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.

The Ripple Effect

What a nice way to start off the New Year. I was chatting with Heather (my friend from Ohio) and she told me this story about her dad. You see, when I was there I passed Heather some CD’s of my own recordings and she, in turn passed them on to her parents. Needless to say, they loved my CD’s and I wish I had the chance to meet them while I was there. Anyway, Heather’s dad had to be admitted into the ER due to a flu epidemic there—his immunity has been compromised due to his cancer, so when the bugs come around, they get him hard. With extra strength Tylenol to lower his 105°F fever and Tamiflu to kill the bug he spent a long ten hours in the ER being tested for all kinds of stuff, including pneumonia.

Finally they sent him home, and he requested his wife to put on “Philip’s music.” When he couldn’t hear it well he asked her to turn it up a bit more, since the stereo was in the living room. After Heather related this to me I was so touched…I’m only a humble pianist, and yet my music has given some comfort and solace to her parents, especially her dad, who is still recuperating from a nasty bug. On another note, I’ve had guests come up to me last night (New Year’s Eve) to say how much my music added to the festivities…truly, I am blessed with a job that allows me to give pleasure to others. I only pray that God will grant me more years to do this…and to expect nothing in return. Just to see people happy because of my music makes me blissful enough.

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.

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.”

A tribute to my students

I decided to embark on a project to photograph each and every one of my students recently. And this is one of the questions that never fails to annoy me—“How many students do you have?” I usually post a response like “Just enough to maintain my sanity and live a decent lifestyle.” Teaching is one of the most taxing professions that one can take up, especially when it’s on a one-to-one basis like what I’m doing. So here’s a photo collage of my current crop of students (at least the ones who were not camera-shy) All the pictures were shot with a Canon EOS Rebel T2i/550D with either a Canon 50mm standard lens or a Canon 18-55mm IS zoom lens. Lighting used was bounced flash with a Canon 270EX Speedlite.

To all my students—thank you for letting me be your teacher, and for putting up with me as we embark on our musical journeys together.

Student Collage

Top row (L-R): Adriana, Anthea, Bao Xiu, Cassandra, Henry. Second row (L-R): Jason, Joshua, Kelvin, Poh Lin, Regina. Third row (L-R): Robin, Sabrina, Shih Yu, Shirlynn, Terence. Bottom row (L-R): Wei Yang, Wynn, Ying Xuan, Yu Xuan.

Little blessings are still blessings

Yes, it was a lovely day today. I reconnected with my bestest friend, and when I got home from work a student had emailed this to me. How could I not be glad?

Dear Philip,

Many thanks for your email of 12 Jan 11.  Funny it is not in my inbox, and it only came out, when I type your name in the search box, when all your email to me came out, only I saw it from there.  Computer is something I don’t understand how it works.

Thanks very much for your Reader’s Digest which I always enjoyed reading.  So glad you like the T-shirt.  However, I would like to thank you for your patience with me for the past few months (AUG-DEC).  You are a teacher who teaches with the heart, and serious with your teaching, making sure the student plays well.  I am glad to be under you.  I THANK GOD, that finally I have found the best teacher after all these years and I enjoyed every minute of your lessons 🙂

Have a nice week end and take care.  Regards,

Sabrina Oh

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Sabrina has been learning piano with me since last August. She’s a conscientious student, and I was touched when she bought a T-shirt for me when she returned from her Canadian trip last month. It’s students like her that make this taxing job worthwhile.