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Stephanie Wong

Imagiverse Co-founder/University Student
Alberta, Canada

How old were you when you first started learning to play the piano?

I had my little electronic keyboard for a long time, before I can remember.  I learned (not sure how) to read musical "letters" - ABCDEFG - and could sound out a tune looking at the letters and knowing the rhythm of the song.  Those early days are vague.  I started piano lessons at the age of 7, still with my keyboard, but moving to a real piano shortly thereafter.  Learning to read music wasn't difficult at all, since all I had to do was associate the letters to the actual notes on the staff.  It was fun playing these little "baby" songs, tunes that I could master within a few minutes or hours.  I still have my early piano books.  The songs are so short and cute!

What was your first recital like?

Frankly, I don't remember much of my first recital.  I must've still been 7 years old.  However, I ALWAYS get nervous when playing the piano in front of people.  It is something that I still cannot shake off, so I am sure that I wasn't one happy child that day!  I played a short song, I think a "Grade 1 Study" in a church.  It wasn't on a stage, but on ground level with the rest of the audience.  I got through with no problems.  I wore a white dress with red ribbons.  I shudder at the fact that I wore such a thing!  And that was my favorite dress!

How long did you take formal lessons?  What would you like to do with your knowledge of piano and music?

I continued with my piano lessons until my first year of university.  I stopped the lessons sort of unwillingly, since I didn't have the time to manage my academic studies and play serious piano simultaneously.  I want to retake lessons again, and I hope to do it in the near future.  I'm itching to improve, but without the pressure of weekly lessons, I am not getting much practice.  I took a few university music courses... of course being the only engineering and math student in a class full of music majors was kind of weird.  It was a fun change of pace, though.  I'd like to take more.

I play music for my own personal pleasure.  I do it because I want to do it.  I admit I get a bit of a "buzz" when I actually do perform in public, but I get too nervous prior to (and during) the performance to make a serious hobby of performing solo.  However, I do want to reach performance level.  I am at the level of advanced piano studies, and I will need an instructor to take me to the next level.  Music is the second half of my personality.  It is a part of me.

Did you ever play any other instruments?

I played flute in school band from grade 7 to grade 12.  I've tried the piccolo, the alto and tenor saxophone, the French horn and the recorder.  I've also banged on a few percussion instruments.  With regards to the flute, I stumbled towards it moreso because my friend chose that instrument in band, and I wasn't allowed to do percussion.  I did enjoy playing the flute, though I do wish I had picked another instrument.  For a flute, only about half of your air goes into the hole.  You've got to have good breath support and a good embouchure (how you shape your mouth over mouthpiece) or it sounds really airy!  I find the flute a bit too shrilly, although the low mellow register is lovely.

The saxophone is kind of cool, but I guess too "modern" for my taste.  It's not a classical instrument that's for sure.  However, it was really easy playing the saxophone after learning the flute, seeing that the fingering is almost the same, and that I learned how to blow into that kind of mouthpiece from observation in band class.  Again, I like the richer lower tones of the tenor sax as opposed to the alto, although the instrument's a little bit too big for me to handle!

I tried the French horn for about a month.  It was interesting, and I think I could do some decent playing if I took lessons.

The recorder is a versatile instrument that I play on and off.

Do you like to practice?

It depends.  When I get to play songs that I like, I can play for hours on end.  When it is near exam or recital time and I am racing to memorize and perfect a few pieces, I don't enjoy it very much.  I still hate playing technique (scales, chords, arpeggios, etc.) and have tried to avoid it as much as I can.  Technique does have its important uses, though.  Without technique, you aren't much of a musician.

I would say at the beginner's and intermediate level, you don't need that much practicing.  Just be diligent in the time that you do practice.  Towards the intermediates, you have to allow for at least an hour of practicing.  If you're at the advanced level that I'm in, you need at least 2 hours a day to do some serious improving.  Because the songs are harder, you need much more time to get it working, plus the pieces are so long that it's impossible to spend a short time at it.  If you want to be a performer, try 3 to 5 hours at a minimum.  That might seem a lot, but remember, as a performer, you are doing what you love.

