because she had such high expectations. Then I remember sometime towards the end of 7th grade, she told us that we could really be something special, something unique. She told us we have the potential to be really good. I remember all of us brimming with anxiousness at what that meant (except we didn’t really know what it meant). She did warn us though – we had to work really hard to be the best we could be together in 8th grade.

8th Grade came rolling around and we had our struggles. We went through a phase of being below subpar, and I remember getting frustrated that we were not improving at a rate that we could have been. We had a serious talk sometime in the middle of the school year where we had to write if we were willing to recommit ourselves to what we had set out to do – to achieve and be determined to do our best no matter what. 

Fast forward to the end of 8th Grade. I remember stepping onto the stage and waiting for the curtains to open at our last Spring Concert. We were so excited to show our families, friends and teachers what we had accomplished. Finally, the curtains opened and it was our time to shine.

There is something absolutely incredible as having the exact same bow strokes as your peers, as listening so intensely to one another to make sure the sounds you contribute are positioned the way we want them to be, as creating something so calculated but simultaneously instantaneous, and at least for me, to create something which moved me tremendously. In two years of real hard work and effort, we had come so far. And we knew it. And we relished and loved it. (It was icing on the cake that we earned a Gold at Level 4 NYSSMA.)

It was because of Ms. J that I was so insistent on being a part of orchestra in high school – which meant giving up my lunchtime to do it. I, along with most of my friends in orchestra in high school, decided that I wanted to make music with people who wanted to do so as well, and we were (for the most part) okay with not having a full lunch hour socializing. Instead, we spent our time with BachVivaldi… as well as James Bond, Star Wars, and the epic Carmina Burana O Fortuna

I miss it, being part of a strings ensemble, an orchestra. It was one of the most amazing, treasured experiences in my schooling growing up. In fact, it is a huge reason why I am a music teacher today.

Now, my heart is pounding as I tell the world that I am able to give that experience to my students. I want my kids to soak it all in – learning a new instrument, going through the hardships, facing challenges and staying determined, and ultimately, create beautiful music with one another. It’s a long road ahead, and I have a ton of work to do to make sure I am the best teacher possible to my students, but when it all comes together (and I know it will) It is going to be, wait for it, le…GENDARY. (Couldn’t resist.) I am truly thankful for everyone who has helped, and just know that you have made a difference not only in my life but in the lives of countless kids in the years to come. They’re going to have a crazy amount of musical memories. I know it.


 

A week ago, I performed as a volunteer artist for Sing for Hope at the NY Memory Center. As the name suggests, the Memory Center serves patients with memory disorders. Not knowing anything else about my audience of patients, I started playing “Over the Rainbow” and within moments, voices joined in from the audience. By the end, I saw teary-eyed volunteers, and I felt that something amazing had just happened. Somehow, this song had triggered their memory of the lyrics, and it was incredible to be able to make that happen. 

What was so fascinating was hearing and being a part of the elderly patients’ connection to music. Since I work primarily with young kids, this experience was the complete opposite spectrum for me. But it simply verified one truth: we all breathe in and live with music as a part of who we are. 

I’ll end with this quote a donor used in her message for my project:

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. – Plato

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Violin photographed by the Berlin Philharmonic from the inside