The hard days

Thursday was one of those hard days at work. You know what I mean – those days that you’re just trying to get through for the sake of getting through. I just wasn’t feeling in the mood to teach or be particularly energetic about what I was doing. And it wasn’t the snow, because I love snow. Really!

Anyway it was late already but I was still teaching a private lesson. In the middle of this lesson, my 11-year-old student had encountered octave chords for the first time and kept complaining about how much his hand hurt. Now FYI, I have grown up with tiny hands and was only able to reach an octave for the first time when I was 16 (yes you read that right). So you could only imagine how dismayed I was at him for giving up so easily when I KNEW he could do it. And for the next 30 minutes my ears heard nonstop complaints of “I can’t” and “it hurts.”

But I could not just move on. I would not. Here was a boy who could play octaves, but just believed that he couldn’t. I tried everything I could: talked about how he should not give up, how I want him to trust me and that I would never ask him to do something that would physically hurt him, how I was super jealous of anyone who could play octaves as a kid because I physically couldn’t, how I’m only tough on the students I really care about and I expect only the best, how he CAN do it and not to give up, and so much more. In all this talk though he actually played all the octaves probably close to 50 times. But he didn’t realize this, and instead I kept pushing for him to do it again. I told him I would not give up on him, that I absolutely refused to.

When he finally did play the octaves without stopping in between, I gave him a little praise. But only a little. “I’m proud of you for not giving up and I’m glad you are trusting me. And I’m not saying that this will be easy next time or the time after that, but it will get better over time.” And I think it finally got to him. I hope so.

Moments like these are huge for me. I can’t promise to be excited for what I do all the time (although I must say I usually am pretty excited), but if in my time with children I can show them and have them understand the unlimited potential of willpower, then not only am I am lucky to be the person who gets to do that, but I also feel a deep responsibility to do this to the fullest. If I can do that for even just one child of the hundreds I see each day, then all the hard days are worth the grunt and sweat.

Can I do it for more than one kid? How about for myself? Now the real challenge begins.

(For my classical music enthusiasts and fellow musicians, the piece tackled was Leopold Mozart’s “Minuet in F”)

On a new year

Throughout the holidays, new year’s celebrations and through my birthday three days ago, I’ve reflected a lot on who I have been, what I’ve accomplished thus far and the unknown of what’s to come. While I’m someone who can get trapped or lost in my thoughts for hours on end, I really do believe that taking the time to think about yourself is important for self growth.

With that said, here are some New Year’s/Birthday Resolutions I have for this year:

Be more fearless. I have some pretty irrational fears (heights, roller coasters, and any sort of thrill really) that I feel only developed as I got older and just more “scared” of things I don’t have control over. But why should I be? That’s not to say that I am suddenly going to want to ride Kingda Ka (though for the record I did ride it once), but to be more open to adventure. I recently took my first aerial yoga class where my instructor ended by asking all of us to reflect on how we felt when we were trying some of the new things today, and if that feeling we had is how we want to navigate the world. I won’t be absolutely fearless right now, but I’ll be more fearless than before.

Commit to calmness. In our busy lifestyles, we really do need to set aside time for calm and inwards soul-searching. For some people that may be daily reflection (I know I can think endlessly), and for others it may just be at the end of each month. Regardless, I believe that it is essential to set aside time specifically for purposeful reflection and calming ourselves down with deep breaths. It sounds simple – so we should simply do it!

Have serious fun. I’m stealing this one from a workshop I attended, where I had fun engaging with the material but also knew that it was serious work. I try to embed this into my teaching in my students, but I also need to remind myself this as well. Life is hard… but it is also FUN! The pursuit of my passion shouldn’t always be so serious and uptight, but a fun and enjoyable journey as well. I want to celebrate more of the little wins, in both my teaching and my playing, and in all the other things I want to do as well. I will have serious fun!

Be youthful. I’m not sure why people my age are always saying “I’m getting old” and whining about it. Being in our mid-twenties is such an exciting time! We are no longer bound by college; we are working and earning money or continuing to pursue or studies (or both), and we are able to explore the world. While we have the responsibilities of bills as all adults do, we are still such YOUNG adults with so much uncharted territory – for us to waste or to make the most of. We are the present and the future, and we need to step out of the routine and climb that mountain as fast as we can. The kid in me is still here – time to bring her out to play!

Treasure loved ones. Last but not least. It goes without saying you think, but I really need to appreciate everyone more than I do right now. A few years ago I experienced a moment where I felt like I was on the top of the world, but the people I wished were there to share that with me were not. If I ever experience such a moment again, I want to be surrounded by the people I love – but that requires me to first give so much more. I give a lot to my students everyday, but I need to give my love to my friends and family even more. And that’s not to say I want to give to get, but I want to give – to give only. Teaching has made me understand humility at a level I would have never otherwise, and in being humble and giving I hope that I can help the loved ones in my life understand how much they mean to me. Always.

