Listen to the Schubert, please

5:34 Schubert D. 960, Mitsuko Uchida: return of theme 1 – distant, no top, pedaled, like bells in the distance [Do press the link for the full experience]

Every time I heard it, I would stop. I would feel the ringing, warm and round, as it traveled through the open air, through the square buildings, through the grid-locked roads, to reach me. The resonance would hold me; in those moments I would be nothing more than a creature locked in a spell – and yet, not locked, nor frozen, for the magic that came upon me was one of grace and vastness. I would climb atop my table to reach my screen-less, double-doored window, hoping to be a little closer, to catch the sound in my hands. It seemed to speak of a thousand years of human stories, or perhaps, it seemed to know of those innumerable stories, to have witnessed them from its great height. I would stay that way, perched on the window sill, hands pressing against the frame, willing myself to stay – to stay with the sound and stay with the magic.

When the tolling stopped, the familiar sounds of cars and wind and humans would return. And yet, the echoes lingered, in my ears and in the air. Maybe it will linger long enough, travel far enough, all the way back to Canada, or wherever I go.


A little technical, but honest.

In the first session, I studied with Mr. Daejin Kim. His expertise as a teacher became evident very quickly, particularly in his knowledge of what the students’ most needed area of improvement was. He was patient and usually softer-spoken, and had an air of wisdom and far-sightedness that came across in the way he approached each student very differently. For me, he devoted my second lesson to various “rhythm” exercises, a method he champions to the point that his colleagues nicknamed him “Mr. Rhythm Man.” He promised me an “every day for three-month and you’ll see big results” deal, which I am still maintaining, and on many days, have already seen big results. Through his teaching and his focus on improving my passage-work ability, as well as watching the playing of other students, I have come to the realization of the importance of “technical intelligence.” Mr. Kim played a big part in the improvement of my approach to improving technique; I now focus on physical sensation in the passing between one finger to the next and view freedom and looseness as the foundation for mobility and angling, rather than the goal. At the end of the session, I was lucky enough to play in his Class Recital, and it was a wonderful, inspiring moment.
In the second week of the first session, I also took lessons with Mr. Florian Birsak, the early keyboard instrument teacher. I had never played the fortepiano, but thought it was a great chance to try it out. The lessons ended up being a bit more of a struggle than I anticipated mostly because I was unable to do much of what I wanted until later on in the lessons. Mechanical differences aside, Mr. Birsak also played and taught the music very differently from what I had in my head. On the fortepiano, balance is much more evenly spread across all the voices, partly because the instrument does not sing and carry a line like a modern piano, but also because the historically informed early keyboard style draws heavier influence from chamber music. There were also mysterious and magical textures and timbres that he introduced to me. I also tried out a clavichord, an instrument I fell in love with and would suggest to all keyboard players to learn. The sensitivity and variety of sound of the instrument is an endless horizon of possibility that I hope to continue to explore.
For the second session, I took another five lessons with Ms. Ya-Fei Chuang. I covered a lot of repertoire with her, including the whole Ravel Concerto, and the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 28 and Mozart’s Sonata K. 331 and Bach’s Prelude in f sharp minor from WTC II. She was an extraordinary musician – powerful and committed, and one of the greatest things I learned from her was new shapes in phrasing, which leads to longer lines with more edges and contours and textures. She drew out sounds from me that I hadn’t thought existed in my sphere of musical production nor existed yet in my ear. I performed again in the Class Recital, playing the same piece, and was happy to know that it was a more finely wrought piece with many more details and colours.
My private lessons with Ms. Sybille Havemann, the Alexander Technique teacher, were some of my most favourite experiences while in Austria. We had many honest, open conversations about music and musicians, the technique, and my challenges. She was a warm, kind person with great integrity to her craft and extreme sensitivity. Probably the most unique exercise consisted of me lying on my back on a table while she moved my limbs around in continuous motion, teaching my body fluidity and lengthening certain joints and tight areas. I came to intuitively feel and intellectually understand the simultaneous dance of independence and intention from certain body parts but also the inseparable flow of movement and energy that follows. She also affirmed my suspicion of the interconnectedness of emotions, minute angles, posture and relaxation, and told me that there is “absolutely no separation” between all the factors.
Another highlight of the trip were the four Salzburg Festspiele recitals I attended. I heard solo performances of Sokolov, Schiff, Uchida, and a Lieder concert with Trifinov and Goerne. It was wonderful to experience the Festspiele and the European concert crowd; there were always at least four or five curtain calls! I am so grateful to have gotten to hear Sokolov and Uchida, both of whom rarely come to Vancouver. Sokolov drew such magical tones and textures of his specially picked piano and had an approach that is so musically pure, it almost sounded like a different language. Uchida, on the other hand, delivered such beauty over and over again, in a very personal yet understandable way, particularly in the Mozart Sonata C major K. 454.
After the month at Mozarteum, I stayed in Vienna for a week. There, I visited many museums, such as Mozart and Beethoven haus, Haus der Musik, Albertina, Kunsthistoriche Museum, Schoenbrunn, and goggled at the many palaces and statues that ordained the streets and squares. I happily allowed myself to be led by curators and creators in the absorption of godly composers, artists, and monarchs that became flawed humans and of art that moved and reminded and excited. It is such a beautiful city! I also visited Eisenstadt for the Haydn haus and Esterhazy Palace, as well as the idyll country town of Baden, courtesy of some lovely friends I met at the Mozarteum.
In five weeks, I have grown in independence and self-awareness in a place that I surprisingly fell seamlessly into, among the music, lights, and generous people that made me feel so welcome. As a solo traveler and student, there were many moments of solitude in which I grappled with self-doubt and indecisiveness but eventually, came to acceptance of where I am as a person and pianist. I am so lucky to have music, so lucky to be on this journey of self-expression and discovery and so lucky to have this channel to pour emotion and love into. Going to Austria has instilled confidence that opens to ease at the piano and incredible space for creativity and curiosity from a trove of musical intention inside of me that I sometimes forget. My most sincere and grateful thanks to the Johann Strauss Foundation for giving me the chance to love and learn from the beautiful country of Austria!

