In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at thecounterpoints[@]gmail.com. A complete list of our interviews can be found here.
A native of Boston, Massachusets, George Li made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of eleven. In June of 2011, the tenth-grader was invited to perform for President Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House. The Washington Post said, “There is no question 16-year-old pianist George Li has prodigious talent…he combines staggering technical prowess, a sense of command and depth of expression,”. An early appearance on the Martha Stewart Show can be found here. Below is a transcript of our January 26, 2012 conversation with pianistGeorge Li.
EH: What is your musical background ?
Li: My parents grew up in China. In those days, they didn’t have the opportunities to play the piano or learn any other musical instruments. But they had a real love for music and they wanted me to learn to play the piano and play music. They said, ‘Let’s try and see what happens’. And that’s how I got started. Once I got started, I did not stop. Now, in my family, not only me, but my younger brother, who is five years younger, plays both the violin and the piano. I play only the piano (laughs). I don’t really remember this, but my mother tells me that she used to put me to bed with the classical music radio on.
EH: When did you realize that you were different from other children who play the instrument ?
Li: Well, before I learned the alphabet, it was easy for me to read notes from music scores and play them on the piano. I guess my rhythmic sense was also pretty good. My mom told me that when I first auditioned with my first piano teacher - I was four and a half - I was able to play simple tunes accompanied by my teacher. When she played fast and slow, I was able to follow her. My parents told me that after my first recital, parents of other kids told them that I had ‘a feel for the music’. Other than that, I don’t think I was all that different from other kids. My love for the instrument did grow, however. I wasn’t one of those kids who wanted to give up after five years. I really wanted to learn more and more pieces.
EH: Were there any difficulties you encountered as a prodigy ?
Li: To be honest, I don’t really consider myself a prodigy. Learning the piano, I have encountered some difficulties. There are many challenges in playing and I’ve grown frustrated at times. When I was very young and learning a Chopin etude, for example, it could take months to learn. My parents kept encouraging me. But because I like to play the piano, I never thought of giving up. I was always able to overcome difficulties in pianistic techniques. Yes, there might be some ‘traffic lights’, but they all turned ‘green’.
My first teacher was Dorothy Shi, a private teacher who helped me with the basics and helped me build a solid technical foundation. After this, I had a teacher in New York, Mr. Chengzong Yin, whom I studied with for two or three years. He taught me about music, how to phrase and deal with more abstract ideas. Now, I’m studying with Ms. Wha Kyung Byun, who teaches at the New England Conservatory. She teaches me everything about music making, both the techniques of piano playing and the interpretation and phrasing of music as well. It was after studying with her that my musical talent started to bloom. Her teaching and her spirit inspire me to make and recreate music.
EH: At what age did you finally begin thinking about the problem of piano technique?
Li: I have not had much of a problem with technique, which is owed to my first piano teacher, Mrs. Shi. I built my technique from a very young age - think at age five. Every day, I practiced scales and arpeggios, Hannon and Czerny exercises. When I was seven, I started to learn the Chopin etudes. My teacher always made sure that I truly mastered the techniques in each etude before she would let me pass. I had to practice long hours.
At age four, I was practicing maybe an hour a day. From age five to seven, it was maybe two to three hours a day. From seven to nine, it was three to five hours, maybe an hour more on weekends. Now I practice four hours a day on school days, seven hours on weekends and holidays. Do I like practicing? Yes, I think it’s fun. Sometimes, it can be frustrating, but you have to always work to realize the sound and the feelings that you want to convey.
EH: Which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand?
Li: I haven’t played all of them yet, but there’s the one in A minor, Op. 25 No. 4, which is very difficult in the left-hand, and also, Op. 10 No. 2, which I started when I was seven. Back then, I practiced the piece phrase by phrase in order to overcome the problem of finger 4 crossing finger 5. It was a very slow process at that time, but I managed to get it. Later, I learned that it was fortunate that I did it at such young age, when my hands were very flexible.
EH: I’m surprised to hear you mention the latter; there’s an impressive video of you playing Op. 10 No. 2 at an early age.
Li: I first had to develop the 3-4-5 fingers, so I’d go four bars or so every week. After that, I would add the thumb and the index finger, which play the chords in the right-hand. To get it to a high level, it took two years. But after I mastered it, everything became easier, and I was able to play more difficult pieces. There are different types of technique, and it’s something that you always need to work on. Without technique, it doesn’t matter what your ideas are, you won’t be able to do what you want. It’s also important to never forget the feeling for the music, the imagination.
EH: How is your musical memory ?
