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OF THE HOUR

ALICE TSUI VOLUME I • ISSUE III


OF THE HOUR is an artistic endeavour to combine the dynamic fields of photography and design with the art of candid interviewing, canvassing and exploring the human condition through personal testimony provided by friends, family, strangers, and everything in between.


OF THE HOUR

ALICE TSUI VOLUME I • ISSUE III


hat are some of the things that inspire you? Honestly, my friends are my biggest inspiration because they’re all pursuing – usually – things that they like. I also really like just going around the city and seeing people doing their thing. What are some of the things your friends are really into that you find really cool? In my realm of classical pianists, I think it’s really cool that everyone works so hard to play music from hundreds of years ago.

I also like that in my own group of friends everyone is pursuing something different. Some of my close friends are doing business or are in medical school right now and I have a lot of respect for them for sacrificing a lot to get to where they are. So you are a classically trained pianist, correct? Can you tell us a little about how long you’ve been playing and your background in that? I started playing piano when I was four. So basically I’ve been playing my whole life up until now. The coolest highlight is that in senior year of college I won a competition


and I was able to perform at Carnegie Hall. Now I’m at an interesting place because I am balancing being a full-time music teacher with the pursuit of my own piano playing, which is difficult because it’s very different from when I was focusing most of my time in college on playing. I just picked out some pieces to perform next year in my own recital and I think it’s really important for me to stay focused on my playing as much as possible. It is hard to balance though. My teacher told me to be realistic about my goals, but I guess what’s interesting about me is that I really don’t like it when people tell me I can’t do something or that I have to be “realistic.” I always like challenges and I never back down from them.

tell them that I’ve been practicing every day since I was a kid or that I went to this special placed called “college” because this week one of the songs we’re learning, there’s the word “college,” so I took that as a teaching moment. I asked them, “What’s college?” and then people raised their hands and said, “It’s a special place you go to,” and I would respond, “So does that mean if we don’t listen to class, we won’t get to go?” and it builds into a really great conversation. We’re really trying to get these kids to think longterm and that one day, if you work really hard all throughout your life, you can get to college and really pursue what you want

As your students come from a very different background, how do you find ways to connect with them and their histories? This sounds so cliché, but music that is popular is the most powerful connection. For instance, for school songs that I’ve written together with a drama teacher, a lot of them are reworks of popular songs. They’ve all heard those songs somewhere ... and it gets them really excited about what they’re learning. It puts a new perspective on it, like, “Okay, what I’m learning in school isn’t so isolated, it’s what I’m hearing around me.” I think that’s the biggest way that I connect with them.

“as a teacher, the challenge I am tackling EVERY DAY IS how to make music bridge the gap BETWEEN what’s right and wrong Because at the END OF THE DAY I want these kids to not necessarily become musicians – even though I think they can be – but to be good people.” student

Is there an example of a challenge in your life that you’ve tackled head on that other people said you couldn’t do? Being a music teacher right now is a really big challenge because I work at a failing school. I find it a challenge because we’re trying to remodel everything that the kids have been used to. We’re holding very high expectations for these kids and that’s a big challenge for me. And you don’t really know what these kids’ home lives are like, but at the same time, you have the sense that it’s not secure all of the time. So as a teacher, the challenge I am tackling every day is how to make music bridge the gap between what’s right and wrong because at the end of the day I want these kids to not necessarily become musicians – even though I think they can be – but to be good people. It’s so hard to put that in very basic terms, but it really starts with manners, saying “please” and “thank you,” not using your fists, but using your words.

to do. But if you decide that you don’t want to work hard today, that that’s not a good choice you make for yourself.

Is there anything that you have learned from your kids as an educator? Definitely. To not take anything for granted is the biggest lesson I’ve learned because I’ve been really privileged to grow up with a home, a family, and everything. But a lot of times, with the kids I will say, “If you’re not behaving I’m going to call your mom and dad,” and the response is, “I don’t have a mom” or “I don’t have a dad.” It’s much more common of an answer than I thought it would be. So not taking my life or what I had as a child growing up for granted, knowing that everyone has their own story that I don’t see when I’m not with them from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. I don’t know what happens to them afterward, but my job is to Do you think the kids look up to you as make their experience at school rewarding a teacher? and to make sure it’s the best use of their I think so. They are always surprised when I time as possible.

