Today’s post is a continuation of my series delving into the purpose and benefits of studying at a music conservatoire. My guest writer is pianist and composer Evelyn Chang.
Evelyn, who was born in Taiwan and is now based in Hong-Kong, charts her musical journey from her home country to the UK, where she studied at The Purcell School of Music and the Royal College of Music in London. Over to Evelyn…
Becoming a mother was a life changing moment; it challenged every sense of ‘normality’ and put me on a constant tug of war between parental duties and my piano practice. No matter which won, the taste of guilt stayed. Slowly I began to learn to adapt and to enjoy the bittersweet feeling that comes with this journey. Many times I was able to revisit my childhood, as well as finding new areas of potential and learning whilst playing with my boys. Music is a big part of our daily life, together with story-telling, role play, drama – both real and imagined. These joyful moments made me realize how lucky and blessed I am. They inspired me to want to write music, to capture the memories we have together. As a result I published my first work, Fantasies for Children; twenty miniatures for piano solo based on animal themes, dedicated to my two sons.
Sometimes, in interviews, I am asked questions like ‘what is your compositional style? How were you trained as a composer? Which composers influenced you?’. They are obvious questions that I don’t have definite answers to because I did not go through the formal training of a composer in the traditional way. Then I thought of what Steve Jobs said in his famous commencement speech, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Looking back reminded me that I have so much to appreciate and to be thankful for.
There was already a piano in the house when I was born. It was a little upright that my mum inherited from her family. Though both my parents loved music, they weren’t able to have music lessons when they were young, because circumstances did not allow. Later they met each other in their university’s music club, where, with other musicians, they formed a string quartet. I don’t know how they managed that without learning the instruments properly! My dad discovered a very broken violin in some warehouse and fixed it with tape, nails, or whatever he could find. For them it was pure joy to finally be able to experience music making with other students. Naturally when I came along, they wished for me what they did not have. I always loved singing and mimicking other voices and music I heard on TV. It was not difficult for me to repeat the tunes on the piano with my index fingers, so I began taking piano lessons at the age of three and a half. At the weekends, there were often ‘shows’ after dinner when relatives visited. I would sing, my cousin would play the tambourine and my little sister would ‘play’ on whatever piece of furniture made a sound, whilst my dad played the ‘cello. Yet, I don’t even remember why there was a ‘cello in the house! Or why he could play it. This was my first experience with chamber music and improvisation. My piano teacher was, at the time, a graduate student. She discovered my interest and ease with music and recommended that my parents find a ‘better’ teacher for me. Years later I joined a children’s music school in Taipei – Kuang Jen Catholic Elementary Music School.
In Kuang Jen music school, each child had to take up one main instrument and one secondary. The choice of a second instrument was limited to a certain number, so it could be beneficial to learn orchestral arrangements. We had a very comprehensive programme with compulsory classes in aural and theory which were competitively grouped into different levels. There was a choir, both western and Chinese orchestras, ballet (which was instead of sports for all musicians), annual chamber music and solo concerts, exams, and, most excitingly, our year was very lucky to be involved in one of the first Taiwanese Children’s Operas – entitled Monkey King. It was a production involving orchestra, choir, solo singers, ballet dancers, and students were selected from different years; it was the first time for a young child to be exposed to the making of a large-scale performance production. To my surprise I was picked to be one of the main characters singing in a female chorus as one of the story’s villain – Spirited Spiders. From segmental to general rehearsals, costume making to stage setting, props, coordinating between different types of art, backstage rundowns, how to be a small piece of a big puzzle, how to work with others…etc. Most kids were between the ages of 8 -11. The majority of the time we were just goofing around under teachers’ guidance and enjoying having a legitimate excuse to escape academic classes for the rehearsals, however, the impressions were strongly imprinted in our minds, even to this day. There was a lot of hard work involved, but mostly we were too young to see it as hard work; to our minds these were novelty and fun activities with schoolmates. The numerous repetitions did not matter because we were doing them together. The outcome of the wonderful performances left a great memory that is still often brought up in conversations at gatherings. In this school I was able to experience music as a solo pianist, chamber musician with both piano and viola, as an orchestral player, as part of choir and as a semi solo singer in an opera. One of my favourite moments was time spent with friends in practice rooms when teachers weren’t looking; instead of diligently concentrating on our own practice, we would muck around with the instruments and make up things, be it tuneful music or experimental but mainly invent something funny or theatrical for a good laugh.
My piano teacher at the time was Mary Kwok Chiu-Tze. She grew up in Shanghai when it was still the French Concession. She was trained there by English and other foreign pianists. Ms. Kwok sat me down one day and told me that if I wanted to play well, I must immerse myself in Western culture where classical music came from, to live and feel the culture in order to understand the music further. Very soon I left Taiwan for The Purcell School of Music in London. As an introvert with an extremely shy character, this was a huge leap forward for me at the age of thirteen. I also did not speak English at the time. This was the first time I experienced the saying that music is a universal language.
