Lucas Clark, San Jose, California

“I’ve realized a lot about music and interacted though music in a unique way through In the Groove. The game is basically an American spinoff of Dance Dance Revolution. There are four arrows — up, down, left right — and you step on the arrows to the beat of the music. That game was originally made by a Japanese company, but an American company made In the Groove, where you could actually use custom songs. Eventually, it stopped being produced because of a lawsuit, but the community still lived on and produced content for the game. The game has gotten to a point where people can pass these incredibly difficult charts, which are the set of arrows that go with a song. 

For me, creating the step charts is the whole creative process in of itself. You have to think of how you want to mimic the music with the movement. I made a chart as a summer project; I’m maybe halfway up the difficulty curve, but a huge way from the top players, who can play at 250 beats per minute. 

Lucas playing an In the Groove chart that he created.

In the chart I made, there are some really dense parts. I’ll have ideas for certain patterns that I’ll determine, then the rest will be neutral material so that those parts stand out. The pattern will highlight parts of the song that I want to bring out, and the rest is just filling in the gaps. It probably looks like a bunch of notes flying around, but it’s funny how much intent you can convey with four notes and rhythm. 

For example, when you don’t have your feet switching arrows, you’ll have a box, where your feet stay on the same arrow. Right foot stays on the right arrow twice, and left foot stays on the left arrow twice. I intend to emphasize the string tremolo in the back of the mix. I just listen to the music and think of what can be easily emphasized by the techniques I already know. Since this song has an A-B-A structure, I took the notes from the A section and mirrored them, so all lefts become rights and all rights become lefts. It adds cohesion to the song. 

It’s very artistic, and you can convey a lot of your intent with the decisions you make, even though it’s very limited. You can make something that’s very satisfying and aesthetically pleasing to play, even though it’s a different realm of aesthetics. It’s a combination of rhythm and feeling. 

After making the chart, it’s really fun to play it and finally feel the theoretical things that you had in your head. The other part of it is sharing it with people and seeing if they can understand and interpret what you’re doing.”

— Lucas Clark, San Jose, California

You can view Lucas’s Twitch streams of his In the Groove sessions here.

You can learn more about Lucas’s music at

Max Amend, San Jose, California

“Someone mentioned to me recently that music is a universal language and that really resonated with me. I take Spanish at my school, so I know what it means to study a language. I also know what it means to comprehend the technicalities of the musical language. Music is beyond the technicalities though; when you learn Spanish, you can only speak to other people who know Spanish, but with music, you don’t really need to have the education side of it to benefit from it. Anyone can benefit from it.

I’ve been raised with the belief that giving back is equally, if not more, important than receiving. I am grateful for my parents who have supported my musical journey and have supplied me with lessons in the piano, violin, and viola. My parents let me learn three instruments, and I think it’s important to use it more than playing in a recital three times a year. Music has taught me to be a servant leader by sharing my gift of music with the world, and it has given me a reason to encourage others to impact the lives of others with their music. 

“My parents let me learn three instruments, and I think it’s important to use it more than playing in a recital three times a year.”

I’ve always been involved in the music department at my school, Bellarmine College Prep: I stand as the Principal Violist and head up service and outreach on the music department’s leadership committee, so I organize performances at different organizations for all of the music groups.

When quarantine hit, I had a bunch of extra time, so I decided it was best to step it up as a runner. When I was on one of my runs, I passed by an assisted living facility, and I saw the activity director walking in for the day with a mask on. I got home that Tuesday, and thought, “What can I do for them?” I had live concerts for numerous organizations that I had to cancel because of COVID-19, but I still wanted to still connect with them through music. I came up with the idea of creating virtual concerts for isolated and lonely individuals during the pandemic. I started with contacting the 20 kids from the music program that were involved with service performance. Then, I went through my school’s coordinator to plan another virtual concert, and even more people got involved  — even teachers and people not in the music program. It was supposed to be one concert, but then it became a concert series because so many people had responded. I built it in a place of discomfort because I had to step it up as a leader. I had to make all of these phone calls to organizations, and I had no video editing skills before, but I was driven to make a difference. 

