Pianist Tzu-yi Chen's musical philosophy and life
Written by: Yu-Chen Tsai
Translated by: Patrick McCurry, Michelle Eng and Tzu-yi Chen
During her February this year "228 Memorial Concert" at Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in D.C., the
notes of the Firebird Suite circled at the fingertips with pianist Tzu-yi Chen’s virtuoso touch, just like the
plot described by the Russian composer Stravinsky. A full-house audience at Washington, D.C.’s
Taiwanese Presbyterian Church completely followed the composer’s storyline. Their heartbeats were
dancing with the wizard and got lost with the melody of the beautiful lullaby. Until the last chord ended
with the bright glissando flying like the firebird to the sky, the whole audience was astonished with a few
seconds silence, and rejoiced with thunderous applause.
Tzu-yi's music draws your emotions and grabs your attention as she tells you many stories behind each
sound she makes. I wonder why there is such a difference between "When you play the notes right" and
"When your music actually touches people.” Guided by my curiosity, I very fortunately caught an
opportunity to interview her and get some answers from a great pianist!
After graduating from the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University, she was
admitted with unanimous jury votes to study at the prestigious National Paris Conservatory of Music in
France, regarded as a Master’s-level study in French government.
That's right! It is the music school where famous Japanese TV drama and Live-action movie “Nodame
Cantabile” took place a few years ago.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nodame_Cantabile
Tzu-yi was laughing that the movie’s storyline was completely inspired and created by students’ lives and
surroundings at the Paris Conservatory, how the conductor Shinichi Chiaki and the pianist Megumi Noda
fell in love with each other, and at their adventures and journeys accompanied by music.
In contrast to the words "romantic" and “spontaneous," which for me easily associate with the country of
France, the French classical music education is surprisingly very academic, and famous for its strictness.
Before entering the conservatory, Tzu-yi had already won various national and international competitions.
However, her Parisian master asked her to forget the pursuit of fame and applause and to take more time
understanding the European cultural background, getting into the essence of finding the different sounds
and different styles of each composer she played, redefining the space and time of the written notes and
the history placed behind each piece of written music, and based on all of those elements, find that it is
possible to distinguish the subtle differences and be able to play the notes with sense, spirit, and great
This is like the process of reassembling an Empire building, undoubtedly a painful experience for an
Asian foreign student. Unlike pianists from many other parts of the world who place “amazing fingers” as
their top training goal, European education places a great importance on the music itself and sees it as
cultural heritage instead of producing another star pianist. When I talked with Tzu-yi, I remarked that
music is in her life so deeply that all composers are like her real friends. She can chat about anything in
their life stories, such as Franz Liszt, who was famous as a rock star in the world and favored by women,
and who went back and forth four times to monastery life, studying for the priesthood to seek a quiet and
peaceful mind, or Frédéric Chopin, who created nuances with his unique soft-finger touches noted by the
concert reviewers of his time, or Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov, who lived in foreign countries
but whose heart was in his motherland Russia.
When pianists play their works, they have to project the souls of different composers as if they were
speaking with them. When talking about those composers, it is as if Tzu-yi had known each of them for
many years. I began to understand why her music sounds so much deeper and sincere than many
others. There is a difference when someone puts her life and soul into every piece she plays.
Tzu-yi recalled the struggles of studying abroad. She often prepared for an entire week before class, but
got only strict criticism. In addition to a broad cultural understanding, she has extensive knowledge of
various artistic forms, books, movies, paintings, museums, sculptures, meditation, all to immerse her into
a sound-imagination world and to fully release the emotions during a performance (which reminds me of
an actor too deep in the script who sometimes can hardly pull himself out of the role he plays).
Tzu-yi said that there are times, seeing the music with its human emotions, desires, and devils, that it is
often not comfortable. But she must be honest to face her inner anxiety. Although born in a Christian
home, she was baptized a few years ago and returned to God's embrace. Religion provides her with the
power of stability, so that she will not be confused when she throws herself into the ocean of imagination.
At such a young age, it took a great deal of effort living alone in France, Germany, the United States, and
traveling to the rest of the world. This kind of experience had a profound impact on Ms. Chen. She often
engages in a deep and profound dialogue with herself, touching very difficult topics such as love and
doubt, truth and fiction, anxiety, fear, and other emotions. She is one of the very rare Taiwanese girls I
have met who went alone to the cinema, to the forest, and dared to walk, crossing those Parisian streets
from the Opera theatre back home when it was almost three o’clock in the morning.
