I grew up around piano and took lessons for a few years and my main memory is my mother asking me to go practice and my second memory is my teacher yelling at me. So when I was introduced to Dr. I-Lin Tsai by a colleague who interviewed her for her work in performance and graphic design. I was surprised to hear that she’s also so dedicated to education. Today’s interview is, in a way, where that conversation left off because I was genuinely interested in her answers to why I failed piano as a kid.
Am I alone in my experience as a kid who hated piano?
No. Interestingly enough, I grew up in a house where we just always practiced. My brother, who is a cellist and also pursuing music, practiced daily, and so did I. We both were in the performing arts program at our school in Tainan, Taiwan. We dedicated ourselves to spending time every day. But, once I started teaching piano, initially to adults and then kids, I found that very few of them practiced unless guided by a parent.
Recently, I started working as a Professor of Stage One Piano at Oclef, and the entire company is built around dropping out of piano students. What I mean by that is that in the early days of the company, they studied students and how they practiced piano and found that there was a systemic problem.
- Students don’t practice daily and aren’t accountable to themselves – whether they’re too young or just too busy
- Parents don’t feel comfortable sitting every day with their kids and helping to guide their practice
- Conventional piano teachers only see their students once or twice a week at most and cannot help their students develop healthy habits of practice.
What we’re left with is a broken system where everyone is pointing at everyone else and wondering what to do. So, no, you’re not alone, but know that there is a company and community that is working very hard to solve this problem.
Can piano actually be fun?
What I hear in that question is that you’re implying that piano is hard work. And if that’s what you’re saying – then you’re right. But with that said, a piano can definitely be fun along the way, just like going on a hike can be fun but challenging. It’s really about the attitude that you bring to it and who is there with you along the way. One thing that I do specifically to help my students have fun is to surprise them. I have stuffed animals, I play games, and I think like them – sometimes, I’m unsure if I’m actually an adult myself. When kids feel that fun energy that you bring to your teaching, they often open up and share more of themselves than they would if the vibe was more serious, so yes, it can be fun, but the environment is what controls that outcome as well as the chemistry of the elements and people inside.
Why spend your time on piano education? You could be doing anything else.
The piano has always been my best friend. It’s been there for me whenever I’m sad or happy, when I had an amazing day or when I’m completely exhausted. And the piano has helped me to find myself as a person, as an artist, and to build myself up from just a silly kid from Tainan to someone traveling the states. The piano is a vehicle that, when invested in properly and consistently, it can take you anywhere, and if you need proof, just look at my story.
So what I want to do is to use the piano to help the children and adults that I teach. It’s not that I want them to be a concert musician or get a doctorate in piano – none of that matters to me. What I want is for them to use the piano to help themselves grow and develop. It’s such a great way to do it if it’s structured properly – but then again, I’m biased.
After talking with I-Lin Tsai for about an hour, it was very clear that she has a deep-set passion for piano education, as well as classical music and design. Where she’s most intriguing to me is in how she approaches her work. The attitude that she brings is that of a dedicated and disciplined artist – one who is searching and serious about doing great work. Whether that work is music, education, graphic design, or anything else, she’s impressive, to say the least.