Conversation with Composer Chee-Hwa Tan
Updated: Jul 12
By August Edwards
If you grew up learning how to play music in a formal setting, chances are you began by reading from a smattering of books of etudes and repertoire—and chances are, some of those compositions are still in your head today. For over 100 years, the Royal Conservatory of Music has supported music educators and students in North America with an expansive, graded curriculum. In April of 2022, the RCM launched the Celebration Series ®, Sixth Edition. ABQGR had the honor of interviewing a contributing composer for this series, Chee-Hwa Tan.
Over the course of her more than forty years of teaching piano students of all ages and levels, this Colorado-based composer has come to appreciate the power of stories in the synthesis of visual arts, literature, and music. She enjoys combining these elements to create “student savers” that distract the student from the discipline of practice, allowing them to focus on the wealth of exciting sounds they are able to make as musicians.
Below, you'll learn about Chee-Hwa Tan's methods for writing, listening to, and teaching music, her background as a composer, and her history with the Royal Conservatory of Music.
ABQGR: What did your writing process for this commission look like?
Chee-Hwa Tan: I was thinking of a certain sound, [the wind], and every sound in music is brought about by a certain technique. The ability to play is very linked to what kind of sound you want to produce. But my big goal, just having been a kid myself, is that we can express emotion. Students, everybody, all ages, need to be able to express emotion. If you’re going to take all this trouble to learn an instrument, you should be able to express emotion through it.
I feel one of the most important ways to express emotion is through the imagination, especially when you’re younger and you have a short attention span and practice is work—not necessarily fun work. So, I try to distract them with imagination, and, in this particular case, with poetry. I love literature and poetry. If I were to do something else, I would probably just write. And I’ve always loved the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson. So, in this specific piece for the wind, I read the poem and imagined how it would sound to me and I created a piece that would sound like the poem, and where the student would feel like an artist. They would feel, going all over the piano, like a virtuoso.
I think that you should feel like you’re an artist whether you’re 12 or 21 or 80. And you don’t have to be a professional to sound like an artist.
Can you talk a little bit about the connection between storytelling and music?
You picked my favorite topic! And you being a writer must love the power of story. I feel like everyone has a story to tell, and story is just so intrinsic to our lives. I find that music is a means. Whatever instrument you play, it’s a vehicle for telling a story so that you have a voice as a storyteller. It’s a powerful role, versus, “I have to play the piano.” When you play a piece and you’re expressing yourself, you’re telling a story. And if you think at a more advanced level, taking someone else’s music, you’re telling their story too. As a performer, when I study a piece, I’m thinking “What is the composer, what is the story, what is he trying to say?” And he might give me many options—it might be open-ended. And you know to think in those terms is like reading a great book. The Grapes of Wrath—what are the underlying themes here? What do I want to bring out? That’s how every story sounds a little different, played by different people. I think that’s awesome. I’m just addicted to music. I think that the ability to have a voice in telling a story is a powerful role for anyone to have.
What does it mean to you to be a part of the Celebration Series?
Oh, I am so thrilled. You know that Frederick Harris, the publisher for RCM, was my original publisher. They were the first—how long ago was it, 1993, 1994—they were the first to discover me when my music got submitted. There are so many publishers, but I always felt so thrilled that I was published with them because they’re known internationally, as being very scholarly. The editions are beautiful. They are one of the few series that through the years have highlighted women composers. I mean think about it, they selected me, my music. And I’m female, and I’m Asian. You don’t find that a whole lot. And this was before it was a cool thing to do! I love that, I respect that greatly. The editing is so thoughtful, it’s not too much. It's scholarly, it’s not just their opinions. I like that, and I’ve loved working with their team. I’m honored to have my music available in North America and in other countries through them. And through such a wonderful variety. I always come back to them because the pieces in their [collections] are unique. They’re not what you find commonly.
The work that you’re contributing here for the RCM is going to be gifted as a part of a Covid-relief package for music educators. I guess I’m wondering, has your relationship with music changed because of or after Covid?
Well, don’t you think it’s been a hard two years for everybody? Especially for young people, oh my goodness. The ones in school? Schools were just not prepared, were they? No, they were not prepared. It was just, “Let’s get the information out to them regardless of how.” It wasn’t about how you learn; it wasn’t about what is necessarily what they really need. Have you noticed that in times of crisis, that’s when the public needs art the most?