As of now, I don’t have plans to be a professional musician, but music will continue to be one of my ways of connecting with others. One of my favorite things to do is a Christmas concert that my two brothers and I do for my parents and my grandparents. We all play the piano and violin, and so after every Christmas Eve dinner, we all sit down and play duets and trios. My grandma is a retired piano teacher, and my dad is a pianist, so I guess music has been a part of my entire life. I like that community. It’s my family — my smallest community of musicians. Recently, my brother Alex and I have been using our violin skills in the virtual concerts. He got into composing and together we work through his creations. Music has been one way the two of us have been able to deepen our relationship as brothers as well as serve others through the virtual concerts. That’s the kind of stuff that I’ll continue doing as it brings me joy to build connections through music.”

— Max Amend, San Jose, California

Art of the Heart provides young musicians with a space to showcase their talents while bringing the joy and comfort of music to senior citizens, the developmentally challenged, pediatric patients, and low-income adults. Learn more about Art of the Heart here.

Zahra Jeevunjee, Los Gatos, California

“Music was a way for me to express myself in a way that words could not. Ever since I can remember I have been singing. It allows you to dig up a story from the heart and let it out through your voice. Pouring my thoughts into a song is something that has become so effortless and natural, and it allows me to feel free.

My piano journey began at the age of 4. My grandfather used to listen to a lot of piano music with me. I would listen and watch in awe at the piano player’s hands flying across the keys. I knew that I wanted to do that. For a young kid, practicing was a task I despised and got very bored of doing, but luckily, the people around me always encouraged me to continue instead of quitting, something I’m glad I didn’t do. Music is a part of me that I was brought up with and something that I count on everyday.”

— Zahra Jeevunjee, Los Gatos, California

Kailyn Fong, Concord, California

“I remember hearing my dad playing piano. I loved it, and I wanted to do just what he was doing. So in 5th grade, I finally enrolled in piano lessons. I was operating under the delusion that I would be able to play as well as him as soon as I started. It was not as I hoped. It was hard and boring and extremely annoying as my parents would constantly remind me to practice. Soon, though, maybe in the middle of 7th grade, I began to like it. I could play harder pieces and choose to play songs that I knew and liked. I love pop music, so I would find chords to songs and sing along to the piano. I write lyrics to songs, and soon, I began to create piano music for my songs. I think that’s what I’m really into. I mostly write pop but sometimes infuse a touch of country or elements of R&B.

During quarantine, I’ve decided to learn a new instrument. I found my mom’s old acoustic guitar, tuned it, and started to teach myself. Now when I write music I add guitar. While we were in quarantine I also found myself playing piano more. I even found one of my favorite piano composers named Yiruma. I liked how calming his pieces were and am now playing multiple of them. I recently found out how to use GarageBand, so I’ve been recording songs on there and hope to have people hear them someday. Now that I look back I’m glad my parents forced me to continue piano because if they hadn’t, I never would have really found my love for music.”

— Kailyn Fong, Concord, California

Richard C. Alston, East Orange, New Jersey

“I began music lessons literally when I came home from the hospital as an infant because my grandmother was a pianist, a soprano, and a music teacher. Shortly after I came home from the hospital as an infant, my mother, who was a registered nurse, went back to work, so Nana was taking care of me.

She would play for me, sing for me, take me to the piano. When I was actually one year old, she began giving me lessons. Unfortunately, she died when I was five years old. I went to a local piano teacher, a wonderful woman named Dorothy A. Earley, who taught me out of a John Thompson Piano series and later gave me the Steinway baby grand piano, the same piano that I used to take lessons on.”

Richard at 12 years old playing in his last recital with teacher Dorothy Earley, who would hold a student recital every year in April. 

“I’m very, very sensitive to color and music. In the John Thompson preparatory book, there weren’t any pieces where your hands really played together, but the very first piece in Grade 1 had the left hand play the C below middle C and the right hand play the E above middle C. I know now that’s an interval of a 10th, but then I knew nothing about intervals. What I did know was that sound struck something in my soul. I can’t explain it. It was the sound. I had heard nothing like that before. To this day, when I play, I look for color in the harmonies and the melodies. 

