Photo: Dennis Christians


Letter in Silence

[To My Self]

Who am I?

The stats would say I’m Josephine Yang, age 24, birthday 2 December 1991. I play piano, and I’m an occasional violinist.

The people who really care to know me much more than that are few and far in between. This is not a resigned statement; it’s simply the truth. I say it with little negativity or sadness, and actually, I’ve grown not only to accept it, but to embrace it. True friends are difficult to find, and I think that it’s for the better, so we can value the ones we do have and retain our sensitivity to true connection: the deep, penetrating soul-connection with which honesty comes simply and matter-of-fact.

I’m about to move out of Los Angeles after nearly two years of residence, and I’m quite torn. I’ve spent most of my time here feeling a little empty, a little overwhelmed, a little wishing I were somewhere else. And now that I’m really on my way out, I’ve realized that I’m leaving at a point when things were starting to pick up, both professionally and intimately with the beginning threads of friendship. Such is life. I am incredibly grateful for my time in LA, however. A large part of this process has been endless self-discovery: coming to terms with who I am right now, what I value and want, and what has influenced all the development thus far.

So…who am I?

I was born in a hospital in Mesa, Arizona, and I grew up in Phoenix. I am the second of three sisters, solidly in the middle. We all grew up playing piano and violin. That’s the easy, concrete, historical information. Much of everything else is memory.

My memory of growing up is scattered, like a linear puzzle with huge chunks missing. Philosophers and researchers have often spoken about memory: what we remember, how we alter what we “remember,” etc. There is always some amount of self-deception in our memoirs. What I do remember is that my mom was the “perfect” mom in our early development; she taught my sisters and I most things we knew in our education. I remember clearly that she would read to us every night: serious books, and she didn’t mind if we didn’t understand everything we were listening to. She had faith that somehow we would take what we needed from every story, every word spoken out of her patient and wise heart. She would play piano music throughout the day, whether or not we would really be listening. But it would still communicate, even to closed ears and wandering minds. My dad was and always has been the rock of the family: quiet, reserved, diligent in his work and endlessly loyal in his strength of love for all of us. My sisters and I played piano and violin well and excelled in school. Today, my sisters’ chosen form of expression is in brain sciences; mine is in music. The path that our parents had put us on from the beginning of our formation propelled us onward continually; though exterior pressure existed and was acknowledged, most of the pressure was, in actuality, from ourselves. And that was the simple method of bringing up three girls who would all be destined to graduate first in class from our high school: being first was part of our limited identities.

Around fourth grade, I started observing other people’s interactions. Even if it wasn’t really “my” kind of fun, I yearned to share in their activities, but I never fit in despite my efforts. My very naive mind started analyzing why that was the case. I was in all the “gifted” classes in elementary school and had gotten the nickname “Little Miss Perfect” tacked onto me. I was branded. And rebelliously, I did what I could to get rid of this “brand,” because I hated to be defined. I began consciously lowering my grades. I hated being called a teacher’s pet, so I would treat most teachers a little haughtily so I couldn’t be favored. And, most destructively, I began training myself to achieve an attitude of what I could describe as a “blasé spite,” partially out of my desire to be something that people would like more, and partly out of self-defense.

This transformation took several years, and it was mostly unconscious. Every time I would be reminded that I wasn’t what other people liked, I would retreat more and more into this armour. By high school, I was well-versed in the mindset of indignant rebellion. I was jaded with the limited world in which I lived. And even then, I searched desperately for a true friend. Ultimately, betrayal after betrayal, I found none. High school was a black hole of despair, and now, looking back, I can understand my role in my own exile. In my agony and inability to handle my deep-set feelings and broken-hearted yearning for acceptance and true connection, every insult and injury was internalized and taken much too personally. It is no surprise now that people didn’t understand or care to understand what lay beneath the haughty exterior. My retreat was in fiction novels, which no doubt was a consequence of my mom’s constant reading in my early development: in these pages where I exercised my imagination, I found my idols, my kindred spirits, my developing ideals, and my loyal friends.

On top of the turmoil at school, every day at home was a struggle. I was in a period of constant rebellion – a terror to my poor parents; now that I was discovering more of myself and what I believed in, I was up in arms against anyone and anything who thought differently. I am well aware that it is not just my family; most parents and their children fly at each other with weapons of words and actions. Every family suffers through tribulations, and ultimately, you may never forget things that were done and said, and those memories may become a heavy load on your cross to carry — but there is redemption in forgiveness.

