Thursday, September 7, 2017

Here is a perennial debate in the classical music world: Is it possible for one to go on to become a professional concert pianist without having started at a tender young age? After all, most of the greats began lessons when they were just three or four years old, and often had an orchestral debut by the time they were eleven or twelve, as well as competing in many young pianist competitions (for instance the Stravinsky Awards or Junior Van Cliburn). This, perhaps, is why so many parents give their children piano lessons, even if they themselves are not musically talented—one may find that their child is a prodigy! These prodigies famous the world over, both as young pianists and adults who have gone on to become masters. They started young, and kept going hard all the way through their childhood and into college.
            But is it even possible for one follow a similar route without dedicating early childhood to hours upon hours of practicing? Without the reservation of a large part of every day for all those technical exercises to sharpen the fingers? All that time spent learning how turn individual notes into actual music takes years of training and development of the emotions and instinct. Is there even enough time for someone to follow this same path that can lead to international success and acclaim?
            I was a late bloomer, musically. Like many other kids, my mom insisted that I have piano lessons when I was young, along with my brother and sister. I learned the basics of music—how to read, how to make sense of the piano. But nothing more. For unrelated reasons, we stopped after just under a year, and when we found a different teacher, I had no desire to get back into music. I was eleven, and I insisted over and over again that I wasn’t musical. Add that to the fact that the piano teacher and I did not get along very well, and I quit. Again. Not a very promising beginning, as far as music goes. I was far more interested in other things like trains, World War II history, tornadoes, and writing fiction.
            My mom tried again. Herself a remarkable musician, she found one more piano teacher for us to try. “Take lessons for one year. If you still don’t like it, we can stop.” So I agreed to it.
            Turns out all that previous experience gave me a big boost as far as music goes. I started going through the OMTA syllabus, learning everything from theory to scales to classical repertoire. I didn’t quit after one year—piano had become a part of my life. But at this time, I still didn’t care enough for it to consider it as a possible career. At fourteen, most serious piano students are already making up their mind to study music and college—and, having played for ten years, are performing concert-grade repertoire on a frequent basis. As for me, I was still playing student work.
            Two things happened right around this time: First, my emotional, romantic side finally woke up. Second, I learned the Moonlight sonata. And then a lightbulb turned on in my mind, an epiphany: This is what is behind all music: it’s not so much about the intellectualness of it (although that does have a place), but all kinds of life experiences, thoughts, desires, hatreds, and loves have a place. Realizing that I could relate to this music, I began listening to classical music obsessively—before, I’d been acquainted with it, and in fact listened to it whenever I did my schoolwork. But now I started listening, really listening. An intellectual as well as a musician, I began to understand the complex theory behind all these pieces—melody, counterpoint, harmonic progression, structure. I even began to compose my own work, a pursuit that has become a larger and larger part of my life over the past three years.
            For the first time, I began to think that music might become a career for me, alongside writing. I upped my practice time from half an hour a day, to an hour a day, to an hour and a half, to two hours, to now somewhere between two and three hours a day—basically as much as I can get. I began to look at each song not as work, but as a joy—a discovery into seeing what each piece held in store for me. The likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Schubert held so much in store for me emotionally than they had earlier. And my point of all this is: I would not have appreciated music the way I do now when I was younger. So then, is it really practical or necessary to start at a very young age?
            Perhaps not. But as I am not yet a successful pianist, I can’t really say from my own experience that starting five or six years later than traditional pianists do is necessary or not necessary, can I? I need to present some other examples of pianists and even famous composers who did not bloom until they were in their teens or even later.
            Perhaps the most famous example is Sergei Rachmaninoff. As a boy, he was recognized as having talent as a composer and piano-player, but try as they might, his family could not get him to focus on his studies, especially when he was a young teenager. They wanted him to go the way of Franz Liszt and Anton Rubenstein, but Sergei, for the time being, seemed to have other ideas. As a musician, despite having been greatly encouraged in music from his early childhood, he did not become serious until he was about eleven—the same time that I was just starting to appreciate music. Fun fact, he didn’t even become a concert pianist until he was in his 40s—up to that time, he spent most of his time writing and performing his own work; it wasn’t until he immigrated to America and needed a way to support his family did he learn a substantial amount of concert repertoire by other composers.
            But Rachmaninoff aside, there are many other pianists living now who did not start as toddlers. One well-known example is Murray Perahia. He started lessons when he was just four years old … but, in similar fashion to my story, he did not appreciate music at all. At least, not until he was fifteen, at which time he began practicing seriously. He went on to have a career as one of the greatest concert pianists of the age—and one whom I have been fortunate enough to hear in concert as well (Wikipedia).
            And past that, there are others who started even later—Albert Frantz, a Pennsylvanian pianist, did not begin until he was 17. Not only that, but he been told years before that he had absolutely no musical talent and that music lessons were a waste of money. However, he was able to overcome all these things and go on to win a scholarship to study in Vienna. Now he performs regularly, and has recorded two CDs—one of by a notoriously difficult composer, Charles-Valentin Alkan (a contemporary of Chopin), and Liszt’s complete Transcendental Etudes, perhaps the most difficult group of piano pieces in the world. (Daily Drema).
            Altogether, then, is it really possible for one to start young? Superstar Asian pianists Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and Yundi Li all began lessons at something like two, and came to the West to study in conservatories. Martha Argerich, Arthur Rubenstein, Vladimir Howorwitz, the great artists of a time long gone ... they all started very young. Most pianists do. But perhaps, though I did not, I could forge ahead anyway?
I go to festivals and scholarship auditions, bringing works that I have worked on for months—difficult, concert-level, but nowhere near the top. I sit down to warm up … and then up comes one of these young starters. He starts practicing his own pieces, all of which hugely outclass mine: Debussy’s Images I to my little Prelude La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin; Beethoven’s massive Waldstein sonata to my moderate Mozart, Chopin’s famously virtuosic Etude “Winter Wind” to my Nocturne in C minor—and all of them were masterfully well done, too. It messed me up so much that my following performance was completely ruined by nerves. I felt like the kid who’s no more than a wannabe and isn’t really serious, surrounded by kids who are all probably going to win the Van Cliburn at age 18. It really does feel like a disadvantage.
But I realized something: Like I said earlier, had I started at a younger age, I may have lost interest in music. But now, I think it will stay with me for the rest of my life—I have learned to love and interpret it—and in the process, I think I’ve made more progress in less time than many of those kids who started very, very young. Only time will tell if it will stick … but it did for Murray Perahia … so maybe it will for me too!
In the end, then, I do not think the disadvantages of starting very young are lasting, but I do think the advantages of becoming serious later (as a teenager, or even later) are more long lasting. Not everyone can become a superstar, but that’s not music what’s about—music is about artistry and expressing emotion through sound. Maturity as a musician is directly tied to maturity as a person, and I believe this is the single greatest advantage to starting later, the one that outweighs the disadvantages and cultural resistance.