Musical things made a great impression on me as a child. My parents sang in the church choir, and one Christmas they took me to the candlelight service. At some point, all the lights are turned off in the church, and people have a candle. At this service, all the lights were off at the very beginning of the service, and they were just done by candlelight. I was so mesmerized. I remember to this day the music that was sung and played at the candlelight service. I left in such a heightened state that that night, my mother had candles all around the living room in celebration of Christmas. When my parents went to sleep. I got all my toys and lined them all around my toy organ. I lit all the candles that mother had. It was a very dangerous thing that I did, but I was so mesmerized that I had to have my own candlelight service. The next morning, my mother woke up, and she said “Ricky, what did you do last night?” and I said “I had a candlelight service!” She asked me a second time, “Did you light my candles?” and she said, “You did. It could have been a very dangerous thing that you did. Don’t you ever do that again.” At first I wondered how she knew, but then I realized: her candles were little angels, and that morning, they had no heads!”

The organ that Richard played at his “Candlelight Service” in front of his toys when he was 9 years old.

“My father recognized that his son was strange. When he saw that, he looked at the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times and began to get tickets and subscribe to concert series. When I was a teenager, every weekend, my father took me to New York to hear all the great pianists. I will never forget.”  

Richard (right) and his father (left) in February 2020 after one of Richard’s concerts.

“My teenage years were very lonely years because I was practicing three-plus hours a day. I didn’t have any friends who felt about music the way I did, so they didn’t understand my practicing. So I sort of kept to myself. I was teased by fellow students and faculty of high school. But I loved music and I loved the piano so much that it didn’t deter me.”

An article written about Richard in high school by his oldest friend, Margaret Leone. The article was placed at every table setting at the class reunion.

“I call Sylvia Rabinof my piano mother. I achieved so much under Ms. Rabinof: I made my debut at Lincoln Center with the Symphony of the New World playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto when I was 17 in my senior year of high school, and I began performing professionally at 15 going before audiences. She said to me one day: “Do you want to be a good piano player? Or do you want to be an artist? Mind you, if you select the second, you’re in for a life of work, never ceasing.” I have a letter she wrote to me years and years later. In the letter, she says, “Do you remember when I asked you that question?” What she meant was that it’s not just enough to play a song. You have to know about the composer. You have to know why the composer called a piece that. For example, I was learning the piano Sonata by Beethoven “The Tempest.” A death mask is something that was done to a person after they died. They took plaster and put it over the person’s face, then poured bronze into the cast, and out came this mask of the person in death. Mrs. Rabinof had a copy of the death mask on the wall, and she said, “Look at that. Look at him. Even in death, he was not at peace. He was not just deaf, but he struggled.”

It took me a long time to learn the piece “The White Peacock” because I didn’t want to learn it. It was by Charles Griffes, and it was done in the impressionist style. I came to the lesson and Ms. Rabinof said, “What have you prepared?” When I told her, she said, “What about ‘The White Peacock’?” I said I needed more time. This continued until the third week I came, and she said to me right away, “I want to hear ‘The White Peacock’.” I hadn’t practiced it. She said, “I’m not going to teach you. You’re not going to get a lesson today, and you’re not going to get a lesson until you come to me with that ‘White Peacock.’” Well, she took my mother’s check. When I finally learned it, she had me go to the Bronx Zoo and watch the peacocks. “A peacock does not walk like a pigeon. In New York, they have pigeons all over the street, but I want you to look at the peacock because in order to play this piece effectively, you have to have in your mind how a peacock walks, how a peacock will run, when the male opens the fan what that looks like.” This is what she meant when she said, “If you want to be an artist and play like an artist, you have to know more than just the notes. I achieved so much under Mrs. Rabinof: I made my debut at Lincoln Center with the Symphony of the New World playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto when I was 17 in my senior year of high school, and I began performing professionally at 15 going before audiences. 