Fearlessness. Calmness. Serious Fun. Youth. Love.

NOW.

Recalibrate and Reset

Last week I started my second year of official full-time teaching. After a fun and restful summer, I was excited to get back into the swing of things and especially to see my returning students as well as meet 160+ new students I would be teaching this year.

I started off teaching this song called “Unlimited,” an absolutely fantastic back to school song. The first verse goes like this:

First day back
Here we go, here we go
I’ve got this new backpack
And this little part of me that wants to know
What am I gonna be?
What am I gonna do?
And will I fit inside this puzzle I’m about to walk into?
Am I gonna be alright?
Can I take a deep breath instead of only listening to the hundred million questions in my head?
First day back
Here we go… here we go…

Aside from literally talking about the first day back (to school, specifically), I thought about how appropriate it is for the month of September for everyone. When the hazy summer days start to drift away and instead comes the crisp autumn air and cool breezes, I feel like I, and many others I know, reset. It’s also an anxious time of starting anew with school, work, family – as marked by the changing season and environment.

With only four months left in the year it’s a great time to recalibrate one’s priorities and reconsider our usage of time. We often complain that we do not have enough time to do all that we want, but let’s take a moment to figure out how we can make time for everything we want to do. (Let’s not forget that time is human-made, malleable and only a marker of the day.) It’s a time to put a halt to all doubts getting in the way of success. It’s a season of “let’s do this” and committing to whatever “this” is. It’s a final push to accomplish anything that will satisfy the questions “Did I do my best this year?” and “Did I make the most of everything on my pathway to achieve?” It’s a chance to concentrate that inner drive and channel it into all that you do for yourself and for others, without any limitations. I taught my kids that being unlimited means that you can do ANYTHING.


I’m reaching up through the top of the sky today
I’m changing things till I finally find my place
Wanna go and get it
I’m gonna be unlimited
Turn up the sun let me see what it’s all about
Light up the stas till they dream away all the doubt
We’re just beginning
I’m gonna be unlimited

My kids will, too. Will you?

Magical

This past week I was finally able to vacation off to Orlando to end the summer. Why Orlando? I simply have been dying to go to Disneyworld since I was a kid, Seaworld to meet the dolphins, and, most recently, … Continue reading

Self-fulfillment

Today marks the last day of my “summer vacation” as I head back to work tomorrow for professional development before embarking on my 2nd year of teaching. As I’m reflecting on my summer, I am reminded by my own advice that I gave last night.

Humility
Teaching a full school year has given me a whole new understanding of humility. I am so lucky to have grown up without ever having to worry about food, shelter and love. My parents have worked so hard to make that all of those realities for my brother and I, and for those things alone I have the utmost gratitude for them.

Experiencing education in a high-need, low income school really put things into perspective for me. Some of my students would only be able to eat a guaranteed meal during breakfast and lunch in the school cafeteria. Other kids went home to shelters and never brought backpacks to school because they couldn’t afford them.

Finally, most of my students had never seen an instrument in real life before. I realize this is the case for a lot of kids, high-need or not, especially in elementary school. But people I meet often ask me what it is that drives me to host fundraisers and keep getting more and more instruments for my kids. Knowing that I am the first “real” music teacher they have in life is a blessing that holds a lot of responsibility. Those of you readers who know me definitely can attest to my seriousness to my craft of music-making. But what’s even crazier for me to think and realize is the fact that through me, my students will get their first exposures to instruments. It is through me that they know the sound of the piano, violin, trumpet to name a few instruments. I can’t even describe how humbling the experience of being able to share the moment when they first see and hear an instrument and that sparkle in their eyes as well as their excitement in their voices genuinely is, when each of them are anxious to touch what had just produced the magical sound! I would venture to say that, alongside most of my peers, I don’t even remember what it is like to NOT know what an instrument looks or sounds like! This leads me to…

Greed
I am greedy. I am greedy for nothing less than the best. For. Real. Just as greedy as my students are to produce a beautiful sound once they have figured out the basics of something seemingly simple like playing the recorder, as I am to provide those resources for my kids to be able to explore music to the fullest extent possible.

But let me sidestep from my teaching for a moment. More than any summer before, I have realized how greedy and hungry I am for self-fulfillment. I want SO bad to be musically happy – and for me, that means expressing myself through different ways that push creativity in new directions. I am more thankful than ever before for being able to teach at a summer music camp where I am surrounded by young aspiring musicians looking up to me, KNOWING that they want to be musicians for their entire lives. These wonderful teenage musicians were such serious practitioners of their music that they only made me want to do more.

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on proposals for many creative projects involving stepping over the boundaries of music to more cross-art collaborations with myself and with others. It’s exciting for me to start embarking on this new journey I have somewhat paved for myself, because for the first time in what seems like a while I feel an incredible creative energy burst that is dying to erupt onto some sort of a stage for an audience.