Sometimes I almost forget

Sometimes I almost forget.

Sometimes I almost forget the proportions of a small but still long-ish body with four twiggy legs sticking out from it and in my imagination, her shape feels foreign and distant and I wonder how a life could fit in all of it.

But a life certainly did.

A sweet, sweet life, too.

Thank you, Mr. J

From your opening paragraph, an old sense of wonder began to arise in me, reminiscent of the many afternoons listening to you navigate through history and quotation and experience to persuade, or simply make aware, a roomful of teens the importance of certain permeating themes and perspectives that weave around and around our own tiny lives and into the larger context we inhabit through time and space.

So many afternoons. So many fluid segues between the various subjects, tasks, and stories that we built as a community, some curricularly intentional, others accidentally through experience (it’s a TALONS thing). In TALONS, we got to work and see it become something real to enjoy and share, like planning for Adventure Trip and leadership events and Eminent Person Night – such an essential part of motivation, that for those who never get to experience it, they lose a chance to foster a real love for learning.

That’s one of the things I’ll always tie to your incredible teachership, Mr. J. It was the way you spoke to us, us with our funny teenager-ly ways, only just beginning to find our voice in writing and perspective and introspection, and you, with your genuine patience and understanding. You laughed at our jokes and jumped off of our ideas and encouraged us on our blogs and through it all, I realized the things I thought were not only valid, but mattered. My love for writing and striving to articulate what’s inside me as well as this still-going-strong optimism for meaning is so much thanks to you.

In these years since TALONS, I have been continuing to solidify what I hope my learning to be. In the same way we searched for primary sources in Socials, more and more, I see my teachers not as containers of information and invigilators of our required swallowing of it, but as vessels of tales for lessons and real wisdom learned through their own lives. I want to learn knowledge that is important to a life and learn how that knowledge is learned.
So cheers to you, Mr. Jackson, and this beautiful, reflective, resonating part of a life you have generously shared with the TALONS community. We are all so lucky to have had you as a mentor.


Dear computer…

Dear computer, baby, first born child, keeper of words, stories, and memories;

You are old, heavy, loud, constantly in heat. You’ve crashed and burned and even been overcome by a virus that turned my whole OS to dust. You fight the wifi like it’s the real object of my love so I cannot connect with the outside world.

But these are words I tell myself so that I can move on – be real, let go, and move on.

