Excitement, anticipation, nervousness, pride—I remember feeling all of these when I started Juilliard more than 20 years ago. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t the only talented pianist around, though, and being surrounded by uber-talented people from all over the world could be intimidating and depressing as well as inspiring. At the time, my vision of success was to become a concert pianist—to perform as a soloist all over the world (and maybe have my own piano delivered to each venue, like Horowitz). My identity was tied to my performance. If I had a good piano lesson, I was on top of the world. If not, I was nothing. Since I was raised in the typical Asian fashion, in which children are not given a choice, practicing the piano was something I did because I was told to, not because I had really wanted to. I soon felt out of place since others seemed passionate about their art while I was just doing what was expected of me. This, along with the stress of feeling inadequate, put me on an emotional roller-coaster ride.
Fortunately, by keeping an open mind, I took advantage of some of the resources Juilliard had to offer, all of which happened outside the intense realm of the practice room. For instance, my liberal arts professors helped me look at the world through different lenses. I also attended as many Drama Division plays that I could get tickets to, along with Dance Division performances and music concerts. It was inspiring to watch my fellow students perform. And, I participated in the Gluck Community Fellowship Program, an outreach program that had just formed and which still sends students to perform in hospitals, nursing homes, etc. It was there that I met dancer/choreographer Henning Rübsam (B.F.A. ’91, dance), who would become my longtime friend and collaborator.
Despite these enriching experiences, I needed to find out what music meant to me personally, so I took a leave of absence one semester into starting the master’s degree program (no, I never did return).
My journey to discover my true path had begun. It was scary venturing into the unknown, but the more risks I took, the easier it became to try new things. I quit playing the piano for a couple of years to see if I would miss it (I did!), and I took a job as a music teacher at a Bronx elementary school, where I discovered my passion for teaching and the realization that not every child knows what a melody is. After doing research on educational philosophies, I found myself at Lincoln Center Institute (L.C.I.) applying for a job as music teaching artist. They didn’t have any openings for a couple of years, but I kept in touch with the director, and she contacted me as soon as they were hiring again. My persistence had paid off—another invaluable lesson I learned—and to this day I cultivate the relationships with people in my life and try not to take them for granted. In regards to my work as a teaching artist, I continue to incorporate the aesthetic education practices I learned at L.C.I. in everything I do and have even shared my experiences as a teaching artist-mentor for the Juilliard-Carnegie Hall teaching fellowship program (the Academy).
Another risk I took was accepting a job improvising for Mary Anthony Dance Studio. This was a life-changing experience as it forced me to be creative on the spot, something that did not come easily for me, having never improvised a single note until then. This eventually led me to composing—much of my early work was for Henning’s modern dance company, Sensedance.
After realizing that I wanted to compose in addition to return to performing (on my own terms), I decided to make a CD of my music. And since no one at the time was offering to produce the CD, I did it myself. Fund-raising is not easy, and it was much more difficult before crowd-sourcing platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo came along. But I learned another huge lesson—I contacted everyone on my mailing list of supporters and discovered that it doesn’t hurt to ask people for what you want. Thereafter, I found myself making a successful career composing, teaching, performing, producing concerts and CDs (on my own label, BiBimBop Music, as well as on Naxos and Albany Records), and even enjoying a brief stint as a music television host for New York City’s WNYE.
Being a viable artist in the 21st century requires flexibility, in thinking and in action, and making things happen for you, which may mean producing your own CD or play or dance concert. Cherishing the connections you make with people from all walks of life and never giving up has proven to be indispensable in my growth as an artist and as a person. All of this requires a great deal of reflection and taking an honest look at yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What could be holding you back and why—what are you afraid of? What do you really want to say to the world as an artist, as a citizen, as a human being?
Wherever you are in your journey, whether you’re a freshman at Juilliard or an alum who may be at a crossroads, I hope you will take risks, reflect, and be persistent. Take charge and define (or redefine) what success and fulfillment mean to you.