But my greed for accomplishment, and accomplishment in my own eyes, cannot be possible without…

Gratefulness
Aside from being grateful for my family, I am so very grateful to be surrounded by loving, caring role models of society. I whole-heartedly mean that. My teacher colleagues and specifically my music educator peers are all doing incredible things for the kids – selflessly. Teaching is not a profession of praise but just thinking about what we each do to make sure the next generation can access what they need to in order to be successful is straight up mind-boggling and out of this world.

I can never say thank you quite enough to my friends, but am pleasantly shocked and reminded by them when I look out to the audience during a performance. Your thumbs up and praise of what I do is plentiful and abundant, and perhaps even excessive, but I hope that I can at least inspire you to be moved by my mission to make a difference. I’d also like you all to know how inspiring it is to be surrounded by such driven friends who speak passionately about their careers, or for those who are in limbo at the moment, are carefully constructing maps to success. I am grateful for all of you sharing your time and thoughts with me.

 

I’m often asked how I juggle everything I do in my life, or reprimanded to take a break for once. Don’t worry, my body often tells me I’m doing just a bit too much when I get sick (which is way too often than I’d like to admit). But I just think to myself about what I am to this world.

I am one of over 7 billion people on this Earth, a pretty small part of the population trying to make their way through the daily trenches of life. But I firmly believe that I am meant to do great things. My piano teacher once told me that I have to believe that my music is important – that amongst all the music there is out their in the world, what I create is important.

Not only is what I create important though. I am important. I think we all are meant to achieve incredible things, and I certainly believe hard work can get you, me, or anyone there. Whatever these “incredible things” may be, they change throughout our lives. But to me, what’s important is making sure that you are making a commitment to self-fulfillment. Personally, that involves practicing humility, greed and gratefulness.

Cheers to making sure that you, whoever you are, are also on your path to self-fulfillment and, ultimately, GREATNESS. I don’t settle for any less. Neither should you.

Potential Energy

Listen to “anteMeridiem,” my latest release of the Experimentalice Series representing a stream of consciousness in the A.M. hours, as you read “Potential Energy.”

Do you ever feel that you are bursting with potential? That you have so much within you that has yet to be uncovered or put to good use as far as ideas, intentions and projects go?

That’s how I feel right now. And I mean this in the humblest of ways because I don’t think I am by any means an incredible person. I always just tell people I have a lot to do, and I intend to do it, whatever “it” may be at the time or in the context. But I just have so many ideas at this moment in time, and I want to accomplish them all. Not because I want fame or recognition, but because I feel it is the best way to be who I want to be. The best way to put myself forward in the way I want to in order to change the world. 

You may think that is quite a bold endeavor. I completely agree. It is. But I’ve finally had some time to myself to debrief on my life and what it is I currently spend my time on. While I think I do this more often than not, I feel like I’ve reached a new sense of clarity; it’s refreshing to say the least. I’m not particularly sure how to explain it, but I feel that I have all this creativity waiting to be cultivated, defined and precisely carved now. At the same time, I have to remember it is okay – COMPLETELY okay – to take a mental breather once in a while, or even scheduled into my life. I am obsessed with being kinetic, but only through moments of slow and careful consideration do I find myself facing still waters and looking intently at the reflections within my mind and body. Deep in those reflections I find that potential energy, waiting for me to do something about it.

My latest discoveries? I want so badly to change the world for the better through creation and education. I want my footprints not to be my own but for children of future generations to walk in as well as my peers to step into in order to understand who I am and who they are. I want to make things that people can relate to yet be physically, mentally and emotionally intrigued by and challenged by. I want to be the very best at being me I can be.

Like many others around the world, tonight I mourn the loss of Robin Williams, a creative soul who put his energy and care into all the different projects he embarked on and shared with us. To me, each portrayal of himself was raw, honest and refined simultaneously – a true depiction of the trials and tribulations of the human soul. Since finding out about his death, I have been watching interviews, standup segments, his Oscar award acceptance, and even his Sesame Street gigs.

With this recent renewal of mine to keep on working creatively, I look to him for inspiration and willpower and remember to keep at it – whatever it is that I am doing. The pursuit of the arts is something I will continue in perpetuity through all the changes in life I have. Similarly, I learn that the mistakes we make are to be embraced and not shunned, and to continue on with life understanding what they may mean for us. Or maybe even not to take them to seriously. But everything we experience builds who we are and adds to each new experience we find ourselves in.

I want to end with two quotes of his I will live by and I hope you can live by:

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You musn’t lose it.”

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

– Robin Williams

Jolt

(For an immersive experience, listen to Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto, 2nd movement played by Shostakovich himself while reading) A few months ago I found out that my first piano teacher, who is over 90 years old, was losing her memory. … Continue reading

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!

Image

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

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.”

 

Image

 

(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.)