What type of music do you enjoy listening to the most?

I almost exclusively listen to classical music.  I like the Bach keyboard works.  The counterpoint is so intricate; each voice is interwoven into one consonant melody.  It brings me back to the age of the Renaissance and Baroque, which is alluring.  Mozart is a master of turning a simple set of notes into fantastic piano sonatas, concertos and symphonies.  I like to say that Mozart is easy to play, but difficult to play well!  Mozart's church work, the Requiem, moves me. I love the Requiem!  The Beethoven sonatas and symphonies are so dramatic.  Schumann, Schubert and Chopin are the Romantics that I like the most.

In a way, I think my musical tastes have matured.  I began with a large liking of Romantic music (by that I mean the age of the Romantics [1825-1900], not necessarily the "lovey-dubby" music).  Most of it is easy to grasp.  From then on, I've inched into earlier and earlier music to the point of Medieval.  Yes, I even like those old ancient chants!  To appreciate music of any era, you have to think, imagine or understand the context from which they came from.  For example, when I play Mozart, I imagine being in a palace salon, with the lords and ladies walking about.  When you see the structure that goes into a church mass, it's no longer one lengthy piece of monotony.  I listen to Bach and Mozart the most.

Why do you think classical music enhance learning of mathematics?  How is classical music like mathematics?

You bring me to a point where I have to start lecturing about ancient Greek thought.  In the good ol' Ancient Greece days, the philosophers grouped academic subjects into two general categories: the Trivium and the Quadrivium.  The Trivium consisted of the "lighter" studies of grammar, rhetoric and logic.  The Quadrivium, the "higher" studies, were made up of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and harmonics (music).  Up until around the 1600s, music was considered more of a science than an art. Philosophers studied the numerical properties of pitches, beats and intervals.  Like the heavens, they believed music had an order to it that must be followed.  The tritone was considered "demonic" and to be avoided at all costs.  Intervals like the 3rds were unsightly until the Baroque period.  In a sense, music is simply sound waves.  Sound waves travel at particular frequencies.  Some sound consonant to our ears, some dissonant.  In fact, instruments still cannot be perfectly tuned today, since, believe it or not, our major-minor tonality cannot exactly "fit" on a piano keyboard.  Some cultures follow the whole-tone scale while others the pentatonic scale.

Try this: Play the C-major scale, but skip the F (4th note) and B (7th note).  If you just do that or play a mish-mash of white keys, avoiding F and B, you will sense an "oriental' tone to the sounds.  That's because you are playing notes within the pentatonic scale, which, for example, is the tonal system used in traditional Chinese music.

So, while most people don't notice it, there is an underlying mathematical and scientific principle behind music.  In the past, thinkers troubled and toiled over modes, lengths of vibrating strings, and there are some that still do today.  As for how classical music has enhanced math, well, music is a concrete example of what is useful about math.  In my opinion, rather, I think math has profoundly affected music.  If the ancients had not been so fixated on their various "acceptable" modes, tones and intervals, western music today might be entirely different.  Music has been manipulated by math for centuries so that the two are historically intertwined.  Math and music today are used together in computer-generated MIDI.  Sound systems are positioned in certain places so that the sound waves don't cancel each other out.  Music halls are now technologically-complex, designed to maximize sound and clarity.  It's a part of music, whether you notice it or not.  It's like living on Earth, but not necessarily knowing how the universe formed.

Can you play "by ear"?

I can recognize songs pretty easily.  I can watch a movie and listen to a short bit of its theme and years later be able to associate "that song" to the movie.  Playing out the melody blindly is a different matter. I can sound out a tune on the piano with some effort but certainly not an entire piece without having learned it first.  I am not yet at the point where I can affirmatively tell pitches, as in knowing if something is a C or D, but I am getting better at it.

Have you ever composed any pieces of your own?

No.  I have gotten short little motivic mottos in my head, but I've never written them down or remembered them for more than 5 minutes after I came up with them.  I sometimes add my own ornamentation to existing pieces of music, but that is the extent of my composing.  If I want to seriously compose (in classical style), I will have to learn music harmony and counterpoint.

