Pianist Sean Chen Takes Mathematical Approach To Music With A Splash Of Color

Sean Chen

Being from sun-soaked Los Angeles, pianist Sean Chen has a pretty easygoing personality. While he brings color and magic to his performances, he also is mathematically and scientifically inclined so there is a methodical approach to his practice.

“I was never forced to do music, so everything has been a deliberate choice on my part,” he says.

Though he isn’t a person for routines, he is constantly thinking of programs and honing his skills on a daily basis.

“I definitely feel off if I don't get to touch the piano,” he says.

Music-Making and Its Successes

This level of dedication has earned Sean first prize at the 2013 American Pianists Awards and third place at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

These have been cherished accomplishments career-wise, but Sean also cherishes making and gaining the courage to perform his own arrangements, such as Ravel’s La Valse, and teaching at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory.

“Seeing my students grow and develop as musicians has been a very rewarding experience!” he says.

This past season and through the summer, Sean is performing a program titled "Hommage to Chopin" that features pieces that have been inspired by Chopin. This includes Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, but also gems like Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Liszt's 6 Chants Polonais after Chopin's works, and some Godowsky arrangements of Chopin.

Sean is a big fan of educating the audience. In this Chopin program, the audience has something familiar to grab onto while also being exposed to composers like Mompou, and they might find things they like that they didn't know.

Coming up in the fall Sean wants to present a program of Schumann's Kinderszenen and Bach's Goldberg Variations, which will work well both in key and in theme. He also has a handful of other programs that are in the back burner at all times.

“Sometimes I throw those ideas onto my students to see if any of them catch the programming bug,” he says.

Sean gets his inspiration from unique places. While playing video games, he sees the unification of storytelling, gameplay, graphics, and music, which gives him a lot of ideas and material.

Deliberate In Performance

Sean also likes to watch basketball, and it made him realize how athletic the performing arts actually are, and that artists can learn from athletes in terms of preparation, both physically and mentally.

He is naturally an introvert, and though he I happy how he is, sometimes he thinks he would benefit from being more outgoing. This introversion doesn’t prevent him from performing, which he has always enjoyed doing.

“I believe that being a performer is inherently a selfish career path—we do it because we like it,” he says. “That other people derive enjoyment from listening to us perform is wonderful, and very important. But I would not be performing if I didn't enjoy it; there are plenty of other things to do in life if being on stage does not spark joy.” 

One of the biggest disappointments for Sean is that musicians aren't as supportive of fellow musicians as you would think.

“Starting even during school, students don't go to their peers' recitals much, and I think that carries over into the professional world,” he says. “I understand we're all competing with each other for the same pool of concerts, but we're also in this together.”

As a result, Sean really tries to support his fellow performers and colleagues by going to their concerts, and trying to mention them to other people as he travels and tours.

Sean hopes in the next few years to continue to perform and also expand his teaching, as it’s been eye-opening to teach and realize how rewarding it is, not to mention that it helps his own performances.

“I'm very big on being sincere with your music making. I also believe art should be magical,” he says. “So sincerity and color are two important concepts.”

Business of Music

Though cross-over music can be done well and done genuinely, the forced propagating of classical music can result in disingenuous cross-genre chimeras that doesn’t helps the cause at all. There are changing factors that make the decline seem worse than it is, but Sean thinks it is fine.

“The decline of classical music has been lamented for hundreds of years, and it's still around,” he says.

Whereas classical music performances was mostly a semi-private affair before the 20th century, it now must be enjoyed in huge venues with thousands of audience members. It also is no longer a subsidized endeavor, but now a revenue-supported one, which has not only increased the demand for artists but also increased the pool of talented musicians.

To increase funding for the arts, “I think the solution is the lower enrollment, especially in the most prestigious of universities,” he says.

“Maybe that's hypocritical of me, since I don't think I was at the top of my audition pool for undergrad, but I get the feeling that, especially for the amount of money, we are not being realistic with some students regarding their musical careers and prospective financial situation, especially in the top conservatories,” he adds.

Sean also says a lot of luck is involved in this industry.

“Yes, practice a lot, and be prepared to deliver the goods when the chance arises. But just like in any other career, who you know is often more helpful than what you know,” he says.