George Li’s offical website illuminates his musical accomplishments while it resonates with gratitude for a community that has supported him over the years. A page link to a “family” circle of parents, teachers, mentors, and others, sends a heartwarming message that it takes a village to raise and nurture a musician as incomparably gifted as George.
A photo tribute to Li’s piano teachers that dates back to the pianist’s early years of study includes an equal tier of love and appreciation for all.
Each mentor is uniquely honored for having contributed to George’s musical development.
Still, an assortment of prizes and concert appearances could otherwise dominate his web profile.
“In July, George Li performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra and won first prize in the Cooper International Competition 2010. His generous prize package included $10,000, a full four-year scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and concerto performance opportunities in Beijing and Shanghai, China.
“In November, George took home top honors in the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. His winnings included debut performances in New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston, as well as three or more years of professional concert management by the YCA. (Read congratulatory letter.)
“In 2010, George successfully performed four newly-learned concertos with six symphony orchestras, as well as eight major solo recitals (for more information please visit George’s Highlights and Calendar). All of these performances received standing ovations and glowing Reviews.
“In addition, George successfully completed his ninth grade academic curriculum with excellent grades and wonderful compliments from all of his teachers.”
The most recent accolade was a music commentator’s remarks published in the May/June Issue of the International Piano:
“Just as with Lang Lang, it was clear that I was listening to a major talent that possessed all the ingredients for future greatness. It was equally apparent that I wasn’t listening merely to Li’s potential, what I was hearing was already mature artistry.”
George Li granted me a very special interview that fleshed out the magnitude of his intelligence, musical talent and sensitivity to life. It was a unique exploration of his artistic process and evolving life philosophy that befit a seasoned and wise prophet.
(On a personal note, George lives in Lexington, Massachusetts and attends the Walnut School for the Arts. A student at the New England Conservatory, he has a full roster of classes and a crowded schedule of solo recitals and chamber music performances that have taken him across the country.)
(SK denotes an abbreviation for Shirley Kirsten)
SK: George, I noted your vast solo, concerto and chamber music repertoire.
In this regard, you had mentioned in a 2008 published interview that you practiced “4 to 5 hours during school days, and longer on weekend and vacation days.”
As of 2012, in the present, what is your daily practicing routine? And can you fill us in on your approach to learning music?
How, for instance, do you warm-up at each session? (scales, arpeggios, 3rds, 10ths, 6ths?) Are there other routines that you might share?
George: When I practice, I usually go by 1-hour periods. I practice 3-4 hours a day on school days, and 7-8 hours on weekends and holidays. When I work through pieces, I practice slowly in order to thoroughly understand the harmonic phrases and musical details with separate hands as needed.
I also use dotted rhythms, practice phrase by phrase, and work out different voices separately. During the initial period, my main purpose is mastering all the musical details and technical requirements. However, sometimes my practicing is thinking about the music and conducting through it, developing the musical sense for the piece.
When I was younger I always practiced scales, arpeggios, Hanon and Czerny to warm up. Now, I usually practice Chopin etudes for warming up when I begin the day. Sometimes I practice the technically difficult phrases within the piece that I am working on.
SK: As for repertoire, how do you keep it percolating so you stay current with so many compositions? And how would you divide up your practice time as pertains to technique, review old repertoire, and learn new compositions?
I imagine that your concert agenda factors into your practicing priorities at any given time.
George: Well, now I learn a new program each summer, since I am playing different programs each year. Also I learn 2-3 concertos a year. So, that being said, I learn new compositions whenever I have a month or 2 in between concerts, and during the summer. I usually start reviewing repertoire 2-3 weeks before the concerts.
SK: I loved these particular quotes found at your website— comments made when you were 13.
“For me the piano is like a black box. Whatever I put in, that’s how it comes back. When I’m happy, it comes out happy. When I want to sing, it comes out singing. When I’m bored it comes out boring.”