After making my debut with the orchestra as a senior, I went to Juilliard, which was a dream. Dorothy Earley graduated from Juilliard, and as a black woman in the forties, this was a great accomplishment. Importantly, she told me about the Juilliard School. During one New York excursion, my father took me to the Juilliard School for me to see it. They were finishing up the new school at Lincoln center, and the lady gave me a catalog. I must have been 11 or 12 years old, but I had dreamt about the Juilliard School from my first piano teacher. 

In my sophomore year at Juilliard, the cafeteria at that time was on the second floor. I got out of the elevator, the second floor and I stopped, and I looked around and I said, “I’m here. I am here.” You know why I did that? It wasn’t just because I had heard about the school, and my first teacher went there, or because my father got me the catalog. So many people look back on their lives and say, “I wish I realized where I was when I was there; I just wish I realized the opportunity that I had while I was having it.” I knew the opportunity I had. I knew where I was. Everything wasn’t a bed of roses. There were some thorns.

When I started Juilliard, I wasn’t performing quite as much. I had a new teacher, of course, and Mrs. Rabinof was very adamant about me giving him the chance to teach me. But after I got accepted and before attending the school, I went through a period that I didn’t want to go. Even though this was The Great Juilliard School, I was apprehensive. When my mother told her about my second thoughts, evidently, she flew off the handle. She said, “You tell him he is going there, that it’s time that he experienced a different view for his playing, and that this is a wonderful experience. That’s the end of it: he’s going.” The very first time I played in my new teacher’s masterclass, I didn’t feel I played well. I called Mrs. Rabinof from a public phone and was crying. She told me to calm down and relax and everything. It was traumatic because she even said it: “I’m kicking him out of the nest.” I couldn’t understand it because I had achieved so much under her tutelage. But I’m glad that she and my mother prevailed and that it wasn’t up to me. 

After Juilliard came a lot of performances. I knew when I was in high school that I did not want to become a public school music teacher. I knew I wanted to be a concert pianist, but I knew I did not want to take my knowledge and skills to public school only because I wanted to be with students who wanted to be in my class. So I became a college professor not too long after I graduated from Julliard with my masters, and I still am.

I am driven. One day my piano tuner came to tune my piano. At the time, I was teaching at a community music school. He said the piano teacher at Rutgers University is going to take a leave of absence because she’s pregnant, and they’re going to need to find someone to take over her pupils. The minute my piano tuner left my house, I got in my car. I went directly to Rutgers University and to the music department. I went up to the Secretary, and I said, “Hello, my name is Richard Alston, and I should be teaching here.” I had my resumé. She introduced me to the head of the department, he said to me, “A lot of people would like to teach here. Leave me with a resume, but I can’t promise you.” When I left his office, I remembered that when I was 13, I met a man named Professor Chester Smith at that same department. He had read about me in a newspaper, and he wanted to meet me, possibly to teach me. So I asked the secretary if Professor Smith was still teaching here, and she said yes. I said, “Is his office still around the corner?” She said yes, go say hello. I knocked on his door, and he remembered me. I was older, but he remembered me. 

I told him I read that one of the teachers was leaving, and he said, “Well, you would be perfect to take her place.” I said, “Well, I just met your chairperson, and he said that he would get back to me, so I don’t know if that will come to pass.” I thanked Professor Smith and everything I left.

Five minutes after I got home, the chairperson called me. He said, “Professor Smith knows you evidently and highly recommends you, so if you want to teach here still, we’ll have you. I got back in my car and drove back down there. If we want some things in life, we have to go after them. We can’t wait until someone gives them to us or asks us if we want it. We have to go after it. Sometimes we might hit a wall or a door might not be open, but this has been something all my life that has been a mission. I feel that I was put here to make music at the piano and to share it, so when opportunities knock, you have to be ready.

Someone once said to me, “One day you’re going to see something, and you’re going to say, “That should be me.” Well, when I read that they were doing a production of Porgy and Bess at the Met, and I went to see it. They opened all of the cuts that Gershwin was forced to make when he put it on Broadway. It begins with a piano piece called “Jazzbo Brown Blue,” and I said, “That should be me up there.” Before it could be me though, I had to learn it, so when the opportunity knocks, I will be ready. Well, I ended up being selected to do it on the stage of the Met. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, I felt like I was in the Land of Oz, because it was just so magical. 