However, at the same time, she is very warm and hospitable. She recalled her school years, her mother
always filling up the dining table before she came back home. The warmth of the family cultivated her
taste, and the travels around the world have added more flavors to her cooking menu. The last time I was
fortunate enough to be invited to taste the dishes Tzu-yi made—Russian herring salad, Spanish paella,
crepes—all were so delicious and amazing. I can see that what makes her successful in her career is her
self-discipline and high standard for herself, and her love for her friends and openness to new friendships
helped her to quickly establish herself in a foreign country.
However, like all immigrants who have a hard-working life, the road is groped and formed step by step.
“Did you ever think of going back to Taiwan and live there?” I asked, just as many of us have seriously
thought about going back to Taiwan because of family or work.
“When God closes a door, he opens another window for you,” she answered. “The difficulty is that living
in foreign countries, everything has to be done by myself. Even hosting a concert, I often have to think of
every detail from the program printing, recording and stage management, to the piano tuner.” But she
paused a moment, and said ”Why do humans have to discover the moon and explore outer space, when
they are ultimately well enough living in the earth?” For her it is the same question as “Why do I have to
continue to learn new pieces, even if I have played piano for so many years?” It is simply because she
does not want to stop at the same point in life, so she bravely walks into the unknown." Life is not always
smooth and peaceful, but music is the best friend, accompanying her through all the high and low points
of her life.
In talking about classical music education to the next generation, Tzu-yi suggests not being afraid to bring
kids to the concert hall, listening to classical music radio stations while driving, and creating opportunities
for music to be part of every day, so that in family life, children are accompanied by music as a habit. "In
any good live performance, the audience's feeling and perception are elevated and sublimated to a high
level." The American school system has many opportunities for music exposure, such as school orchestra
and marching band. Parents' efforts can cultivate children’s interest. However, to become a professional it
takes a different level of commitment. Many other activities must be given up in order to be highly
focused. It takes a lot of time to practice before a child can progress from short, boring pieces to highly
challenging repertoire and being able to excel in playing.
Despite her busy concert traveling schedules and her dedicated piano practicing time, Tzu-Yi teaches at
the Levine School of Music and maintains a home private studio. How can an Asian artist find his/her way
in a western society? Tzu-yi said, "We must collaborate across nations, across genders and cultures,
across media. Any combination of music, social topics, painting, dance, and other different art forms will
show the flexibility of music, and we will be able to see common values." Many cultures co-exist in
America. There are many opportunities to reach out to different people. Asian musicians gather together
to create platforms such as The New Asia Chamber Music Society (NACMS) in NY joined by Tzu-yi.
NACMS connects outstanding rising Asian musicians and helps them to create their own stage. In
addition to promoting classical music, it reaches out to a wider audience, enabling people to appreciate
Asian cultures by producing high-quality concerts performed by top Asian musicians. NACMS will release
its first piano quartet album in November of this year. Another non-profit organization in NY which also
recruited Tzu-yi for its artist roster is Muse Connect. It is one of the rare music-charity organizations
established in New York. Tzu-yi will perform at its opening Gala concert in October of this year. This
organization will support emerging talents of the music world by holding top-quality concerts crossing
I feel so proud to see the excellent Taiwanese talents shining on various stages in the world. Tzu-yi
actively performs on many events held by Taiwanese communities.
(Here are some photos to share with you.)
On August 26, 2018, there will be a piano recital with top-notch, difficult repertoire, as interpreted by Tzu-
yi Chen, at the National Cathedral School, so don't miss it. Located in the Greater Washington area, we
[in the Taiwanese community] are fortunate enough to have such a top pianist on our side. We should
warmly support her, enjoy her music, and enrich our hearts.
P.S. Listen to Tzu-yi on the Internet.https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqeCcRgHB5PGePd52nSsTFg
P.P.S. Read more about Tzu-Yi's story in Chinese:
李斯特; 體弱多病，多愁善感的鋼琴詩人蕭邦，其特有的柔軟指法; 或是身在異鄉卻心繫祖國的俄
孜怡投入的新亞室內樂音樂協會New Asia Chamber Music Society，就是希望能串聯優秀的亞洲
會, 該音樂慈善團體提供這個平台給樂壇新起之秀, 來舉辦高水準融合東西方文化的音樂會。
PS 2. 更多孜怡的故事: http://blog.udn.com/Carole777/72476124 以及 https://www.muzik-