WELL, this summer has been really crazy.

I don't even know where to begin. So many things about my life have come crashing down since my last post, especially relating to my family's church. Immediately after my last post, I was majorly burnt out, and disappointed that so much of my hard work had fizzled. I went into the month of June not even knowing what to do with myself. Personal matters involving my youth group convinced me that I needed a break from it, a long one. So I started asking my friend William about his youth group.

Turned out, it had just ended. Bummer. But there was a summer retreat coming up at the end of June, and I still had time to sign up for it. So I did. To date, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I met so many wonderful people that week. It was like stepping between a foggy night in a dense forest and a bright, crispy blue desert day where I could see for miles. Suddenly, I had a new perspective on life. Coming back from retreat, I was pumped up for what the summer would bring.

It lasted two days. Then, the next Sunday afternoon, everything dissolved. For the sake of the people involved, I'm not going to go into the details of what happened, but our whole family (and especially my mom) were hurt deeply by it. That day, I decided I couldn't go back to that church--so I started going to my friends' church instead, Southwest Hills Baptist Church. Over the course of the summer, my brother Ryan started coming as well; then my dad and sister; and finally my mom.

Now, I do NOT want to in any way hurt my old church. During the times when I was hurting and angry, I have said different things about the situation. But I want to be clear in this: There are people there that we love, and have had to say goodbye to--and it has been hard. Also, I am thinking that God is using this situation to call us to a different place--it might be Southwest Hills, it might ultimately be somewhere else. We don't know yet.

But for whatever reason, God wanted us out of the way, perhaps so that he could work and redeem the whole situation. My family has not stopped praying for my old church, that God would convict the people involved, and that they might repent--and that my old church might flourish and be beautiful as it once was. For everyone who reads this, I ask that you pray too--that God's grace flows through it, and redeems everything that happened.