I wasn’t nervous. I never use the word nervous. We might have anxiety. Here’s an example about anxiety. I was feeling “nervousness,” and I said to myself, is this what I want to do? And then I look back. I look back to when I was a child, and I would do little Sunday afternoon recitals with my toys as the audience. I looked back and I remembered making my debut at Lincoln Center. The answer was yes. This is what I want to do. You should always know where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to go throughout your entire life. I’ve been so blessed with so many wonderful, wonderful experiences and opportunities, but it’s not over.

Many musicians who I know have retired, and they’re the same age I am. But there was a very famous pianist called Simon Barere, and he died on the stage of Carnegie Hall playing the Grieg piano concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra. So if it’s destiny, when I have to go, I want to go with my boots on.

Pianists — I guess because what we do is serious — we’re serious when we play. Even when we play a piece that’s fun. I noticed that all the pianists came out on stage looking serious. They had a job to do, and they were going to do it. Then my father took me to hear Arthur Rubinstein. He walked on stage with a smile on his face. He was happy to see me there. So I said, “Forget about this seriousness. I am happy to perform for these people.” 

A couple of years ago, I performed at Carnegie Hall. After the performance, one of my friends and choir members of my church said to me, “When you walked out on stage, you had this huge smile on your face.” She said she couldn’t get over it. I said, “Well, first of all, I was at Carnegie Hall! I had something to smile about. Second, I remember seeing Arthur Rubinstein walk up on that same stage, and he smiled. I was not only happy I was at Carnegie Hall. I was happy to see you and everyone else I invited to share this experiment experience with me.”

Richard onstage in 2017 at Carnegie Hall, where he smiled because he was happy to be there.

“When I was maybe nine years old, next to the Clementi Sonatina, next to the Bach Invention, I was playing this piece by a man that looks like me: “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” by James Bland. This was one of the inspirations for my lecture “Classically Black,” and I play the tune in the lecture. 9 out of 10 times, people think Stephen Foster wrote it, but it was written by a black man named James Bland. My teacher, from the very beginning, was letting me know that people who look like me compose music.

When I saw Andre Watts’ — my great, great, inspiration and idol — debut with New York Philharmonic when I was eight or nine years old, I saw a young guy that looked like me. I knew then I could do this because he did it.”

“At one time, I was going to work on my doctorate, and I auditioned for a conservatory and got accepted. I spoke to a woman who, at that time, was the associate chair at the department. At the very beginning of the conversation, she said, “Oh, you should study with so-and-so.” I said, “But he’s a jazz pianist. He doesn’t play classical music.” And then I realized that right away, because I was a black pianist, instead of looking at what I played for the audition, she figured I was a jazz pianist. I said, “Why do you think I’m a jazz pianist?” and there was silence. She knew why she thought that, but I was letting her know that I knew why she thought that.

I did a competition where there was a reception in which the judges were going to announce the winner. Before the winner was announced, the conductor of the orchestra came over to me with someone else, and he said, “You play beautifully. We’re going to see if we can schedule a special concert for you.” 

I thought, wait a minute. They haven’t even announced the winner yet, and they’re coming to me saying that they want me to do a special concert. In other words, they’re telling me that they’re not going to select me as the winner, but I play so well that they want me to come back and do a special concert. I knew right away that my playing had nothing to do with whether I would get the first prize or not. There were maybe three or four finalists, and they didn’t go to any other finalists and say that. The decision was already made because I was a young black man.

When I told my teacher who was a white man about what had happened, he didn’t want to believe it. He said I couldn’t start thinking like that because it’ll cloud everything I do. But an older white woman had come with me to the competition to accompany me in the concerto. At the next lesson, he told me that she told him I should have won the competition. I was angry because when I told him this, he didn’t believe me. But when a white woman told him, then it was valid. Historically, you would need a white person to vouch for you to go to certain places. This was a good example of that: she was speaking for me. 