For the first year I really felt the only time I could speak the same language as others was when I played. It was also an eye-opening time for me to be exposed to music training on a much higher level, spiritually especially. To say the least, we were privileged to receive masterclasses from world renowned artists and numerous opportunities to perform both in the UK and abroad, and to be inspired by a high standard of playing from my peers along with that of international performers. What I came to realize today, is the seed of love for music writing was planted during the years at Purcell School and much of it I owe it to the three musketeers; Alison Cox, Simon Brown and Edward Longstaff. They were the pillars of our music academic studies with diverse teaching styles. Ms. Cox was my first music teacher in school. She had great patience and a gentle approach, especially for a very timid newcomer like me. I was given a lot of time and space to work at my own pace. She always encouraged us to try things out, to be openminded to all kinds of music. In her class, I got to experience different styles of folk music, Gamelan music, African music, experimental music etc. She taught me how to listen and appreciate new sounds. She always listened with appreciation and was able to describe interesting findings with beautiful words. I wrote a string quartet in her class and had it played by my very talented classmates. That was an awesome and encouraging experience.
Mr. Brown was intimidating at first because he was a walking encyclopedia in both music and mathematics. I often felt so inadequate in front of him and at the same time so honoured to be in his class. Our training was very varied, from aural training of a 16 bar dictation from memory to musical analysis of symphonic and choral works. He would, at times, take over choir practice and was so meticulous with tuning and harmonic intentions. His high standards really provided clear guidelines as to what and how one listens and discovers music. Mr. Longstaff was a lot of fun. He was a young teacher. His playful style of teaching made students open up to him easily. Aside from classical music we had good times discussing and enjoying pop music like Oasis and Guns and Roses etc. He was always up for impromptu ‘jammings’ with students. I was lucky to have had some one-on-one composition lessons with him. Though it was short lived because I was not mature enough to take it more seriously and, often, I had not had enough time to pursue writing aside from school work and instrumental practice, he gave me a lot of freedom to practice forming ideas and initiating my own musical expressions. He was very encouraging and taught me to appreciate originality.
After six years at The Purcell School of Music, I joined the Royal College of Music with reason no other than taking piano lessons from the late professor Irina Zaritskaya who became internationally known after winning the second prize at the International Chopin Competitions in Warsaw, the year Maurizio Pollini won the first prize. She was also awarded the special prize for the best Mazurka Performance. I learned the most from her beautiful and charismatic playing that she demonstrated in class. I often wished she would just keep on playing. The sounds she made were so intimate and soulful. She said to me “if music wasn’t beautiful then what is the point? “ We mainly worked on standard piano repertoire, occasionally studying works from the modern Russian composers like Rodion Shchedrin. Her piano students were given regular opportunities to accompany violin students from her husband, professor Felix Andrievsky’s class. Those were the years I worked very closely with violinists and learned so much about violin playing and music making. Mr. Andrievsky taught with great humour and he had a magical way to fill the classroom with the conception and atmosphere of the music he describes. He brings the music and its emotions right in front of you, so that you can feel it in the air, on your skin, just by talking. That was inspirational. He remains my great mentor until this day. I am often very envious of how violinists can prolong sounds, and at how intensive and emotional the sounds can become.
After Irina passed away, I had the honour to take lessons with professor Andrew Ball, who was Head of Keyboard at the RCM. He was a great champion of contemporary music, and opened the door for me to modern music. His memory was incredible. He could play any piece from anywhere at any time. He also taught me how to pay attention to the structure and architecture of music. How to work objectively without losing the expressions. Under his guidance I was selected by the Park Lane Music Series to give a recital at the South Bank Centre with a modern programme ranging from Alfred Schnittke, Elena Firsova to Elena Langer. Ever since, I became very interested in working with living composers and new music groups. It was very enlightening to be able to have my questions answered by the composers themselves which gave me more purpose and confidence to express. Once I had the chance to be a part of the BBC Concert Orchestra to perform Brian Irvine’s Montana Strange for Symphony Orchestra, his own ensemble and Paul Dunmall’s improvising saxophone at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. It was a fun combination of the classical orchestra dialoguing with big band and jazz. During rehearsals, I was often fascinated by the chemistry from the synergy, the powerful expression and total freedom coming from Paul’s improvisations that I at times forgot I had a part to play, too! Later I got to know Paul more and he invited me to make an album together for his label – DUNS Limited Edition. Music for him means improvisation and for a classically trained pianist like me it was an eye-opening experience. Literately no retake, we just played, explored, and made conversations with instruments. It was very daunting at first, but when I was able to stay totally present, the strong energy of serenity and connections with self, inner voice, time and all senses, was liberating. That was how the album ‘Mahakali’ came to existence. I learned a lot through the whole process and am totally in awe of jazz musicians.
There are for sure many more recollections of the nutrients given to me through people and experiences that I encountered. They gave me the tools and the fuel I needed to venture into writing music today. At various stages in life, I felt trapped by the inability to express, whether it be in a mental state or by some kind of physical restriction, through speaking or performing. It is also through those moments that I discovered music that always has its presence in my inner hearing irrespective of what may be the situation on the outside. It passes quickly like clouds in the sky. When it happens, it’s a wonderful escape from the outside world and a tremendous feeling of freedom and liberation. I decided to jot the music down on paper as a memo to remember my journey.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.