You are my sweetest friend, my earliest ear of thoughts and questions and commandments that I doubted anyone would care to hear. You are a safe place, a library, a entrance to worlds of wonder. You were my occupant of spare time, or time-that-was-meant-for-things-but-made-into-spare-time or whatever you call it. You have a cool coat of cherry black and keys that fit perfectly in my hands. My computer life was born and raised with you.

I don’t want to walk away from this familiar screen bordered by sticky-notes, don’t want to place my fingers on some shiny, clean keyboard that holds no personality in its unblemished r’s, t’s, and f’s, to say the least. What will the new one be like? Will it be cold and professional? Curious and surprising? Distant and unfamiliar? Or loving?

You will always be the first, always hold a special place in my heart.

Thank you, computer.

During BCHF2015

On Fisgard Lighthouse at Fort Rodd Hill:

For a place so irrevocably tied with loneliness, it’s an unfailingly welcoming freedom and adventure that is always present no matter how many times I come. Maybe it’s the self dependence of finding your own routes or the instinctual simplicity of survival in an actually potentially dangerous setting. Whatever it is, it’s a happy place.


A disjuncted journal entry:

I remember writing words like “unforgettable” and “once in a lifetime” and “so much fun.” I was excited in a young, just-won-the-biggest-award, can’t-believe-I’m-going kind of way, before I cooled down and thought like a grown-up, remembering responsibility and calmness despite exhaustion and everything else care-takers of children must remember. So I was prepared and cool-headed and professional going into the trip, except perhaps, with a slight sense of curiousity for where I would fall as a 19 year old chaperone and alumna.

And yet again, it is the people who make all the difference. And of course as important as the planning of events and activities are, it is the stuff slightly outside of our control, our guarantee, that make all the difference. The kids who get invited over here are intelligent, quirky, often mature. There must be enough difference in those things for it to make a difference.

There’s a sense of groundedness, a complete emptying of desperation when one finds the best friend. Two people casually sidle into shoulder leanings and head resting and speak of things outside the situation.  The banter is a million times better than when being along and hugs never need to end.

Thank you to the alumni for being my friends, for the chaperones for their character and wisdom, and the kids for their laughter and easiness and eagerness in everything.


To: July 24 2010 and 2011

It’s been one year, one whole year since I got on that plane that took me to a place where life taught me all that mattered. It’s so far away, that even I’ve forgotten some of the routes and take-the-left-when-the-road-forks, and when was the best time to eat our chocolate bars.

It was there I breathed the smell of the sky trodden upon by herds of cattle, when the wind echapee’d with the dust as the music reached my ears. Oh, the music! How they sang for God! Their voices would make the angels cringe in embarrassment of themselves. And the sound of life! So gentle and real and calming. Never once did I want it to shut up! and go away. If only the voice of the universe was always like that.

The warm feeling of sitting by a campfire and listening to the voices of friends-becoming-family, the morning smell of chai tea, the crunch of new-but-now-worn work gloves, and hushed huff the earth sighed as I passed its dried surface as my feet traveled on…

And now all I’ve got left is a couple of beaded bracelets, a few soapstone carvings, a wax art piece, and well, a blanket. That’s all. I don’t have the shovels or pickaxes that nearly broke my back, I’ll never be able to see the kids, and I don’t even have my buddies who braved this adventure with me. All I’ve got are memories that I won’t ever let go, even if they start to fade away. I’ll paint them again in my head over and over again; all the acacia trees and bushy hills and the thick red sand, I can still see it all.

But sometimes, I wonder if it ever happened. After all, I’m still here in Canada, with enough money and overflowing, messy shelves and dressers, and an infinite number of things to do. It’s so hard to believe that it was the same me that pushed the old wheelbarrows and watched the kids sing; I feel as though I’m looking at the memories through windows and frames, instead of really feeling it. But some things never change. The crisp 100 shilling bill that’s really only worth $1.10 will still be sitting in that green change purse, and the wax that the vendor so importantly pointed out on the drawing still smells great. So I guess I’ll always have my ticket home to Kenya. Most of the time it’ll just be a little walk in my precious memories, but maybe one day, that Air Canada plane that flies over my head really will take me to Montreal, where Swiss Air will drop a piece of beautiful, creamy chocolate in my hand as they fly me, finally, home to Kenya.