Do you feel the same way about the piano in the present? Has your philosophy related to playing the piano grown or changed now that you are three years older?
George: Oh, yeah. Whatever you put into the piano, it comes out exactly like that. It can’t beautify itself without the pianist struggling to create that beautiful sound. The philosophical quote that I like the most is from Bruce Lee: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, and be like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes a cup; when you put it into a bottle, it becomes a bottle. Be water my friend.”
This is so amazing, especially since this is taken from a martial artist, yet it pertains to everything in life! I think the same applies to the piano artist, once a pianist has such adaptive ability and flexibility with his hands, he can create sounds and feelings ranging from tumultuous waves to pleading to even comforting a baby. I also like another quote from Bruce Lee: “Here is the natural instinct at one side and the control at the other side. You are to combine the two into harmony. If you have one to the extreme, it will be unscientific; if you have the other to the extreme, it will become a mechanical man.”
SK: I know you praise your piano teachers, but particularly dote upon Ms. Wha Kyung Byun of Lexington, MA. What makes this teacher special? How does she approach the music you are studying?
George: Ms. Byun is a mother-like teacher to me. She teaches me not only the piano techniques and music- making, but also how to become a decent human being. She tells me that I need to become a decent human being before becoming a good pianist. She teaches me countless technical and musical details about music-making. When she teaches a piece, she always wants me to find out the background and stories behind it so I can understand it in greater depth.
Ms. Byun has a very high standard for all of her students – she always tells us that you are now performing at the prodigious level but it is not sufficient, you need to perform at the artist level! I can feel that she has this kind of musical spirit, a spirit that inspires many to make and recreate music. That is not to say that my previous teachers, Mrs. Dorothy Shi and Mr. Yin Chengzong weren’t good; they were just as amazing. If not for them, I wouldn’t be here today.
SK: At the very beginning of your piano studies, at your tender age, did your first teacher integrate notation into your learning process, or were you given the Suzuki approach where the student copies the teacher without the benefit of a musical score? In this form of study learning to read music is considerably delayed.
George: I think it was much more of reading music than playing by ear when I was young, and I had never experienced the Suzuki approach. The only thing I remember that was similar to the Suzuki approach was when I learned rhythm from my first piano teacher (Dorothy Shi) – that was all done by ear. When I was eleven, I also learned sight reading from NEC. (New England Conservatory) This really helped me to improve my music-reading speed, and as a result, I learn pieces much faster than I would have five years ago.
SK: I was fascinated to read about the classes you take at the New England Conservatory.
And I was impressed that your favorites at the age of 13 were Chamber Music and Interpretive Music Theory.
This was your quote: “Music Theory is great because this year it’s about interpretation, and… it’s about what you think the music is about, and your idea about the piece.”
Having said that, do you analyze the harmonic progressions in your musical scores, as well as map out the form, structure as you learn a new composition from the ground up? What is your step-by-step process that leads to a certain satisfying mastery. Do you believe in slow, back tempo, separate hand practicing?
George: Yes, I find that knowing the harmony in a piece helps me play/perform it better. It helps me figure out where a phrase starts and ends. Also the different types of chords help me to know what colors are in that section and express them accordingly. For example, a diminished seventh might tell me that there is a feeling of anguish in that section. And yes, I believe in slow practicing, but not just slow practicing for the sake of practicing, but more like a slow motion of what I am going to play on stage. As they say, “Perfect practice make perfect.”
SK: What about music history courses? Have you taken these, and if so how have they enriched your piano study?
George: I am going to take Music History next year – the last year of my high school education at the Walnut Hill School (WHS) for the Arts. The Music Department of WHS offers Music History courses to all music students. But yeah, having knowledge of the composers past and the background of the pieces helps me a lot in general.
SK: Did your first piano teacher work on tone production, and how to physically produce a beautiful singing tone, since it’s such a wonderful characteristic of your playing. Same applies to your fluid phrasing.
