My piano background

I don't play the piano any more, but if you have nothing better to do, read on to see how I started learning the piano and what led me to stop playing it.

I took my first piano lesson on July 22, 1986, i.e. at age 9 and a half, at Collin Studio, Tin Kwong Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong. The assignment included the first four pieces from the John Thompsons book "Teaching Little Fingers to Play", and the first two exercises from "A Dozen a Day - Book I". Right after the lesson, I practiced them for about 15 minutes at my cousin's home. When I went back 7 days later for the second lesson and played for the teacher, she said I didn't know how to count. "You are rather dumb," she said, "but it's okay, because you are not the only one: my colleague has a student who is as dumb as you." So, I was discouraged. I pretended to be ill the following two weeks, and after that, no more lessons for 3 months. I remember what I did on July 29. At that time, I thought I could hold the half note (or "minim" in Hong Kong and Europe) for as long as I liked. I could count the quarter notes (or "crotchets") correctly, but I would hold the half notes for 4 to 5 beats. In the second lesson, she assigned to me two more pieces from the John Tompsons book. The second one was a famous one, the "Song of the Volga Boatmen"

Then Mom encouraged (in fact, pushed) me to resume piano lessons. On November 3, I had my third lesson, this time with a new teacher. Before that lesson, in order to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again, I practiced all of the pieces I had learned to date (i.e. my entire repertoire!!) on a "keyboard" that I had drawn on a sheet of paper. (I didn't have a piano at home then.) This second teacher of mine was much more friendly. As I had expected, she made me play everything I had learned. I counted accurately this time, and she told Mom that I had talent. Of course, she was just being nice, because there's no way she could assess my potential just by hearing me play those simple pieces!

So that's how my study of the instrument began. For three years, my progress was rather slow. I hated practicing. I practiced for no more than 20 minutes per week. Then, in the winter of 1989 (I cannot find the exact date in my record, probably in the month of December), my cousin referred me to a teacher, Teacher Chan (or "Chan lo see" in Cantonese) who had graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory. She was much better qualified than all the techers I had had previously. And she taught me fun pieces, including my beloved Sonatinas by Clementi, Kuhlau and Haydn. I became interested in playing the piano, and I would walk to the piano and practice everyday. I had lessons with Teacher Chan every week, for three years. In either the winter of 1992 or the spring of 1993, I had my last lesson, and thereafter, I became my own teacher. I quit because I wanted to have more flexibility. I didn't like being made to practice certain pieces. In fact, when I was supposed to be practicing for the Grade 8 examination of the Royal School of Music (works by Bach, Mozart and Granados), I spent 90% of the time practicing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 instead!

Since I became my own teacher, I have played tons of pieces. Actually, many of these I just sight-read, played a couple more times, and never played again. I would get seriously bored if I had to play a work I didn't like too much for 500 times! And because I have been a good sight-reader all along, I picked up new pieces rather quickly. A list of more or less all pieces I have played/attempted to date is found here.


I haven't played the piano for a long time now. I may still randomly play a few tunes a few times a year, but haven't seriously practiced anything since 1998. When I was in high school, I was really obsessed with the piano and classical music in general, and so I almost decided to pursue a career in music. At that time, I thought classical musicians were the greatest people in the world. I considered classical music to be something sacred, and thought a first prize from the Tchaikovsky piano competition was more prestigious than a Nobel Prize! Music and classical recordings were my whole life. If people said something negative about classical music, I got mad. Now I know I was downright silly. Don't get me wrong, I am thankful that there are so many musicians around making great music, but I personally feel that music is good for entertainment, but not for a serious academic pursuit. To me, listening to classical music (or any kind of music) isn't much different from watching the TV--it's a way to get entertained, to kill time. I don't want to spend too much time listening to or studying music, because I think there are many other more important and meaningful things to do. Don't you agree that watching the TV for 10 hours a day 7 days a week is a big waste of time? And I am not convinced that spending that much time on music is any better. Of course, if Maurizio Pollini spends ten hours per day studying music, then these are ten hours well spent, because he is a professional musician and a very good one. We NEED great musicians like him; otherwise, who would give us great concerts and recordings, and who would train fine musicians of the future? But if I were to do the same, I would be wasting my time. For many years, I devoted myself to classical music, and now it's time to move on. In addition, after spending years practicing the piano, I became more and more aware that pianists are lonely. They practice alone, and even when they perform in concerts, they usually do so by themselves. It's sad to be a pianist! This is not true for most other classical instrumentalists, who usually play in chamber music groups or in orchestras, and they have a great time. For these two reasons, I gave up playing the piano, and now I don't even listen to music much. I am glad that I have chosen a career that has absolutely nothing to do with music.

Nonetheless, I am glad that I took piano lessons and that I learned (or at least tried) so many piano works. My previous experience with the piano is helpful to me when I listen to piano recordings, because now I know which parts of the music are difficult, what techniques are required in certain passages, whether the performer has changed anything, etc., so that I can assess the performers' playing more accurately.

Last Update: November 27, 2002