Hung-Kuan Chen had a natural affinity for science as a child and wished to become a scientist. Because of his curious nature he wished to explore the world and he believed science was the path to follow, but a sudden revelation at the age of 16 led to a change of direction.
[Music] opened up a different world to me that I didn’t know before.
The young Chen was practicing the slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29, Op. 106 (best known as the Hammerklavier), when he had what he calls a mystical experience—a feeling that there was something immense beyond the piece that he couldn’t quite grasp.
The Taiwanese-born Chen was living in Germany at the time, where his elder sister was already becoming an accomplished pianist. The experience triggered his natural curiosity and led him to think that he could discover more through music than through science.
“[Music] opened up a different world to me that I didn’t know before,” said Chen in a phone interview from his Boston studio.
Today, Chen is one of the most decorated pianists of his generation. A recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, he has also been awarded top honours in the Arthur Rubinstein, the Busoni, the Montreal, and the Geza Anda International Piano competitions, among others.
An accomplished teacher, Chen currently teaches at the New England Conservatory in Boston and also at Yale University. He has also taught at Boston University and was a Distinguished Artist in Residence at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
Creating a sense of wonder
Chen said he takes a holistic approach to life and music, believing there is much more out there than what one sees, hears, and touches.
His music has been said to produce a sense of wonder in the audience, which he likens to a miracle—something that is at once unfamiliar, beautiful, and elating.
“I think that is the eternal wish that we humans have. We want miracles, we want to be in a world of wonder, we want to be enticed and to believe that there is this incredible beauty,” he said, adding that music allows one to experience this.
He believes this wonder is created when the performer is able to channel the source that inspired the composition of the music, which he sees as a greater reality or truth. In Chinese philosophy, this concept refers to the oneness (the Tao), which Chen believes to be the equivalent of what people understand as God in the West.
For Chen, artists are particularly lucky because their profession allows them to connect to this greater sense of reality. He believes intuition plays an important part in this process.
“For me the intuitive approach is the most important, and the intellectual approach comes right after that—it’s one step behind.”
Chen became especially in tune with this holistic approach after a hand injury he suffered in 1992, which eventually led to focal dystonia, a neurological condition that has afflicted many musicians, including American pianist Leon Fleischer.
He stayed completely away from the piano for six years and didn’t fully recover until 13 years later. Yet when he began playing again, he felt refreshed and equipped with a better understanding of life and music.
“It gave me the opportunity to see the world differently, to experience life differently, and to understand things that I wouldn’t have understood if I just played piano. For that, I think it was a gift.”
Chen said his intuition and study of qigong, a type of yoga with a spiritual focus, helped him recover, when many other musicians could not.
Guiding young musicians
Chen said musical education is a wonderful opportunity for young children to have, noting that age 6 or 7 is a good time to start—the age he was when he began playing.
“Music-making helps cultivate the mind, the body, and the spirit,” he said, adding that music also cultivates the emotions and a sense for beauty and proportion, among others.
“It’s almost a complete education.”
Chen explained that in ancient Chinese society, students wanting to become officials had to go through a series of four examinations consisting of music, chess, literacy, and visual art. Music was the first, which was not coincidental. He believes this was because music is the most complex and the most balanced of all.
He noted that Harvard University is an example of a school that gives special consideration to applicants who are accomplished in music.
“Once [young children] come in touch with it, they might evolve into a person that has a sense for aesthetic value and perhaps even for complex thinking,” he said.
Many studies have shown that children who have studied music do better in other areas because their mind is swifter, said Chen.
Hung-Kuan Chen will perform with Mooredale Concerts on Sunday, March 3, at University of Toronto’s Walter Hall. The main concert will be preceded by a separate concert for children (ages 6-15) and adults willing to learn about music and music-making. For more details, visit www.mooredaleconcerts.com
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