George: Yes, my piano teachers have been huge influences on teaching me to produce a good sound by playing with a kind of cushion in the arms. My first 2 teachers really helped me to develop this. It was an extremely long process to master it in one piece, and even longer to do it as a second nature. As of today, my singing tone still isn’t quite there yet, but I am going to keep working on it until it is.
For the second question, this flow that I developed was largely due to my current teacher, Ms. Byun. She is always telling me to connect the notes to make a phrase, and always to step back and think about the whole picture after getting all the little details, as you would if you were painting.
SK: Your Masterclass with Lang Lang.. You played “Sunflowers” at the age of 9. I’m listening right now.
What was it like to be mentored in public by Lang Lang? What did you learn from him about the approach to that piece, and to music-making in general?
George: I remember that it was extremely exciting, and I was honored to play in it. He is really nice, really musical, and he knows a lot! I learned many things, including phrasing and characteristics in Chinese music. I really had a great learning time then.
SK: What are the pros and cons of the Masterclass setting from your personal perspective? (I know this is a tricky question)
George: I am not really sure, but I guess the experience and the atmosphere of the setting is really great. You get to learn from and to meet great artists of today, which is really cool! However, there are some cons, such as the duration of the class. Because it is 2 hours long, with 4 performers (usually), each person gets only half an hour, sometimes even less due to delays, pauses between performances, etc.
SK: What great pianists on the current concert scene are your favorites? How have they influenced your playing? Is there one in particular that stands out from the others, and why?
George: First of all, I really admire and love Russell Sherman’s playing. It’s so colorful, yet so unique that it’s totally inspiring. There is so much character, so much drama, and he does things totally unexpected that it takes your breath away. Plus, it is definitely convenient that he is the husband of my current piano teacher, Ms. Byun. A true artist, I would say. In addition, I really like Martha Argerich’s playing. It is so risky, yet controlled and excited. The way that she plays some pieces is just mind-boggling.
I feel that they have really influenced my playing, sometimes even unconsciously. Many times, it inspires me to play, giving me new ideas about a piece, opening an entire new world for me.
SK: In that connection, do you attend piano concerts featuring some of the more prominent players on the international scene? If so what performances most impressed or influenced you? What about recordings, or You Tube performances of other pianists. Are there ones to recommend?
George: Yes, I used go to piano/music concerts quite frequently, but less so recently due to my increasing number of engagements. Hearing live performances from great pianists is really beneficial to my musical growth. Again, going to Mr. Sherman’s performances are magical, magnificent experiences! I also listen to recordings from many other pianists, such as Horowitz. It is also really convenient to have You Tube, and there are a lot of great music videos that you can always find the ones you need.
SK: I notice that you have over 10 concerti in your repertoire amidst a vast solo and chamber music listing.
What is the importance of performing chamber music in your total music education? How does it enrich your solo performances or your study of the solo piano repertoire?
George: Playing chamber music is extremely important as a part of musical education. It helps you to listen to what you and your partners are playing, forcing you to adjust to and readjust to create a good balance among all instruments as a team. It is really a great and essential experience to ensemble music making because it transforms you into a good musician, and not just a pianist. My experience in playing chamber music allows me to enrich my solo performance greatly. In some master solo pieces, they harmonized many musical instruments, sometimes a small orchestra that embedded with many characters and beautiful colors. Only those who have enriched chamber music and/or orchestra experience can play these solo pieces well.
SK: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Do you want to teach as well as perform?
George: Hopefully, I will be able to play all around the globe. And I really want to play in the big hall in Carnegie Hall, as well as other great venues all over the world. However, my true goal is just to be able to share my music with everyone in the world, brighten up their lives, bring them happiness, and use my music to make them feel that the world is a better place to live in. And yes, it would be really interesting for me to teach as well as to perform – it will be a great fun!
SK: Thank you, George!
George Li’s Official Website
George Li’s Pianist Idol: Russell Sherman