However, there were lights along the way. I think immediately of three teachers who somehow identified that there was something wrong, and instead of punishing me for sleeping through every class (an offense I committed out of true weariness for the regular three hours of nightly sleep, out of habit, out of a helpless attempt at control and rebellion), they found ways to speak to me through their nonverbal and verbal communication. My piano teacher was also a powerful positive influence, musically and personally. With his guidance, I discovered much more about myself, my inner strength, and how music so magically expresses what words and thoughts cannot. I found rare communication and meaning in the 88 beautiful keys of my family’s Bӧsendorfer grand…I began to find the solace and meditation in practicing that continues steadily to this day. Performance began to drive me more than ever, as a release of freedom and structure combined. Music led me to reach deep inside myself and examine who I was from continually expanding dimensions, and performance gave me a ladder to climb and clarity to my direction. I cannot think of who I am without including both music and novels: with my extremely limited life experience at that age, I had lived mostly in these two worlds.

At this point, though I still valued education immensely, my interests shifted from academic reliance to music and matters of the heart. My distaste for what I felt as the stifling consequence of strict academia had grown to a point of no return as my interest in creative arts and expression expanded. When May 2010 rolled around, I walked in what would become the only graduation I would really care about, though I went on to obtain two further degrees in the next six years. In school from this point on, I pursued personal development and improvement in musical understanding and communication — never the actual degree.

I began college as a piano performance major socially stunted, but I was excited to finally get a chance at independence. It was in college that I discovered beauty…beauty in the world, in freedom, in love, in myself. That’s when friendship really blossomed all around me. For the first time, I felt free. I was so uninhibited, to a point when I hardly judged anyone or anything. I was exploring everything, with a laid-back, patient observation that I haven’t previously known. Through all this, I learned about acceptance and letting go. I learned Grace. In these years, I experienced this long-awaited freedom, during which my hard shell was broken and, vulnerable and with a wide-eyed wonder, I discovered an underlying purity of soul. All the fighting to figure out my identity, when little did I know that it would simply be revealed to me in its own time. I’m at quite a loss for words to describe specific ways that things changed, or how they changed. The only word that comes to mind is simply…release.

My boyfriend in those years was – and continues to be – truly a godsend; he remains a huge part of me and I first knew grief when the relationship ended. His life and upbringing were starkly different from mine, but through him, I realized that it doesn’t matter where you came from or what you do; you can still be looking in the same direction and have at your core the same Love that guides everything in your life. He brought me back to God, when for most of my life, I wavered between a constant feeling that there was Someone who not only observed but was with me at every point – Someone to whom I prayed long before I knew “how” — between this acknowledgment, and my intellectual rebellion and disdain for things I could not control. In Christ, I found my ultimate peace. I was baptized in 2012 in a ceremony which was a natural progression of my developing faith.

Back to the present day…

What are my values, truly? I love piano and music dearly, and I’ve discovered that there is little that can’t be fixed with some serious, committed time at the keys. Why do I play piano? I believe in it. I believe in music. I know a little something about communication without words. Words are powerful, but the vast majority of human communication doesn’t have to do with opening our mouths. Music is an essential part of humanity and expression; it is essential to my entire life and being. Great music drives me, grounds me, humbles me, elevates me, enlivens me, more than anything else in the world. I know how it feels to channel the flow of music through my body and mind as the communicator. I have felt the awesome power of music coursing through me, and because of this, I am filled with wonder of this force that is so above us, and humbled with gratitude that we are able to tap into its power, partake in, and witness its glory. It is truly unfortunate that not more people are brought to a deeper relationship with great music, and I do believe my purpose in this world is to forge more avenues of communication between living music and humanity.

And living music: I mean that very seriously. Not all music that is “live” is living; in fact, the vast majority of the “music” today was born dead. Music means something significant to me when there’s a real force behind it…even if it whispers – and that’s subconsciously how I choose my strongest repertoire. I don’t claim to be great – or even good – at the rational theory behind the writing, and I’m far from a composer, but to me, the music lives when it has this flow, this direction, this breath. I’m not in the business of reviving a piece that never lived.

What increasingly excites me is a cross-section of all art – visual, auditory, literary, etc. – all mediums intersecting and communicating in tandem. I believe in collaboration as much as individualism: each artist brings his or her perception and experience to the breathing canvas of time and space, and together, the art pulses out in all angles of communication. I believe in a deep respect for original intent while living and presenting in this moment of time. Great music is timeless and continues to breaks structures of time when it is presented truthfully.

For years, I felt dormant as I plodded along in my education of life, music, and humanity, but now, something propels me forward, and I seek something more concrete and plausible and just as grand. There is still fight left in me… And fight is necessary. What else can counter the intoxicating lull of modern-day apathy, that dresses in bohemian gauze and wears masks of “acceptance” and “freedom”? Freedom is disaster without responsibility.