At that time, I didn’t say anything, but now I think I am more outspoken. I haven’t had any incidents recently that cause me to speak out, but I know it still exists. I know there are opportunities that I should have gotten and still should get that I didn’t get. But I’m really hoping now that there’s a change. It’s happening. We people of color are capable. The whole Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the attention of the world what people of color have been experiencing for decades and decades. 

You can look at the orchestra personnel throughout the country and realize that there are wonderful, fantastic, great violinists and cellists, and horn players, brass players of color. Yet when you look at these orchestras, you don’t see them. I did a PBS documentary called “Classically Black,” It’s a documentary where I played works by black composers, and it talks about the history of black instrumentalists in classical music. 

When I made my debut with the orchestra, I performed with the Symphony of the New World. This orchestra was formed and consisted of instrumentalists of color: all black men and women. We come to 2020, and you look at orchestras: maybe one or two black people are in orchestras, but it’s not that many. It’s not that we aren’t ready; we have been ready for decades.”

An advertisement for Richard’s debut with the Symphony of the New World in New York. The orchestra consisted of all African American instrumentalists.

“I started the lecture “Classically Black” maybe 20 years ago, and it grew out of the PBS documentary also called Classically Black. People don’t realize that composers of African descent have been writing music since the 17th century like Chevalier de St. George. I realized that people were not programming music by black composers. Not even black instrumentalists at the time. I even got into an argument with a student who was planning a senior recital and didn’t have a work by a black composer. I got so angry. I said that I as a black man, it’s up to you to let other people know about our history. Maybe other people will do it, but I feel obligated to share this music.

The first page of “The Negro in Music,” an essay about black classical composers written by Richard’s grandmother.

Years after my grandmother passed, my grandfather brought a box of her music to my house. I was playing “Classically Black” concerts at the time and decided to go through Nana’s music. In this box, there was a law tablet with an essay written called “The Negro in Music.” She was talking about all the composers I was playing. I had it put into a gold frame. When I read this essay, I realized it was kind of like a last will to me. I was following in her footsteps and playing these composers she spoke highly of.”

— Richard C. Alston, East Orange, New Jersey

Gertty Boone, Rocky Ridge, Arizona

“Navajo music is something that is really meaningful to me. I grew up in a household with a grandma and grandpa who are traditional so Navajo music was always playing, mostly for entertainment. Music traditionally for Navajo is to help treat illnesses or just for us to get through obstacles. It is pretty common to me because I listen literally every day. It’s something that heals us, for us to manage to get through many obstacles because the songs are from a really long time ago.

Navajo music has been here for centuries, and they tell many stories or they help me out mentally.

Navajo songs were created by the ancestors of the Navajo, which means they wrote the songs through a rough time. So knowing that the Navajo music has been passed through many generations helps me mentally because the generations before me may have been more troubled mentally or physically, so they made songs to help them. 

Navajo traditional music are songs that are prayers created by a particular person, who has the knowledge of the Navajo tradition, which means the individual would be called a medicine man. Only he or she would know how the songs work. Sacred songs that are used in ceremonies are sacred, which is pretty hard to explain, but the songs we Navajo people use are sacred, which means we rarely ever talk about traditional songs. 

Music means a lot of this to me. Traditionally, music is used for healing, but other music is for chilling or having fun! Both my parents and older siblings listen to various amounts of music! My father listens to hard rock, heavy metal, rock, and some country; my mother listens to rock, country, rap, hip hop, and alternative; my three older brothers listen to Navajo music, rap, hip hop, alternative, and rock; and my older sister listens to rap, R&B, and hip hop. So, my family listens to many genres, and I listen to every genre they listen to, but I just added Kpop to the many genres. From my point of view as the youngest, every song that was shown to me always struck a memory.”

