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!


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



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.”




(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.)


A Notion’s Drawer of Ideas

On a typical day, I think about 926,836,017,827,523 things. Yesterday, for example, I thought about how I haven’t been practicing and need to get back into it, planning for my next big DonorsChoose project for my kids, what I would be playing for my upcoming gigs at the NY Memory Center and DYNAMICSS, what next video I should edit and upload on my YouTube, how I can get more involved in the Asian American community, what I would write for this blog, how I should plan a recital for my private piano students, starting a newsletter of classical piano tips and events, planning get togethers for my friends I haven’t seen in a while, what haikus I want to write since it’s Poetry Month, my summer plans to perform, becoming more involved in making children’s music with other musicians, what ditty (just recently learned this funky word) I should teach the grown ups at the “Arts Night – All Grown Up” later this week, what lines to work on for diction in the songs for the Spring Arts Festival, how to acquire more donations for my music program, the program of the Keyboard Club performance, what next date to plan with my boyfriend, submitting a song for the OneReasonRecordings album, what kind of breakout group I should lead at NYCAASC, what kind of recital or piano salon I would personally like to give later this Spring/Summer, where I should travel to next, my plans for productivity during Spring Break next week (at long last), what next Yelp reviews to pen, how I feel about the How I Met Your Mother Series Finale… to name a few.

I have to admit – after writing all of that down it is kind of scary how many things are on my mind and how quickly I shuffle through these thoughts. But is it crazy to believe that I am more productive when I have more than a full plate (of things to do, never food)?!  Most people I know talk about how they need “me” time, and quite a bit of it, to get through daily life. But I feel that I don’t need more than just a little me time during the week because I am just so much happier thinking about all these things and striving towards achieving ALL of them. People tell me that I do too much, and that I’m stretching myself too thin. But I’m not. I frankly believe that I am not. I truly feel strongly about ALL the things I think about. Is it a crime to have that many interests and “too many” goals in life?

Perhaps I don’t fit the stereotype of the usual musician who practices eight hours a day with the black monster (whom I love). But I find that the happiest and most creative pianists do not actually practice that long and usually have a multitude of other projects they are pursuing – both related and not related to music. In other words, they LIVE. Fruitfully. Likewise, I want to draw inspiration from everything to feed into the creation of my profession and my music, but most importantly, the continued development of myself.

Here is a spiraling transcript of my streaming thoughts as I visited an incredible exhibit, Doug Wheeler’s “rotational horizontal work” at the David Zwirner Gallery:

I am in infinite space. Where is that glow coming from? How is that I cannot see the ceiling, or the walls, or the ends? Am I standing on the edge of the Earth? Is this what the horizon truly looks like? I feel like I am in a boundless place where time does not matter… Time is completely man-made and this lack thereof is calming, peaceful. There is tranquility in the light. I only hear my footsteps and those of the others inside this space with me. The rests, absence of pitches in sound… what if this is real? The experience, in itself, IS real. (Moments of silence taking the atmosphere in).

No transcendental etude like Liszt’s will be produced, but I now want to compose or improvise drawing inspiration from this artistic experience. Can I? Nothing is stopping me. Maybe all my thoughts are ludicrous and my creative process is, well, out there. Had I not been insistent on going though, I would never have this idea. And I want to keep funneling ideas into my soul, through music, and reflect it back into the world’s soundscapes. Everything experienced has musical potential and merit. want to be the one who realizes that for the audience of listeners.

Is that a good idea? I guess I won’t know until such a project comes to fruition. I also may think it’s a good idea now and won’t think so an hour after I post this entry. Regardless, it is important to me that this idea matters at this moment in time and I am growing from it. We all brainstorm ways to put things together from not following the directions booklet for assembling a bed frame to arranging our thoughts into different compartments in the various parts of our brain without us consciously monitoring that activity. In fact, there can never be too many goals, interests, or IDEAS. It does not matter if we classify them as “good” or not. And we should not fear ideas that may fail in the future nor those which have failed us in the past nor those which did not have an appropriate category to belong to.  And not everything HAS to relate directly to our “ONE” passion; after all, randomness is amazing in itself as we never know what can come of it.  

There is no such thing as doing too much. We are all trying to find that “perfect mixture” of daily activities sprinkled with momentary feats that allow us to feel truly satisfied and fulfilled in our lives. It may work today and it might not work anymore tomorrow, or vice versa, but there should never be any fear or dismay in having too many thoughts. It is only a crime to have a lack of thoughts, a lack of pursuit, a lack of passion. Instead, keep thinking of ideas and IDEA ON.

A week ago, I had the privilege of listening to the composers of “Frozen,” Robert and Kristen Anderson Lopez, talk about the movie, their creative process, and their history together as a couple and as artists. Robert Lopez said that for each new project, the two of them come up with a “notion’s drawer of ideas,” and then figure out which combination of ideas works well together.

Ideas in Images

“Ideas in Images” by Paulo Zerbato

I’ll end with my first haiku in a long time inspired by this cloudy Monday:

Earl grey tea, gray skies
Find the right combination
Stir and let’s begin.