If it weren’t for Covid, I wouldn’t have learned how to use Zoom. I was teaching at the University of Denver, and I ran the piano pedagogy program for the master’s program there, and I noticed they had the Canvas platform. So before that, I had been dabbling with it, but to be honest, people in music, it’s just not what they do, usually. And I just remember thinking, "This seems like you could connect more with each other." I was experimenting, and thank god, because then we shut down. It was spring break, and everything was converted online. At least it wasn’t totally brand new, but still I had to learn. I’m so thankful because to be able to see the students in their homes for the first time, we don’t think about that. It was so much more personal.
I know it was hard, but out of that, there were some beautiful things. Being able to connect in the home. For them, it was different. And all the things that we were able to do via videos and getting even into artists homes, I mean don’t you think that was fabulous? Distance learning has been around for a long time. I’ve seen the topic at all the conferences I attend, but you don’t do it unless you have to. And what has changed for me is I’ve found I get surprised by people contacting me for lessons and asking me if they can get coaching or mentorship who are not in town. And at first when I got contacted by a wonderful musician and educator herself from Austin, I remember thinking, “Well I don’t know…would I really be able to help you with your technique and all that? I just can’t guarantee this.” And it has been the most liberating, exciting experience.
Is there something, maybe one thing that you keep in mind when you’re listening to new music? Maybe something that you’re looking for, or just a focused mindset?
[As a lifelong musician,] you’re taught from very young to evaluate. Self-evaluate, self- evaluate, self-evaluate. What I realized as I got older was, “Wait a minute, music is for everyone.” If I nitpick on every single thing, it’s going to rob the joy. And no one is disqualified from making music. We’re not so superior, it’s for everyone! The little five-year-old that just loved playing this Bach Minuet over and over again when she was unhappy and got into fights, it’s the same thing. So, I listen for enjoyment, I really do. The first thing I listen to, even if it’s Ed Sheeran’s “Shivers” or something, I just enjoy it. I get an emotional response and then, as the musician, the professional part of me will ask, what is it that makes me love this? What is it about this that makes it so special?
What is something that you wish people would know more about composers? What’s something about composing that people might not know?
Well, first of all, I guess it might help if they know that we can be alive! And, I don’t know if it’s kosher to put this in print, but that we’re not necessarily dead, white, European men. I remember I never really thought of myself as a composer until just the last couple of years. And I don’t think I realized I thought that? I just thought, oh, I haven’t been dead long enough yet.
I was in a conversation with Dr. Leah Claiborne this last summer at a conference online (just shows you what you can do online right? We’re kind of tired of it but still) and I had this memory, I had this epiphany. I could see myself as a 7- or 8-year-old, living in Malaysia, and thinking, “I just love playing the piano. I just love music.” My parents had really sacrificed to get me that piano from the military commissary, believe it or not. And I remember thinking, “What can I do in music? Maybe I could be a conductor.” I don’t know why—it’s not like I had seen a bunch of conductors in Malaysia. And I remember thinking, “Oh no. It looks like they’re all men, so for some reason, men must be better at being conductors.” Because it doesn’t occur to a seven- or eight-year-old that maybe it’s got to do with visibility.
The next thing I thought was, “Oh I could be a composer.” Well, I’m only playing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. And Mozart - I love Mozart and Chopin. But they’re all men. So, I’m thinking, “Well, I want to be really good at this, so maybe there must be some kind of ceiling that there are no women.” And I did not know that there were women. And then, I don’t know if I was ever told this, I got the impression that you had to be dead a long time, at least 50 years, for you to be considered a composer. So, you know, all these things are kinda true. It does matter. Then I thought to myself, “I guess I have to be a pianist. I guess I have to be a performer because that’s all that’s left.” So, what was your question again?
I think you answered it—you are alive!
I’m alive! And we can come in all shapes and sizes and ethnicities and ages. You know? And that, well, really in everybody there’s a little bit of a composer. Don’t you think?
I think so, I always like to think that we’re born singing and somewhere along the way someone told us that we couldn’t.
I know! That whole voice of “not good enough.” That needs to be banned.
Is there anything else that you would like to talk about or share?
I think that for me, composing gives me an opportunity—playing does too—to help us engage with beauty. And not even so much for me, obviously I’m in music because I got hooked on being engaged with beauty and expression, but it’s an opportunity to create something that can involve other people in beauty. And I think we need beauty. There are so many hard things, and beauty is healing to the soul.