Grant Kondo, Honolulu, Hawaii

“I always loved music and music was always part of my life. In high school I did almost everything that I could: I did piano, I did marching band, jazz band, concert band, played in musicals, and did competitions for piano and saxophone. I really enjoyed it. My parents were not the typical ‘you can’t do music’ kind of parents. But, I knew that stereotype against careers in music. So I thought, ‘If I can’t have a career in music, let me pick something else.’ It’s not like nothing else would work, so I thought, what else would interest me? Psychology is very interesting to me because it’s thinking about how people think. And I think that social interactions between people are interesting and important, no matter what field you go into. Specifically, the field of psychobiology was a way for me to get into pharmacy because my mother was a pharmacist. Pharm school is for four years, and then you can be a full-fledged pharmacist and make nice pay right out of there. But then I did it. I volunteered for a couple of weeks at a pharmacy, and then I instantly realized I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life. I also worked a couple of other office jobs, and I literally found myself watching the clock until it was time to go home. Even if I liked the job, that sort of regiment just wasn’t for me. I found myself organizing events and still doing music things even without pay, so I just thought I would do it full time. One thing about piano teaching, in particular, is that it’s also sort of like entrepreneurship and being a business owner and your own boss. I can do things in the way that I want.

Grant speaking at his studio’s holiday recital in 2017.
“One thing about piano teaching, in particular, is that it’s also sort of like entrepreneurship and being a business owner and your own boss,” he said. “I can do things in the way that I want.”

I started piano in first grade, and then saxophone was seventh grade. I’m pretty sure my parents just signed me up for various things just to see what would stick. I went to a group piano class where we had five keyboards. They saw that I liked it, so they signed me up at the nearby music studio with the cheapest, youngest teacher.

Obviously, by now, I know that eventually, piano came to something I was very passionate about. But when did it turn from something I was just doing to something I’m passionate about? 

It started with this piece called “Marching Season” by Yanni. This piece was played in this 10-piano concert that we used to do in Hawaii. It was the last piece of the concert, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a really cool piece.’ It was the first sheet music book I ever purchased, and it came in a book. I decided I would just play some of the other pieces in the book because that’d be a waste of money to just buy for one piece. I played all the other ones and then I thought, ‘Well that’s cool. Let me buy another one.’ That’s when things really took off because I started to sight-read a whole bunch of things. I played a lot of video games back then, so I would print video game sheet music. I used to have these two-inch binders of different kinds of music. When you can sight-read, things become a lot more enjoyable because you don’t have to practice as much. It’s not about more practice. It’s about efficient practice. I mean, I don’t like practice. 

In college, I wouldn’t say I played a lot, but I did play. At UCLA, they have some pianos in the dorms, and you can also pay a fee to use the music department practice rooms; eventually, when I moved into an apartment, I had my own keyboard. This was bad research on my part, but I had figured I would be a music minor at whatever college I went to. When I got to UCLA, I found out they don’t even have a music minor. I thought since I was at a large university, they should have whatever I want. Not true. Their music departments are more specialized, so it’s majors only. And so music was relatively small for me in college: I was in the Symphonic Band, but a saxophone. I don’t play the saxophone anymore. I don’t even talk about it. 

After I graduated from college, I did something in Japan called the JET Program, which is basically where they bring in foreigners to teach English to the Japanese school system. I did that for three years. The job itself was pretty easy. In the prefecture, we had the International Arts Festival every year. They had a nice stage and the venue that we rented included a Steinway piano, so every year I thought, ‘Well, I better take advantage of it.’ So every year I got a group of people together, and we did a couple of musicals such as Les Miserables and the Lion King. I put in a lot of work into that, and I just found how much I really like doing music things, playing music, and coordinating people. I could do something where I hope I can see more of an impact.

I moved back to California because Angela, my now-wife is from here. We moved here right before Christmas in 2013, and by the following Christmas, I had 50 students. I thought, ‘I can actually make a living off of this.’ And, well, we’re where we are now. 

When I first moved here, I had a lot of time on my hands. So I did various things; I taught English at the Japanese Senior Center, and I also played the piano at the hospital. I have a lot of music, so that’s right down my alley. It would be a service and it was gratifying. People would regularly come up and say thanks, and the occasional ‘Can you play softer?’. I was essentially live background music. It was just as much for me as it was for them. 

“There’s a certain high from playing classical music because it’s hard work. It’s very intricate and detailed and every note is thought out by the composers, so that’s a very valuable mindset. It just can’t be everything.”

The way that music in colleges are structured is heavily classical, which I think is very old school. It’s prime for change. Music education now is sort of almost like quiet, systemic racism because teachers only teach classical and pretty much everybody doesn’t see anything wrong with that. I think there’s just this large divide and the teachers want to teach classical because that’s what they know. That’s what they like, and that’s what they know. The thing about classical music is that there is a right and wrong. There are the correct rhythms and notes and fingering, but when you’re doing these other types of music with improv and all those other things, the teacher has less say about it. 

Sometimes I come off as anti-classical music, but that’s not true. If a student wants to play all these other kinds of music, the classical training will make you good at them. It has to be a balance. There’s a certain high from playing classical music because it’s hard work. It’s very intricate and detailed and every note is thought out by the composers, so that’s a very valuable mindset. It just can’t be everything.

Classical music should stand alongside other music as an equal, rather this current hierarchy of classical music as the gold standard, the art form, and everything else is supplemental or for fun. People don’t even see anything wrong with it, so I’m trying to speak out about it. So many people quit lessons. A lot of times the teachers blame the students for not being ‘made for it.’ I don’t think teachers look at themselves enough —  there’s more to it than just the student. 

The reality is, every one of my students has played some classical music, but it doesn’t resonate with a lot of people for various reasons. It’s more fun to play than to listen to. Even if you look at my playlist, there’s very little classical music on it. Another thing is the acoustic element of it. To hear it through speakers or headphones, it’s not the same sonic experience as hearing it from a piano. Part of it is a cultural thing: if you go to any piano event that is ‘serious,’ you just assume that it’s classical. We always just play the same composers. There’s been a lot of research on professional orchestras, and what they play is very classical-heavy. It’s not like teachers are against it, they just don’t know how to get into it.”

— Grant Kondo, Honolulu, Hawaii

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