Do you sing?  Can you imagine yourself playing in a rock band?

I sing... but not in public.  I am sure I'd scare everyone away before I hit the end of the line.  No, I can't imagine myself playing in a rock band.  I'm imagining myself plopped on a rock concert stage, and it isn't clicking.  That's not to say that I don't listen to popular music.  I do, and some I do like.  But I am one of those people who like the old traditional things and the more I learn about the old things, the more I want to learn about the even more older things!  Do you want me to sing some troubadour chansons for you?

What pieces or composers do you recommend for listening in early childhood years?

I think one of the composers that might get children's attention is Mozart.  His music would be great for starters.  Mozart wrote 12 piano variations on "Ah !  Vous dirai-je, maman", commonly known as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star".  That would surely be of interest as they sing along.  Gradually, introduce them to some more deeper or complex pieces of music.  Remember, knowing the context of the piece will help greatly.  When you encounter classical music in TV shows, let them know who wrote it.  If you don't know where it comes from, find out for yourself.  You might be surprised that some everyday common tunes come from the Greats.  Expose them as many different sorts of music as you can, and they will appreciate even the rarest gems we rarely hear anymore.  Get them involved in music from other cultures.  History can be tracked through a culture's music.  It can be an enriching and broadening experience.

If actually taking music lessons, try to stay away from exams and such in the early years.  The problem is, if music is made to be a strict regiment, it turns many kids away.  When they do start doing exams, try avoiding the standard repertoire books.  It's probably hard to find the required pieces of music separately early on, but as you progress into intermediate piano, try to buy books that they like and still contains some material from the repertoire list.  The thing is that being limited to one "master" book, there's going to be a lot of songs that they won't like and it's limiting their musical horizons.  And that way, seeing that they'll have both repertoire and fun popular songs, they won't associate the classical stuff to the "boring" repertoire.  Classical may be fun!

I know in elementary school, we'd go to orchestral performances of Peter and the Wolf.  The flute was the little bird, the oboe was the duck, the clarinet was the cat, the hunters were the drums, and the bassoon was the old grandfather.  Three French horns portrayed the wolf and Peter was represented by all the strings of the orchestra.  I can't tell whether it impacted me as a child, but certainly it introduced me to some instruments and got me thinking a little bit about music.

What do you recommend for a child who does not have the money to take music lessons or purchase an expensive instrument?

You don't need expensive lessons or an expensive instrument to learn basic music.  Many elementary schools teach basic music notation and reinforce what is learned through singing.  Recorders are popular in elementary schools.  They are extremely easy to play and cost only a few dollars.  You can play pretty much anything on a recorder.  Remember, recorders are actual serious musical instruments.

Go participate in any kids music program at your local orchestra.  Go to music workshops.  Go listen to public performances.  I strongly recommend joining a school band if you can afford it.  Depending where you live, a band program's cost can vary a lot, because some programs are government-subsidized and the instruments are rental.  I can tell you for one year of band at my old high school, it cost less than one private piano lesson.

What instrument have you not played that you would like to learn if you had the time?

I want to play the harpsichord, but where in the world am I supposed to find a harpsichord?  The early music in me makes the harpsichord attractive.  Bach just isn't Bach when played on the piano.  The detached, staccato-like sound of the harpsichord has a tone altogether different from a piano.  I'll have to get my hands on one of them someday.  I cannot imagine never trying it at least once.

Something I definitely want to do is play in a serious orchestra or band.  I'm not sure if the flute is the right instrument.  I enjoy playing it, but I'm not sure it's my "love" and if I can excel at it.  I want to play classical music in an appreciable orchestra.  The piano won't work, since it isn't an orchestral instrument.  So, I am thinking about what I'd seriously want to try and get good at.  I am looking at the oboe or French horn as possible choices.  I love the sound of a wooden flute...  I just might try every single instrument that has ever been invented!!!

Send your questions about classical music to: Imagiverse - Ask The Expert

Personal Interview (3 August 2007)
Personal Interview (15 March 2003)
17 May 2002

- 25 August 2003


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Last Updated:
22 August 2003

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