Li: I have a reliable musical memory. It takes me some time to master a piece. When I first play a piece, note-wise, it takes at least a day or a couple of days to learn the piece, maybe a week. After that, there’s a process to master it. When I first learn a piece, musically, it’s impulsive, there’s a lack of detail, etc. But once I work through it to understand and carry out the details, and deeply feel the music, I can remember it for a long time. The work-through process takes the knowledge of details, theory and phrasing combined with the feelings.
EH: Have you ever had to deal with stage fright?
Li: I’ve always loved performing. It was always very exciting for me. I don’t get too nervous when I’m playing, but on every stage, it’s a little different. I’m always excited, but sometimes, the level of anxiety to perform is greater. At times, when everything is connecting during a performance, I feel the adrenaline, I feel that everything is one thing. Other times, I don’t feel this connection, so it varies.
I have a routine before concerts. I usually wake up a bit later, I eat more for lunch and then I take a nap. I then go over the music, and this usually calms me down and gets me ready for the concert. When I am on stage, the excitement and anxiety drops, I’m geared-up for the performance and I am in another world. (laughs)
EH: Who are some of the Golden Age pianists whose recordings you find yourself constantly returning to ?
Li: I really love listening to Horowitz. I listen to as many of his recordings as possible. Maybe the one I listen to the most is his 1965 return to Carnegie Hall. I think the most special thing is his sense of timing, his colors, excitement, and the way he draws your attention unexpectedly. He’ll play a piece normally, and all of a sudden, something beautiful happens and you are absolutely enchanted.
Cortot and Rachmaninoff are also wonderful. The ways of their playing are so individual. They both have rich sound, but on top of that, there is so much color and nuance, and their dynamic range is humungous. I love Rachmaninoff’s recordings of his own concertos and Cortot’s piano rolls.
EH: There are some who believe that today’s young pianists are lacking a certain quality in their playing, elements that were once common amongst the older generation of pianists. What are your thoughts on this ?
Li: I think their playing is at a very high level. It’s very refined and they all have a great sound. But I guess I would like to see more individuality in their playing. Of pianists today, I look up to Mr. Russell Sherman. I admire his playing because he is creative. Every time he plays a piece, it’s completely different. There is so much color and individuality. I really enjoy his performances. Also, I like Martha Argerich for her fearlessness, her brilliant technique, and her daring. She takes many risks, which I like.
EH: What are your thoughts on music competitions ? Are you considering any in the near future ?
Li: I think it depends on how you think about it. If you want to win badly, you might fall into the stereotype. If you play the way you are feeling the music, there might be jury members who like it, others who don’t. Unless you play straight and are technically perfect, you have a lesser chance of winning the competition. So if one has to conform to a certain taste, he or she might lose their individuality and imagination. But if you don’t really care about winning the competitions and think of them as chances to learn from the experience, they would become good ways to learn about others and yourself. Competitions are also stages where one becomes known to the public.
I’m not thinking of entering at this point. Winning the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 2010 has brought me quite a few engagements, and they are giving me good guidance for my career.
EH: As a performer, what is the ideal impression that you would like to leave with your audience?
Li: I guess long-term, I want them to know that I have something to say about the music I play. And I also want them to feel that the music I play can refresh them, taking them away from the ordinary daily life and transport them to the world of music. I also want to be able to communicate with them through the piano. I want to share with my audience how I feel about the music.
EH: Earlier in 2011, you had the chance to play for President Obama. What were your first impressions of him ?
Li: I actually talked to him for a bit. My family and I had a picture taken with him, the First Lady and the German Chancellor. I really liked his presence. We didn’t have time to speak about classical music, but he’s warm and very humane. He’s also pretty funny and witty.
EH: Are you satisfied as a musician ?
Li: I am sure that a life in music is much more than what I have experienced so far. From what I know, music is an unpredictable road. There is no straight way, which is why it is attractive to me, to some extent. I don’t know what will happen in the future. But so far, I feel I’ve been extremely blessed. I have had great teachers from whom I have learnt a lot about music making. I have had many opportunities to perform. I’ve been guided by mentors and Young Concert Artists. I have supportive family and audience who cheer me on.
I love what I’ve been doing. I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t make music or play the piano. It has influenced me in a very positive way, even though I don’t always get to hang out with friends or do exactly what I feel like doing. I like to play baseball, I like sports in general. I read and watch TV when I don’t practice or perform. My parents have helped me reach a balance with school, piano, and the time to have fun, like a normal kid. But learning and performing music have been rewarding, both physically and mentally. They helped me to mature and grow as a person.
EH: Thank you for taking the time, George. Best of luck to you.
Li: Thank you! It was nice talking to you.