You’re also a piano instructor in your free time. Do you want to talk a little about that experience? I teach kids and adults. The youngest that I’ve taught is four and the oldest was 37. After school I go to my students’ homes and teach them for an hour every week. It’s a very different experience from classroom teaching because in this situation you’re one-on-one with the student. You have so much more time to focus on his or her strengths, whether it’s an adult or a child, and it’s very exciting for me because I get to see kids at different levels. And my goal is to implement what I learned in college as early as possible because I think that the earlier you know the things that I know now, the more of an advantage you will have and the more mature your playing will be when you get to my age. I really have a lot of fun with it. I’m pretty strict with my students, but I really think that being a piano teacher really helps kids. When I meet adults nowadays and tell them that I’m a piano teacher, they respond back, “I played when I was a kid and hated it” or “My mom made me, but once she stopped making me, I quit.” That makes me a bit sad, but it’s just a truth that there are so many piano


“it is so fast because for those few that cravi


teachers out there that are not competent, in my opinion, and are very set in teaching their own curriculum and whatever they’re used to. But what I like to do is to adapt to my students because everyone sees or hears something different musically, so it’s most important to cater to what the kid wants. What I want is something I’ll work on on my own. I want it to be a fun learning experience. How many hours a week are you instructing on average? I want to say close to 10. At my most intense time, during college, I was teaching upwards of 20 hours a week, which includes weekends. It was extremely exhausting. I’m already exhausted from teaching every day in school, so 10 is what I can handle for now. My long-term goal is to have my own studio. What’s your number one tip for someone who might be interested in learning piano? I want to say, number one, to have fun with the music and if you don’t like what you’re playing, be honest to yourself and to your teacher. First and foremost, you shouldn’t hate what you’re playing. As a music teacher, I really dislike it when I hear kids tell me that they hate something because that means either that I’m

very clear with the teacher about what you four. I definitely want to try harder to feel and that if music isn’t making you feel find more opportunities to perform, not something, then something is wrong. just for my friends, but also potentially competing more. I’m also considering How does your family feel about the getting a doctorate, but I haven’t decided success you’ve experienced as a pianist on that yet so hopefully I’ll have a clearer and what you’re doing now? vision on where that stands by then. As for My parents are much more supportive, teaching in public schools, I still want to I think, than I give them credit for. I do that as well. Hopefully by then I will didn’t know until college that I wanted to have a developed program. My long-term seriously pursue being a pianist because goal for my current school, if I stay, is that I entered college as a music education I would have kindergarten and first grade undergraduate, not as a piano major. After start on piano, then I want to have them talking with other professors and having develop into a strings program at a later them convince me, more so than myself, grade. I might also be starting a rock band that I should switch over to the performance afterschool and I might be getting ukuleles side, they really supported me because I – it’s definitely a lot, but definitely a more think they know how happy it makes me. developed music program, instrumentally I don’t have a very open relationship with and chorally. For my private teaching, I my parents, so I don’t talk to them about hope by then I will have at least – it’s a bit a lot of things, but I know that they know difficult to say, but I would like to have at music is what makes me happy and I think least 15 students that I see regularly. that’s what’s most important. As far as my success, I think they were quite surprised Earlier you said that the city also that I won something. I mean, I was quite inspires you. What is one of your surprised as well. The funny story is that I favorite places to go? found out [about Carnegie Hall] at 3 a.m. I have a lot. The most obvious would be because I didn’t check my email that day Carnegie Hall. I honestly have not been and I had just come home from going out. I there as much as I should, to watch saw it in my email and I thought it was the concerts. But anytime I’m there and see coolest thing ever, but no one was awake people perform, whether it’s a pianist or for me to share the news with! But they any other instrumentalist, it’s such a cool were really excited for me and now they feeling to share with them, that I was on actually try and tell me to stop doing things that stage once and I cannot describe how because they think I work too hard and they awesome it feels. And it is so fast because don’t want me to burn out. you work so hard for those few minutes, but it’s what we all live for. That craving to perform is incredible. I also really like Washington Square Park because I went to college around there and I’ve seen so many musicians walk through there and it is kind of a safe place for me to chill out. If we are looking five years down the I also really like the Brooklyn Bridge and line, where would you like to be? the Brooklyn Bridge Park. I have a lot of I still think I would be doing all the things memories with friends at Brooklyn Bridge I am doing right now, but on a more Park. I didn’t walk the Brooklyn Bridge until developed level. So I definitely want to I was an adult, which is crazy because I keep performing as a pianist – it’s very grew up in Brooklyn. It’s just very interesting important to me. Having been through so because when you walk from Manhattan much training, playing piano is the number to Brooklyn, you’re walking away from the one thing in my life that I know I can do, buzz of the city, but it’s still there. And when considering I’ve been doing it since I was you get to Brooklyn, it’s a calmer version.

