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.)

 

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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