What can reawaken the imagination, unchain the mind, stir the Spirit? Certainly not sensationalism, superficiality, irrelevance, nor avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde… Nothing less than Truth and an honest fight to bring people back in sync with their rhythms, to the freedom of their imaginations, to the fortitude of their joined minds and hearts, and to the stillness of their “inner man.”

I might not know exactly where I’m going or what’s going to happen, but I am fortified by faith and enlivened with hope. I remember where I came from, and I know what’s at the end.

Everything’s going to be okay.

Photo: Pianofest in the Hamptons

Pianists in Paradise

First of all, a huge thank you is in order to Keitaro Harada and Kei Meguro for their invaluable help in my website’s creation! I finally have a homepage, and it looks and functions much better than I could have dreamed.

I’ve been hesitant about including this blog section, quite frankly because I never feel like I have enough time to practice and learn the slightly intimidating stacks of scores on the table. But today, AS I was at the piano I felt compelled to write on a topic very dear to my heart.

My website’s launch comes in the wake of a truly momentous month. From June 14 to July 14, I attended Pianofest in the Hamptons, directed by Paul Schenly: an all-piano festival centered around the “Pianofest House.” In this house, we practiced, played, convened, cooked, enjoyed music and food, learned in music and life, laughed, and, at the culmination of the month, cried. It was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life. Pianofest far surpassed the normal expectations of a music festival; in fact, it didn’t feel much like a festival but rather like the forging of a timeless fellowship. Our lives seemed to intersect at just the perfect place with just the perfect timing, and for a rare moment everything outside stopped, but the inner world of Pianofest tinkered forward in a spell-like harmony. It was a gathering of beautiful people from all over the world, working toward separate goals from unique perspectives, adhered together in friendship by similar interests, and respected for our different talents and personalities.

The remarkable thing about this attitude of respect is that it comes from each of us and extends toward one another. It is relatively easy to garner admiration from audience members or those who are allowed only to see what we show them. It is much more difficult, however, to gain respect from those in intimate proximity — much less from those who are in direct competition with each other. As pianists constantly faced with a “make it or break it” attitude and as soloists pulled into the spotlight where we hold full responsibility of what might happen, the very nature of what we do is more individualistic than the spirit of most other paths. It certainly is customary to regard one another with apprehension or spite.

But in his selection process Mr. Schenly must have worked some kind of miracle. This group of 12 participants was in sync from the start: in mutual understanding rather than judgment, in support rather than in competition. It was immediate; we unconsciously chose to cooperate instead of falling to the temptation of a “soloistic” attitude. And thus our Pianofest family was formed.

One of the intriguing things about our session of Pianofest was that we were the inaugural group of the new YouTube show “The Real Pianists of the Hamptons,” a show entirely planned, filmed, edited, and put together by our fantastic, multi-talented artist-in-residence Konstantin Soukhovetski, the smoldering Italian heartthrob (and my very best friend from LA), Jacopo Giacopuzzi, and a reintroduced kindred spirit, Matt Griswold. These lads really deserve a standing ovation for all their work on top of performing and all other regular Pianofest activities.

The first few released episodes are the start of something new; an embodiment of classical music as a mix of playfulness and personality, with the seriousness of thought and background that goes into every phrase. They incorporate interviews, performances, everyday activities, and a challenge and punishment for each featured group. The first three episodes are out:

Episode 1: An introduction to Soyeon, Vladislav, and myself as the first featured group, as well as an introduction to the show.
Episode 2: Our challenge and punishment.
Episode 3: Interviews with the next group: Alevtyna, Keru, J.T., and Albert.

I’m especially excited about the upcoming 4th episode, because it’s going to be hilarious — with cross-dressing, faux-opera singing, and a sweet punishment.

All this being said, I would like to amend a reply that I made during my interview portion of the Real Pianists of the Hamptons (episode 1). When asked what happiness was, I answered that it is contentment with everything that you’ve been given. On second thought, the word “contentment” is rather unsatisfying… What I really think is this: happiness is peace. Peace with your circumstances, peace with others, peace within yourself that you stayed true to what you believe in and upheld your principles. It means learning to love people even if you don’t like them, acknowledging gratitude rather than jealousy or regret, and knowing that you wouldn’t be who you are today if it weren’t for all the past mistakes. And if there are scars that do remain, happiness is looking at them with acceptance and appreciation for their reminder to do better next time.

Pianofest comrades, I am thankful for all of you and the time we shared together. Music’s unrivaled power is most evident in the hearts and lives of every musician.