Always a glimmer of hope

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The piano teaching field is always unpredictable. Making a living out of it is a gamble, a risk. Like any other job, it has its ups and downs. I’ve had some wonderful students in the past but as my piano professors used to remind me—everything has a beginning and an end. No student, no matter how wonderful he or she is, is going to remain with a teacher forever. It’s a little sad when some students drop out for one reason or another; more so if they do so suddenly and I feel they have potential. Sometimes I click with a student, sometimes I don’t. And yes, at times they surprise me with stuff…like this new student who sent me this text. She was just shy and didn’t have a high opinion of herself, so I tried my best to coax her out of it by reassuring her that her piano playing would blossom and improve, given time. Getting this text from her meant a lot to me…at least I’m helping one student along and restoring her dignity to herself—she thought she’d lost it but it was always there, inside her…waiting to emerge.

Les Misérables

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Went to watch Les Misérables this evening and what can I say, I was completely overwhelmed—this movie version is so well sung and acted…the music just sweeps and envelops you as it plays. Written by Victor Hugo and first published in 1862, the novel “follows the lives and interactions of several characters, focusing on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption. Examining the nature of law and grace, the novel elaborates upon the history of France, the architecture and urban design of Paris, politics, moral philosophy, antimonarchism, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love.” (quoted from Wikipedia)

With a sterling cast made up of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, and Amanda Seyfried, the singing was just sensational, particularly Hathaway’s emotional rendering of I dream a dream. I just lost track of time (the movie is 2 hours 37 minutes long) and before I knew it I was bawling my eyes out during the finale. This is without doubt, my movie of the year. Go see it!

Ed’s Note: Went to see it again on New Year’s day. Bawled my eyes out a second time.

Yamaha Piano Challenge 2012

After a hiatus of almost two years I’m back in the judge’s chair—this time for the Yamaha Piano Challenge 2012. Mrs. Fong asked me to judge the Finals together with fellow judges Razif, Soo See, and Mei Ling. The format was different compared to Piano Idol, with categories ranging from YPC1 (Beginners) to YPC12 (Advanced) and there were winners for each category. All in I think there were around 60+ contestants, and there were two sessions—one in the afternoon and another in the early evening. We had an early dinner around 5 pm. I brought my Canon EOS 550D along with the Speedlite 580EX II so here are some pictures.

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(Above) The stage is set at the Penang PAC (Performing Arts Center). That’s the Yamaha GB-1 baby grand piano together with the Digital Music banner. This is a smallish hall which can accommodate approximately 300 people, but it has great acoustics. The piano sound seems to bloom on its own accord. This would be a great place for solo concerts. I took this picture handheld, resting my elbows on the judges’ table, taking a deep breath before pressing the shutter.

(Below) Vincent was one of the guest stars of the day. He played Franz Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in A flat major and Chopin’s Black Key etude, Op. 10 No. 5.

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(Above) Adriana was the other guest star. She performed Chopin’s Etude Op. 25 No. 1 and Debussy’s Prelude from Pour le Piano. These two talented pianists are my students and I’m extremely proud of them. Both have won Piano Idol in the past.

(Below) A candid view of the junior contestants in the afternoon session with their certificates of participation.

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(Above) For the Senior session the piano was moved to a different angle but the sound was still great. A slow shutter speed emphasizes the dexterity of this contestant.

(Below) A cross-section of some of the winners in the Senior category.

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(Above) Here I am, posing with Vincent after the whole show was over. The Speedlite 580EX II is fantastic; this was taken using direct flash and yet it handled the lighting conditions extremely well, exposing both of us just right.

(Below) I could recognize some budding talents today. Here I’m posing with Yeu May, the Level 8 winner. She played a scintillating Chopin waltz—I’d love to have this 15 year-old for a student.

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I have to commend Mr. and Mrs. Fong for organizing these competitions. They really foster and encourage the upcoming musical talents in our midst. I’m looking forward to more in the future.