I look forward to the adventure God sends us.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hello readers.

It's been far too long since my last post. Life was busy, and has been getting busier--up until this very morning. I've been very busy harvesting the fruits of the projects I've been working on. This week, I had a Spanish final, two AP tests (English Language and Composition, and World History), a Piano Festival, and then finally this morning an audition for a piano scholarship. I may not have distinguished myself greatly, but nevertheless it was a great experience, if tiring.

This morning's audition was very challenging for me. I played three very difficult pieces, though they were still on the low end of the difficulty spectrum of my peer's repertoire. There was some good and some not-so-good, and I was incredibly fortunate to be adjudicated by two amazing and very honest internationally-recognized professionals. They had plenty to say about all my pieces, mostly criticism but a few very encouraging bright spots. It was really hard to read and take, especially as most of the things they talked about I had already tried to integrate into my pieces, but nerves had erased.

I did think, though: If life really was "everyone's a winner," then there'd be no reason to grow and become better. We learn from our weaknesses and criticisms, painful though they be. We recognize the best, and aspire to be like them--but at the same time, we also need to remember that they, too, are not yet perfect. Even masters can have places they need to grow--Chopin was terrified of large crowds all his life.

At the same time, if we are always being criticized, it will almost always become detrimental. Lifting weights is good, but doing too much will cause injury. That's why we should be careful how and when we open ourselves to criticism, and to what kind. Do we really want to work for months to go to a competition that has a hundred contestants, but only gives vague, general comments? In my mind, these kinds of competitions are worthless for all but the very, very highest--for people who have crossed the threshold into the "80-20 rule", where growth comes ever slower--there's less to learn, and eventually one even starts pioneering and breaking new ground. Subtlety becomes the order of the day. But while 100 percent is not possible for anyone, some do get to the 99.9 percent range--and that last .01 percent keep subdividing into .001 and .0001.

This is where I want to be with my music. It may take another 5 years, it may take 25 years, it may take 55 years. But this is what I aspire to grow into. And only by doing the exercise, taking the criticism, lifting those weights, and finding joy in every step of the journey will that happen.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Post No. 9.

This one is an analysis of my originally-composed piano concerto. I'm going to publish this post in conjunction with the one about my novel. Like A Killer's Storm, the piano concerto has been a very long process. And, like my novel, it's had its moments of despair and triumph.

The work began as a three-movement concerto, last January. Over the spring and summer I wrote more movements--a scherzo movement, a funeral march to replace the original middle movement, and completely-rewritten first and third movements. But ultimately I was dissatisfied with all of them. They all seemed fake, like aimless film music. I tried to redevelop it into the style of Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2--which meant bringing it down into one long movement and piecing in material from the old movements.

I thought I had something good here--so I sent it off to the YoungArts scholarship competition in hopes of winning a couple thousand dollars. I had high hopes, and I even think there was something about my application to YoungArts in my first blog post ...

But I didn't even make it into the finals.

Maybe I thought too highly of my own talents. It was kind of a shock.

The truth is, I think still have a ways to go as a musician and composer. I've been writing music for about fourteen months, and I've learned so much along the way. But it takes more time than that to achieve mastery of the art of composition and hope to actually compete with the other musicians.

Now I've come back to the concerto--in some ways, it feels connected to my novel. Now, let's be clear--this song is not a musical realization of A Killer's Storm. But it does have chapters or sections that reflect the classic action-adventure story plot.

Each section (or chapter) is labeled with an Italian expression marking that reflects the content of the music and describes how I want it to be played. The structure goes something like this:

1) Largo Maestoso Appassionato, which is Italian for "slow, majestic and passionate." The opening bars are kind of like a dark battle. As Ryan would say, an "orc-war march."

2) Allegretto, which means "at a brisk tempo, but slower than allegro." This is the first ray of hope in the dark opening--this is the scene when the hero first steps up to challenge the evil villain.

3) Adagio Cantabile translates to "moderately slow and singing." In a movie, this would be a tender relationship scene, during which we get to know the hero's friends, allies, and 'love interest.' Just as this is the time when a story will more deeply develop the character, I develop the opening motifs into a theme that has been apart of this concerto since the day I first conceived it.

