Phyllis Chen Proves Toy Piano Ain’t No Child’s Play

Story by Jimmy Lee. 

When you tell people you play the toy piano professionally, hearing snickers or getting a blank stare just comes with the territory. It’s something Phyllis Chen is not unfamiliar with.

“People used to turn their noses when they heard I played classical music as well,” says Chen. “But that’s OK. That’s not a major concern of mine.”

The more pressing matters on her mind include finishing her latest commission, a composition for string orchestra and toy piano, which she will debut in April in Austin, Texas.

Chen is just one of a few musicians demonstrating that the toy piano is not just a plaything for children. “When I touched it, it was like how I felt about the piano. I just loved the tactile experience of playing it and fell in love with the bell-like sound,” says Chen, who first came across the miniaturized instrument when she was 21 (it was being used as a prop in a puppet theater). Now she’s composing new pieces and releasing CDs highlighting the toy piano. “I knew that there wasn’t a lot of music out there for it, and it made me feel like I can create new repertoire for something that doesn’t have boundaries and the traditional thinking that is expected in classical music.”

There is, however, a lot of misconceptions about what Chen does. For one, she is not anything like Schroeder of the Peanuts comics and cartoons, playing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on her toy piano. And she’s not the child whom producers from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno assumed she was when they inquired about her appearing — they weren’t interested in adult toy pianists, apparently. And some people who venture into one of her concerts might walk in with wacky expectations, like the one time a few audience members told Chen they thought she was going to be a miniature pianist (as in a small person).

“It’s a profession filled with misunderstandings,” says Chen.

Another refrain she hears often is that people who hear toy piano automatically assume it’s music meant for kids. But what she’s playing is verging on the avant-garde, and could even be construed as too arty; it’s music not for the masses. One of the first pieces she performed publicly was written by John Cage, the master modern composer most notorious for “4”33’,” which is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of the orchestra sitting in silence.

So how does a classically trained pianist, who started playing at the age of 5 and has music degrees from Oberlin (undergrad) and Northwestern (master’s) and is nearing completion of her doctorate from Indiana University, end up behind a toy piano? For Chen, it started with tendinitis that affected her hands. The doctors told her to take a break from the piano. “In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. It gave me the actual chance to do my own thing,” says Chen.

Her hands, since childhood, have gravitated toward sonic-producing objects. She was the one who wanted to start the piano at age 5, not her immigrant Taiwanese parents, who moved Chen, born in Schenectady, N.Y., and her brother to the South when she was 1, after her father became a professor at Virginia Tech. “Now, thinking about it, I rented bassoons, oboes, clarinets and flutes — all these things when I was a kid. I just wanted to get my hands on them and play them,” recounts Chen. “It was again the tactile experience.”

She does still play the piano, often with the International Contemporary Ensemble that she co-founded. She has also tackled the violin and yet another keyboard instrument: “I was completely in love with the accordion, and I totally thought I would become an accordion player,” says Chen. She even joined a klezmer band, but bearing it on her shoulders was too much while dealing with her tendinitis. The toy piano, on the other hand, “was an easy instrument to play because of the light touch.”

Chen exhibited that touch at a concert last September at New York City’s Joe’s Pub, while seated on a short stool. Yet she still loomed large over two toy pianos, one in the shape of an upright and the other a baby grand. You not only hear the bell-like tinkling of the notes she plays, but also the movement of the keys as they’re being depressed. And it’s really noticeable when Chen’s fingers are flying across the few octaves that fit on the keyboards. Her instruments project a clangy sound that dissipates quickly. There are no rich, resonant tones that you’d expect from a concert Steinway. And Chen is perfectly fine with that.

“[Toy pianos are] really kind of like a voice. They all have their own weird quirks,” says Chen. “It’s funny, but I’ve met instrument makers who say, you should put this into maple wood, and I could tune it for you [to make it more like a real piano]. Well, then, it’s not a toy piano if it’s perfect, beautiful sounding.”

With the toy piano, there are no unwritten rules to be bound by. Rather, the toy piano is pushing Chen to be a better artist. “I don’t feel as musically stuck anymore, or stifled by the classical tradition,” she says. “Now I could finally give myself the permission to do whatever I want and take responsibility for it.”

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

Accomplished Pianist Trades Keys for Camo as Soldier in Afghanistan

Story by James S. Kim

Making a career change at the age of 30 might raise a few eyebrows. If the career change meant joining the Army, that might raise a few more. If the career change meant joining the Army and leaving behind a career as a classically trained musician, that would downright turn heads.

