I spent most of my pre-adult years believing I would take a traditional path and become something like a computer programmer or maybe a forensic scientist. I had always gone to some sort of magnet school, including a one-day-a-week pull-out program in elementary school (two years of which I spent in a math-focused track), an all-magnet middle school (Latin and algebra in the sixth grade!), and a math and science academy within a regular high school. I took multivariable calculus/differential equations and AP Computer Science AB (C++ at the time) as a 15 year old. Life seemed set to go down the path of least resistance, and I figured I’d go ahead and be a good child of Chinese immigrants 1.
When my senior year of high school rolled around, I had run out of courses to take 2. Having also played piano from the age of 5 (again, good Asian), they gave me a special provision to attend a second magnet school in the afternoon – one for the arts. In my life as a musician, I had always preferred playing with others to playing by myself, and being in an arts high school with plenty of other students that needed to play with a pianist suited me fantastically well. It wasn’t an easy year by any means 3, but it showed me something that turned out to be very, very important: making music made me feel positive emotions that I had thought were lost to me.
As a senior in the Math and Science Academy, we were required to complete a 100 hour research project or 140 hour mentorship and finish it off with a presentation in front of teachers and peers in a little lecture hall called the Schola. Mine was something about fractals and music – to be honest, I barely remember it at all, and most certainly did not approach 100 hours of work. What I do remember is that somebody asked the standard question “What have you learned from this project and how will you use it in the future?” My response was something to the effect of “I’ve learned that I am not made for research projects, and this has been a waste, because I am going to major in music.” The shock of the adults (including my father, although I wonder now if perhaps he was surprised to find out that I am just like him after all) and titillation of the mostly well-behaved magnet kids was, well, memorable.
So that’s what I did. I auditioned at a few in-state schools for music one crazy and tiring weekend and settled on VCU, who offered me a full-tuition scholarship in return for my very high SAT score, completely ignoring my relatively low GPA. I moved to Richmond at 17 and never moved back home because I knew I would never be able to heal if I did. I actually began as a double major in computer science and music, but dropped computer science after a semester, not having enjoyed it or the ogling of my almost-exclusively male classmates. I enjoyed the shit out of being a music major, forming incredibly strong friendships and meeting (and living with, oops) the man I eventually married 4. I played the piano and played it damn well, while absorbing all of the history and theory I could to make the best music possible.
I graduated from VCU a year early 5, not having been able to legally drink in college, and set off to Rochester to attend the prestigious Eastman School of Music for my master’s degree in accompanying/chamber music (collaborative piano), having never lost my preference for collaboration. Because I loved what I did and experienced as an undergrad, I knew I was making the right decision, but I didn’t know just how important it was until I was done and realized that I had become a very different person.
Majoring in music taught me things beyond just how to play the piano, and in fact, I’d say that playing the piano might actually have been the minority of my college education. It taught me to be a professional – after all, at Eastman we are expected to be musicians, not just music students. I was in charge of scheduling rehearsals, lessons, and other performances with my school-assigned musical partners (singers and instrumentalists alike). I learned to read people and their intentions – paramount for an accompanist, and very valuable in all other parts of life. I was challenged by my amazing professor, Dr. Jean Barr, to always ask myself why I shouldn’t be able to do something. She read me like a book and pushed me to self-motivate and just get things done. I conquered my habit of always playing loud and aggressively by reaching inside and evaluating why I was doing it. Once I realized that it was the product of years of built up rage and hurt, I began the process of letting it go and learned to express myself in a more controlled and beautiful manner, whether that meant on the piano or off. But, of course, I also learned when loud and aggressive were necessary.
Today, I feel pretty damn fortunate. I have an awesome full-time job as a WordPress developer, regular high-level performance opportunities, an incredible husband, and a functional relationship with most of my family. I’ve gone right back to the computer stuff I never did manage to get rid of completely, but the way I see it is that it gives me the opportunity to choose what I do as a musician instead of shilling for weddings and other things that aren’t really making music while also doing something that constantly challenges me and gives me something to learn. I work from home and take breaks to rehearse or practice when I need to. Even if a problem is driving me crazy or I’m irritated at somebody/something, I still feel satisfied at the end of the day, and I know I would never have gotten to this point if I hadn’t made the choice to pursue something that made me feel again 6.
- I wasn’t really a good child at all and never really figured on any such thing. I was maybe a little over-social (not as in talkative), got suspended a few times, and almost did not graduate from high school at all. But that’s part of a completely different story. ↩
- Or at least courses that wouldn’t cause me to become bored and/or belligerent and create more of the above behavior. ↩
- I really have a whole other post I will write someday about my childhood and family life, but the gist of that particular difficulty was driving 60+ miles a day between the two schools and then having multiple jobs to pay for things like gas, food, and clothes. ↩
- We were not formally dating at the time. It was as much of a mess as it sounds like it would be. ↩
- Not as smoothly as that sounds – I failed/had to retake two courses and had a rough transition into having a different piano professor my final jam-packed year. ↩
- Oh my God, it sounds so cheesy. ↩