— Gertty Boone, Rocky Ridge Arizona, member of the Navajo Nation

Sujay Panthulu, Cupertino, California

“Music means a lot of things. For one, it’s an outlet for me to just create and explore. I really enjoy trying to create music in a certain style or sometimes even in no specific style. Music is also a way to escape sometimes the problems we face. When I sit at the piano, play in band, or just listen to music, I focus more on the music and less of the stress I may be encountering such as tests, homework, etc. Personally, music is just a really great way sort out my thoughts. Whether I intentionally or unintentionally do it, the music I play sometimes when I just need to play often reflects how I feel, whether I’m happy or sad or frustrated. I don’t always know how I feel, so music provides a way for me to understand myself a lot better.”

— Sujay Panthulu, Cupertino, California

Aila, San Jose, California

“It’s always kind of not-so-fun when I first start playing a piece because you look at the piece and you think, ‘This is really hard and will take a lot of work.’ But then after I kept playing, it felt so good to be able to finish a piece. It helped me realize that if you keep working for something, keep practicing, then you’ll keep getting better and it’s really fun now. 

I like to play Chopin, and I like classical pieces because they have so much meaning. I like playing with emotion; it’s easy for me to show how I feel about the piece and show the emotion while I play. Because when you play piano, it’s not just about pushing keys on the piano, you have to tell a story, like ‘Life isn’t easy, and you just have to keep going.’

“River Flows in You” is a very emotional song, and I think everyone thinks of something different for that song. Everybody’s life has ups and downs. I went through a very tough time in seventh grade, so I think of all the things that happen then and what I learned about it. A lot of the things are things that I don’t understand. I had trouble finding myself, and I tried to be a person that inside I knew I wasn’t just to please people or be someone that people would like. But since I wasn’t being myself, that caused problems. I didn’t know why I was here or what I was doing. I’m glad it happened when I was young because it was definitely super hard, but it taught me so much.

I’m an emotional person — I’m not super sad or super happy, but I have a lot of feelings and I listen to songs that have a lot of feelings. When I play my music, I also have a lot of emotion. I know that a lot of the writers also write about their lives and what has happened to them, so when I listen to the songs that they have written, it makes me feel more supported because I know that I’m not alone. 

I created my YouTube channel to post my music. I’ve posted about three posts, since I only started about three months ago. I can be a perfectionist, so when I tape myself on the piano, I can be super critical. I’ve literally taken five hours to tape one piece. But it gives me some motivation because when I look back in the future, I want to see growth, and I want to see myself playing those songs. I want to see how I played then and how I was feeling because a lot of the songs that I pick reflect what is going on. Right now, I’m working on a summer project where I will tell a story with the piece that I play and draw pictures. It’s about everything that’s going on right now with COVID-19, BLM, and all the things that happened in 2020. We have to stick together, and we will get through this. I want to be original and put my own special touch on the message.

I took so long to find a certain sport, but my first instrument was piano and I’ve kept with it and I’ve loved it and I’ve never wanted to quit. I was really young for my first piano lesson, so I wasn’t very serious about it. My mom stopped sending me to lessons, and she taught me herself with my other friend. I’m so thankful to my mom because she had so much patience with us. I took lessons with my mom for about one year until she sent me to a more professional piano teacher because my mom didn’t think that she was skilled enough to teach me how to play better. 

In the future, I’m definitely not going to be a concert pianist or piano teacher for a living, but music is always going to be a super important part of my life. I’d love to volunteer to teach kids how to play, too. I see myself growing and maybe learning new instruments like the harp or the guitar.”

— Aila, San Jose, California

Kaveri Iyer, Sunnyvale, California

“When I grew up, my parents wanted us to keep some of our Indian culture and traditions with us, and we decided to do that through the performing arts. My sister chose a form of dance called Kathak, which is from India, but I wasn’t really the dancing type. So I chose to do Hindustani singing instead. I’ve been informally learning from Hindustani singing since about the age of seven, and I’ve been formally trained since sixth grade. With the book that I’m writing, I wanted to kind of combine these two aspects of my musical career, my Indian music training as well as my piano training. I’ve been learning piano since I was six, so a little bit more time than my Indian training. I wanted to be able to introduce Indian music to Western musicians. There are not a lot of resources out there that are easily understandable if you don’t already have a lot of knowledge. I wanted to make something a little more casual that people with basic music knowledge can read. 