But that’s exactly what Spc. Anne Pyungan Cho did.  When Cho spoke to KoreAm by phone from Afghanistan last month, she was just a few weeks into her nine-month deployment there. A resident of Los Angeles, she works as an automated logistics specialist and supply clerk at Kandahar Airfield. Her decision to trade in evening gowns and concert halls for Army fatigues and the landscape of a war-torn country is one that she says is layered with her love of music, desire to give back to the U.S. Armed Forces, as well as her faith.

Every Sunday, with her own free time, she leads the worship for three different services and practices with the choir on Wednesday and Saturday nights, although fighting might put these on hold. She said she hopes that she is able to help provide fellow servicemembers with some peace and comfort.

“I’m enjoying playing music [here],” said Cho. “Music is really strong—it can move people, it can encourage people.”

Cho’s relationship with the piano began at age 5, while she was growing up in Korea. She had a knack for the instrument, with a natural talent for sight-reading music, and would often play piano at her church.

After immigrating to the U.S. in her late teens, she attended Union High School in Santa Monica and, by her senior year, was considering applying for Juilliard at the behest of an instructor. But her family insisted she stay close to home while her grandmother was battling breast cancer.  So, Cho decided to pursue a music scholarship at Pepperdine University instead and managed to secure an audition.

The day of her audition, she had prepared two pieces to play before the music professors, but the response was less than enthusiastic. Before she left, however, another professor handed her a piece to play for the group. It was one that Cho hadn’t seen before and was considered a complicated piece.

“When they asked me to play some more songs, I was like, sure. I’ll just do some sight-reading, which the professor didn’t know was my strength,” said Cho.

Cho nailed the piece perfectly, then another, and another, as the professors eagerly fed her music books. “Everyone changed their minds,” she said. “They were clapping, they were saying, ‘Oh my God, you are the pianist we are looking for.’ And then I got the full-ride to Pepperdine.”

Her first year at Pepperdine proved to be difficult academically and emotionally, especially after her grandmother, with whom she was very close, passed away. After taking some time off from college, she returned to earn her music degree, and her career soon took off after that. Pepperdine eventually hired her as its music director, and she became one of the youngest ever to hold an adjunct faculty position at the university.

Cho, a self-described workaholic, was working four days a week at Pepperdine, while also performing at concert tours in Germany, Italy and Australia. She also had the chance to perform at the renowned Carnegie Hall. In addition, Cho traveled the world through her church on short-term mission trips, during which she developed a different calling as a musician—one that led her to a recruiting office last year.

She had long admired the Korean War veterans she met in Korea and the U.S.

“I was honored by their sacrifices and what they did for us as a country,” she said.

Then, after her global travels, she added, “I had opportunities to see other countries where the U.S. helped.” Cho thought it was her turn to give back.

While her job as a supply specialist in Afghanistan isn’t glamorous, Cho said she is right where she wants to be as a musician and member of the Armed Forces.

“I think the experience I had from Pepperdine, and even in Korea, built up and made [me] who I am today,” she said. “I find myself more excited and motivated every day here. I’m doing the same thing, just in a different place for a difference audience—not at Carnegie Hall, but in Kandahar.


This article was originally published in the October 2013 issue of KoreAm Journal

Audrey’s Artist to Watch | Ryan Wang, 5-year-old Piano Prodigy

At the age of five, most of us were learning how to properly write out the alphabet, play duck-duck-goose,  and strategically avoid getting cooties. Ryan Wang on the other hand? This five-year-old piano prodigy was spending his days getting ready for his performance in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.

At the age of three, Wang’s parents noticed Ryan’s affinity and natural ability with the keyboard. Without missing a beat, the two decided to send him to piano lessons. While many people would assume that three is far too young an age to adequately master an instrument, Ryan’s talent proved everyone wrong. After a mere year and half of lessons, a prodigy was created. Of course, Carnegie Hall was not the only one to notice this amazing 5-year-old. Ellen Degeneres asked him to come onto the Ellen Show and dazzle her viewers. Clearly, Ryan didn’t disappoint:

Even more recently, CBC Music Studio invited Ryan to perform in front of his biggest fan, Dorothy. The 101-year-old family friend was touched to discover that Ryan would be performing just for her. Not only does Wang prove to be mature in his musical abilities, he showed quite a bit of emotional maturity. Understanding how important this performance was to Dorothy, Ryan was moved to tears (and brought us all to tears while he was at it):

Easily becoming a prodigy favorite, Ryan Wang is scheduled to tour Italy and China this summer. Be sure to keep an eye out for this amazingly talented young man.