4) Tempo I/Quasi Marziale means "return to the opening tempo, like martial." The hero has made his big decision to go face the villain, and marches out to meet him head-on. The pace and tension rise as the chapter progresses. This section further condenses the love theme, then expands it again, building it up into the core motif of the entire piece--all the while, the piano is thundering continuous octaves in both hands.

5) Allegro e molto con fuoco means "Lively, and with much fire." The battle is driving full-force. Like an action movie, the music rushes from one theme to another, as though in a car chase. The scene builds into a thunderous cadenza for the pianist--albeit quite a long and difficult one. Even I would have trouble playing it if I were to learn it, which I don't have the skills or time to do at this point.

6) Meno Allegro. This means "less lively." This section is actually directly from the revision of my first movement, though at a slightly slower tempo than written initially. Again, this equates a relationship and character-driven scene, a retreat from the conflict into a safer place to rest and regroup. In tactical terms, this is a victory for the villain, and the hero has lost an ally and dear friend. He wonders if it's even worth fighting any more. As I once heard at an OCW writer's conference, it's the 'dark night of the soul.'

7) Adagio Resoluto means "moderately slow and resolute." The hero doesn't give up--he can't. Not when so much depends on him. So he calls his scattered allies back and forms a plan for one final attack.

8) Tempo de con Fuoco is "at a speed that's with fire." But this is not a return to the con fuoco theme, but instead a sped-up rehashing of the very first theme. The villain is enjoying his spoils, and believes that he has won. But then he sees that the hero was not defeated as hoped, and is now coming out of his hole to defeat him once and for all. Enraged, he sends everything he has against the hero's small resistance. But the hero is clever, and he gains the upper hand in the battle--hence the tonal shift from C minor to E-flat major. And then the hero and the villain are fighting hand-to-hand in a precarious position. Stakes are high--the winner of this fight will swiftly win the battle. And then the hero strikes down his enemy and the war is won. He and his friends celebrate and step in to fill the role that the villain had before, only now with justice and solid leadership.

Thank you for reading. Now you should go listen to my concerto--the link to YouTube is 

Thanks for praying, everyone! Then, now, and every day in the future. And I'll make sure to do the same for you.

Post No. 8.

Prayer works.

I'm living proof of it.

Over the past two-plus years, I've been working on my novel--tentatively titled "A Killer's Storm"--it's about a teenage-storm chaser named Mick Riddle, who has a history with a drug dealer named Harry Marquam--the man killed his father, and in retaliation Mick had busted him and stolen boxes containing secret information. Now, almost a year later, Harry wants to escape his dealings with a worldwide crime ring, but they do not wish the same for him. Upon forced interrogation, they learn of Mick's theft. So, using a newly-developed hallucination-inducing drug, they brainwash Harry into helping their chief assassin to track down Mick and retrieve the critical data.

This novel has been through so many revisions and drafts that I've lost count. And sometime last spring, I got discouraged with it and put it away. I gave it to so many people, and only two have gotten all the way through it--my brother Ryan and one or two writer friends. Now, people are busy, I know that much. But when a year passes, I began to get the feeling my novel just didn't have the guts or merit to compete with everything else people do in their lives.

So I gave it up, and started writing poetry over the summer. And all through the fall, I thought about it occasionally--and never could get back into it. It was just a big, ugly mess--the characters didn't interact the way I wanted them too, I rambled on for pages and pages of storm-chasing narrative without moving the rest of the plot forward, the motives and logic behind a lot of the plot twists wasn't very strong.

But, unknown to me through all those months, the story was churning inside the deep recesses of my brain, curing, aging, growing riper and stronger. My wonderful mother encouraged my poetry side more and more, and assigned me her old college books on style and voice for school. Then, over Christmas, she asked me to give her the latest edition of my novel to read. I thought about refusing. After all, I hadn't touched it in months.

Then she sent out her Christmas cards, along with a letter. Talking about me and my writing. And I swear people started praying.

In the space of a week and a half, all the simmering that had been going on my head burst out into some fifty- thousand words of rewritten material. And now I think I might actually be able to make the story work. If anyone reading this is interested in being a beta reader, reading the whole thing, and giving me feedback, please let me know in the comments or by email.

And thank you, everyone who's been praying! I'll be sure to do the same for you!

"Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven."--Matthew 18:19