The book uses a treble clef with some notes on it so it can be applied to any instrument. It’s a tool to learn Indian music targeted towards the Western musicians. So let’s say you want to learn Indian music, but you don’t have teachers near you. This is the book that uses Western notes, uses treble clef, and resources that you already know how to use and applies them to Indian music.

I wanted to introduce Indian music to people because a lot of people who are already in the music circle know a lot about the history of European music from their music theory studying, but very few people know anything about other countries — even I myself don’t know anything beyond India and Europe. I think it’s important to understand all branches of music. I try to listen to a lot of different types of music. A couple years ago, I did a project which was a world medley of songs. I basically took like 30 second clips from pop songs around the world and put them together because I think it’s important to extend our horizon and understand music from around the world. 

Indian classical music is an art form that is thousands of years old — older than writing itself, so not everything is written down. People have different opinions. Sometimes I just had to cut out certain things because I didn’t want to offend any people. 

For example, even though Hindustani music is from a pretty small part of the world, just North India, there are sects of Indian music. There can be six different names for one thing. There can be one, for example, one raga that is interpreted in three different ways. Then you sit there trying to write it down, and you’re like, which one do I write down? I have no idea. Because people have different opinions of what things mean. 

When I was in middle school, my lovely friend introduced me to the big wide world of K-pop. I got into that, and I’m still still somewhat into that. But that kick started my journey into world music because I didn’t just listen to K-pop; I listen to a lot of other world music as well. Music is actually what really got me interested in linguistics and learning about other cultures because before I started learning about other cultures, I learned about their music. I listened to different kinds of music, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool. Let me find out more about this country. Let me find out more about this language.’ So music definitely influenced the way I think about things and the way I listen to language in general.

I don’t just do piano and singing; I’m also in the marching band, the school band, and I play piano in jazz band. So music has given me life opportunities as well. If I hadn’t done music, I wouldn’t get these leadership opportunities or have as many connections as I do. Even though I won’t be majoring in music, it’s still kind of the basis of my life. My life kind of revolves around music. Everything I do comes back to it.

I’m going to be the drum major in Fall. That is kind of what my whole high school career has led up to, and the only reason I was there is because I did music. I would not be like anything the way I am today if it wasn’t for music.”

— Kaveri Iyer, Sunnyvale, California

Leeya Howley, San Jose, California

“My musical journey started off a lot like the average South Bay Area kid’s — I was forced into learning the piano by my parents when I was 5. Every day I had to be reminded to play, argued with my brother over who had to practice first, and looked to the clock every few minutes to see how much longer I had to work through Alfred’s Basic Piano Library tunes.

It wasn’t for a while until I realized that my feelings toward music had changed; it only took, like, 7 years, but finally I was starting to actually enjoy piano. In fact, I started to love it. One of the big factors of my change of heart was when I discovered sheet music to my favorite anime, video game, or pop songs on the internet, and found out that I could play these myself. This newfound excitement for practicing helped give me an appreciation of the classical repertoire my piano teacher was assigning me, and suddenly, music and I were inseparable.

Right before my final MTAC (Music Teachers Association of California) exam, I ended up having to quit piano. I had worn out my hands to the point of overuse injury, and, coupled with a sprained thumb from a P.E. mishap, there wasn’t much of a choice. Though cliché, the phrase “you don’t know what you have ’til its gone” was true. Not being able to play really made me realize how much music meant to me, and how big of a part it was of my life. After a year I decided to try again, even at the risk of re-injuring my hands; fortunately, since then I have been able to keep playing so long as I know my limits.

Music has shaped my life in many ways. I’ve met some of my friends through it while having some of the best times of my life at a summer arts program, I’ve had the chance to develop my creativity by attempting to arrange or compose my own songs, I’ve had a productive outlet from reality whenever I sit down to play. In the future, I know that no matter what else I’ll be doing in life, playing the piano will always be part of it.”

— Leeya Howley, San Jose