ecause you work so hard w minutes, but it’s what we all live for. craving to perform is incredible.” doing something wrong or forcing something on them that they don’t like. It’s not always something in the music that’s wrong, sometimes it’s a matter of not figuring things out. My second tip would be to be


I really like seeing the skyline and people doing their own thing. I think what I recently realized is that we all see a million people in New York City every day and we might have that one interaction where someone pushes you on the train or you’re just sitting next to each other and aside from that one second, you have no idea what’s going on in their lives and they have no idea what’s going on in yours, but we’re all sharing this life and living in the city. That is kind of crazy; deep, but crazy.

neighborhood, a lot more than there used to be. I also don’t think the schools near where I used to live are as good as they used to be. And you were there from elementary school to high school? Yeah, I grew up there until the middle of college. So I only recently moved two or three years ago.

that because I don’t go to Bensonhurst very often anymore at all, that I definitely want to. It’s hard because I would like to go with my friends, but of course as you grow up, it’s very hard to coordinate schedules. Growing up in the city, what has been one of the most difficult things for you? I don’t find that growing up in the city is very difficult. In fact, I find growing up anywhere not in the city to be more difficult

“WE ALL SEE A MILLION PEOPLE IN NEW YORK CITY EVERY DAY AND WE MIGHT HAVE THAT ONE INTERACTION WHERE SOMEONE PUSHES YOU ON THE TRAIN OR YOU’RE JUST SITTING NEXT TO EACH OTHER AND ASIDE FROM THAT ONE SECOND, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON IN THEIR LIVES

AND THEY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON IN YOURS, BUT WE’RE ALL SHARING THIS LIFE AND LIVING IN THE CITY. THAT IS KIND OF CRAZY.” What part of Brooklyn are you from? What’s one of your best memories from I grew up in Bensonhurst and now I live in when you were living in Bensonhurst? Red Hook. We lived pretty close to the water, so it was kind of close to Coney Island. And there’s Do you have what people term “Brooklyn a place called Caesar’s Bay and there’s a pride?” pathway next to the highway where you can I have a lot of Brooklyn pride, although, walk or run. And when I was a kid, the tide it’s funny because I’m not from a part of wasn’t as high, so you used to be able to Brooklyn that is very “hood.” Bensonhurst see rocks and there was even a little beach used to be very Italian and when I was there area beyond where you’re supposed to go. it started becoming more Asian. And now Sometimes my friends and I would climb it’s very populated by immigrants, mostly down and hangout there or just walk along Asians and Russians. So it’s interesting to the bay. I kind of like the idea of having see the change. All my friends pretty much a place to relax right next to the hustle lived within a 10-block radius of me. I think and bustle; it’s right next to the highway the coolest part about that is that we were so you hear cars all the time, but it’s still really close then and we’re still really close so peaceful because it’s just this one lane today. between the highway and the water and sunsets there are beautiful. What’s the saddest part about seeing the changes in your old neighborhood? Do you ever go there for old time’s To be honest, the rise in crime. Apparently sake? there’s a lot of crime that happens in my I’ve been meaning to. I keep telling my friends

just because I haven’t experienced it. New York is just my sense of normal, which is so funny and doesn’t make any sense. It definitely offers a different perspective on things. People often ask me if it was dangerous growing up here. Right. When people think of New York, they resort to what they see in movies, a lot of which is based in crime, dramas, rom-coms, “Sex and the City,” etc. With that in mind, what is one of the biggest stereotypes about New York City that’s wrong? There are a lot. Number one is the belief that people are mean. Everyone who visits here tells me that it’s so fast here and as a result people get irritated, but I don’t feel that’s the case. When I’m anywhere else, everything feels slow, but I don’t think people are mean, I guess it’s just the way we are.