Valentine’s at the 1885

Call it schmaltzy, bah humbug, or what you will, Valentine’s Day is and always has been a special day for lovebirds everywhere. Me? Umm, I’ll remain perfectly neutral on this one but I’ll tell you this—it’s always nice to see couples having fun and enjoying each other’s company, on this day or any other day. And if they’re prepared to splurge, so be it. The Valentine’s Day dinner at the 1885 fine dining (E & O Hotel) isn’t exactly what I’d call cheap, but for the price you get a lavish meal, some gifts including a Polaroid picture (yup, we still have those), and not to mention (ahem) soothing romantic tunes played on the piano by yours truly. With a great staff and Mr. Z as the captain, what else could you need? So onward and upward to the pictures, all taken with my Canon gear, of course. Nothing like flowers to set the mood and hearts fluttering.

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(Below) Balloons galore; love the heart-shaped ones.

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(Above) Gifts of chocolate for each couple, beautifully done with gold ribbons.

(Below) These pictures were taken by expert photographer Eugene when I finished for the evening. Great people and great staff!

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(Above) It was nice to meet up with Ria and her husband Ben again, who are regular guests of the hotel.

(Below) Here I am with Siti…

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and with Sally; oopsie I need to get a haircut…

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(Below) Eugene and Siti having fun in front of the camera.

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It was a great and fun evening, so here’s looking forward to Valentine’s in 2013! Open-mouthed smile

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The Scourge of Musicians

aka “Old pianists never die, they simply tinkle away”

I recently read Mary Schneider’s thought-provoking and witty article about trying to enjoy a nice dinner at a local Italian restaurant whilst being bombarded aurally by the howling of a band of minstrels.  Being a pianist myself, I totally sympathize and agree with her and so here begins my rant about musicians. Before I proceed please bear in mind that the following criteria applies to this post:

  • I’m talking about live music in a nice restaurant (not coffee shops or pubs).
  • If this post strikes a nerve in you, please forgive me. I’m not targeting anyone in particular. Honest.

I feel like I’ve been playing solo piano all my life. I actually started out my first gig at the Golden Sands Resort here in Penang, way back in 1982. I was out from the States for a Summer vacation and my father said he had secured a piano-playing job for me at the named resort. Seeing that he had paid for my air tickets, who was I to argue? So I did the gig, I loved it, and I learnt some useful stuff along the way. I’ve loved piano playing so much that since then until now (imitates a Clint Eastwood accent) “I work alone.” No singers, no violinists, no kazoo players, zilch.

I’ve stuck with these rules of etiquette when playing the piano in nice, posh restaurants.

  • You are only the pianist, you are not the main attraction. The food and company is.
  • Don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Blend in with the ambience of the establishment. Look at the customers. Are they talking softly? Then play softly. Don’t be an ignoramus and drown out their conversations.
  • If you aren’t sure whether you’re playing at an ideal level, get your ass off the seat and ask. Customers are usually direct and they will tell you. Also observe their body language (an outlandish example is if you see someone covering his/her ears. That is a strong signal for you to clam up!) If you’re too shy, ask one of the staff (I am assuming that you get on well with the staff. They’re always downright honest about music levels).
  • I’ve also learnt that it isn’t worth it to bang on the keys even when the restaurant is packed and the noise level has increased dramatically. Why? Because you won’t win. So why make a fool out of yourself?
  • It’s good to lose yourself in the music while playing but don’t get so carried away that you’ve forgotten about the level of sound you’re producing.

Ah, you ask. What’s your pet peeve? You really want to know? It’s this—I absolutely hate it when I walk into a fine restaurant and the pianist or musician insists on stuffing his/her music down my throat, together with my food. BLECH!! And also this—if you need someone to tell you that your music is too loud, you’re not a professional at all, you’re simply a show-off. So there!

Let me conclude by telling you one of my favorite pianist jokes.

A man and his neighbor are talking. The neighbor asks, “So now your missus has taken up the clarinet instead of the piano? Is that better or worse?”

“Better,” the man replies. The neighbor is intrigued. “Why?”

“Because she can’t sing and play at the same time.”