New Yorkers are not meaner, comparatively, to people elsewhere – is that what you mean? I think we’re equally as mean as any other state. Are there any stereotypes about New York do you think are true? That it’s really hard to make it here. I think everyone really works their butt off if they want to stay here. Again, I take that for granted because I’ve been here, but it really takes 100% of your commitment to make it here. Another stereotype that I think is true is that people in New York feel lonely. Even though you’re surrounded by a million people, because everyone is so committed to their own path, it can get lonely when no one necessarily wants to share that with you. Going to switch things up a little bit. What was one of the most difficult periods of your life? I think that as an adult my life with my parents has been much harder than when I was a kid. I say that because when you’re a kid, you accept your parents for who they are because you don’t really know any better; whatever they believe in or say must be true. But as an adult, I feel I very much disagree with a lot of things my parents believe in and I find that to be the most difficult part of my life currently because I can’t share with them a lot of things that I do. Even when I do, they are not very loving about it and I attribute that to the Asian stereotype of tough love; my parents are very traditional. To be honest, I don’t see a solution to it right now or in the near future. I think we’re just from very different times. My mom has been through the Cultural Revolution so anyone her age basically didn’t go to school because they had to go work on the farm. It’s harder and harder to connect as I get older. Do you have any brothers or sisters? I have a younger brother. He is 19, turning 20 this December and he is attending Cooper Union for engineering; he is very smart, works very hard. We’re pretty different, I have to say – I’m very outgoing and more social in general and he’s much more of an introvert, at least as he presents himself to me. But

he does really work hard and Cooper Union is free, so no one is complaining there. How would you describe your relationship? Currently, I feel that it is strained. I thought that we were okay for a while because when you’re teenagers you fight, and then when I got to college it got better. But since I graduated and got my master’s, I feel it’s been very strained because I am not home very often, so my brother takes a lot of the hit – meaning arguments, things like that – from my parents and we don’t really talk about it much. He’s also more hotheaded than I am, so he tends to unleash anger sometimes either at me or my parents. So I do feel very strained right now because while I do trust him and love him and I want him to do very well, I don’t think that he is always handling things the right way. What are some quotes or mantras that you strive to live by? I have a lot. One is “Everything happens for a reason.” I believe, for example, that I was meant to do music, that I was meant to be who I am today, that I’m meant to have all the experiences I have had, and I don’t hold regrets. Second, I really live by “If you want something, you have to work really hard at it” and that there’s no excuse for not trying, especially if you’re smart. There’s no excuse for not using what you have. I think that’s the biggest thing that upsets me sometimes. I see so many smart people, but if they’re lazy you’re basically not being smart. Another thing I recently started believing in is taking risks. I know at our age it’s very hard to want to take risks because we’re so tight on money: rent, living in New York, it’s so expensive. But at the same time, I really believe that the greatest risks can result in the greatest rewards. And if it’s not, it’s another life experience. I also tell people to take risks because you never know where you’ll end up. If you don’t take them now, later on you’ll keep wondering if you should have or not.


Tell me about one risk you’ve taken that, in your mind, paid off Switching my major to piano performance for my bachelor’s. And also, I applied to doctoral school last year, which was a huge risk because I had so much to prepare for the auditions. It’s a lot of money to spend on applying to schools and things like that. I did get in, but as a result decided not to go, for monetary reasons. Now I’m a full-time teacher at an elementary school and that’s a risk too because at a new school you don’t know what the hell is going to happen, you don’t know what expectations are set, what you are supposed to do. But the cool thing about my job is that I’m the founding music teacher, so I get to do whatever I want; I can make my own program from scratch. A lot of people would be scared, but for me it’s really exciting because I’ve always wanted to do that. I love seeing nothing as it turns to everything.

Is there anything about the future that you’re scared of? A lot. One, what will happen with my parents and me. Something that holds me back a lot is that they’re a lot older than most parents, so I do think terrible thoughts sometimes about what will happen. I hope that we will get better, but I’m not sure. What I’m doing now scares me still because I often wonder if it’s the best use of my time career-wise. What are you most excited or optimistic about for the future? When my kids graduate from fifth grade, elementary school. I think that will be really exciting because I’ll able to see all that they’ve accomplished. That’s in about three years, hopefully. I just want to see them be good people, that’s what I want everyone to be.


“WHEN YOU’RE A KID, YOU ACCEPT YOUR PARENTS FOR WHO THEY ARE BECAUSE YOU DON’T REALLY KNOW ANY BETTER; WHATEVER THEY BELIEVE IN OR SAY MUST BE TRUE. BUT AS AN ADULT, I FEEL I VERY MUCH DISAGREE WITH A LOT OF THINGS MY PARENTS BELIEVE IN AND I FIND THAT TO BE

THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF MY LIFE CURRENTLY BECAUSE I CAN’T SHARE WITH THEM A LOT OF THINGS THAT I DO.”


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Of the Hour - Alice Tsui  

Volume I • Issue III OF THE HOUR is an artistic endeavour to combine the dynamic fields of photography and design with the art of candid in...

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