Pianist Mei Li on the Continuing Relevance of the Piano as a Cultural Force

An Experience to Be Shared

It’s hard to grapple with the idea that a single instrument, the piano, has been at the center of centuries’ worth of incredible music.

In the era of classical music, piano performances were often religious experiences, especially when the performer happened to be a visionary composer.

Even today, piano-driven music has the potential to reach millions of people, and some performers have made it their mission to prove that the piano still has a great deal of power, even in a time when electronic and digital instruments offer convenience and versatility.

Mei Li: A Piano Ambassador

Pianist Mei Li has spent years exploring what the piano has to offer to musicians and audiences alike. She has served as the CEO of the Chicago International Music Competition and Festival and performed as a guest soloist at the International Pianorama Festival. Li has also been a juror for a number of international festivals and competitions, from China to Mexico to the U.S.

When not preparing for a new performance, Li acts as a kind of ambassador for the piano and piano music. A few years ago, she co-founded the International Institute of Piano Artistry as a way to educate newcomers to the instrument as well as bringing attention to talented performers and composers.

Following our recent discussion with Li, we wanted to share story and her passion for one of history’s most culturally significant instruments.

A Lifelong Love

Like many professional musicians, Li’s musical journey started when she was still quite young.

“I started to take piano lessons when I was five and a half. I was born into a musical family. My father was a baritone singer and later became a movie producer. He believed that music was the best expression of human emotion. I definitely took that idea to heart.”

Through her own experiences with the instrument, Li found a lifelong love in the form of the piano and the countless songs it could create when paired with a skilled player.

Similar to learning a language, it’s important for children to be exposed to the basics of music theory and instrument techniques while their minds are still developing.

Li showed talent in her piano playing right away, and her parents had the presence of mind to arrange to have her study with one of the leading piano instructors in China.

Learning from a Giant

That instructor just happened to be Professor Zhaoyi Dan of the Shenzhen Arts School. At first, he may have been a bit of an intimidating presence, but Li quickly realized that everything he did was in the service of nurturing a new generation of piano aficionados.

Li reflected on the time she spent studying under the Professor:

“Professor Zhaoyi Dan is a very important figure in the field of piano instruction. He was my first piano teacher, and I learned so much from him. Training with him was strict but very interesting. Ever since, I’ve been determined to play the piano for the rest of my life.”

These many lessons covered much more than just piano playing. As Li told us, the Professor also has a skill for encouraging his students to think about what role music will play in their lives. Anyone who wants to make music their career has to work that much harder to become total experts in their chosen instrument.

It’s certainly telling that Li chose not only to build a successful music career, but also to share her love of music with as many people as possible through performances, clinics, and even her very own organization, the International Institute of Piano Artistry.

The IIPA: Re-Introducing the Piano to Audiences Around the World

The IIPA, founded in 2017, has many different initiatives, including the Chicago International Music Competition, but the central goal of the organization is to get people interested in piano music.

It’s a way to bring professional performances to many cities in the United States and Asia that otherwise might not have access to classical music concerts.

So far, the response has been fantastic. Li is involved with many different aspects of the organization, from

So how did the IIPA come about? Li recalled the initial spark that started it all:

“The IIPA was born in a moment of sheer inspiration. I was finishing my doctorate in piano and wanted to do something to improve the art of the piano globally and make a real difference in the lives of teachers and students. The idea was to develop programs such as competitions, teacher training, and diplomas to raise the artistic level of all people studying the instrument.”

It’s a simple approach: nurture interesting music and performances by showcasing young talent and giving instructors the resources they need.

The IIPA is still developing its reach and its outreach events, and Li is still finding time to head up these efforts.

Make it New

The piano itself is sometimes at risk of seeming outdated, most likely because of its strong associations with classical and chamber music.

As a result, the piano has a bit of a branding issue, especially with younger audiences. This is despite the fact that the piano (as well as its many instrumental descendants) is still a central component of just about every genre of popular music today.

Even so, Li is adamant that contemporary composers need to create impressive piano music that’s also accessible to general audiences.

“I believe that piano performance and composition play a very important role in the contemporary music landscape. It’s critical that composers keep creating works the public wants to hear and young pianists are eager to learn.”

That last point, about creating work that young pianists want to play, is especially crucial. While some young musicians are guided into playing piano by family members or teachers, many are attracted to the piano because there is so much music they want to play.

Twenty years ago, children were spurred on by Disney songbooks, which showed them how to play songs from their favorite movies.

Now, there are far fewer pop culture staples that feature solo piano. This is one of many reasons that Li sees a need to create accessible piano music that will inspire a new wave of piano enthusiasts.

Performance Anxiety

Today, Li is most happy when performing and sharing the work of great composers, but for a while during her childhood, her relationship with performance was touch-and-go, to say the least.

It had little to do with her own abilities as a pianist, and instead much more to do with the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

“When I was young, I could handle every performance easily. But when I entered a professional music school, there were so many incredible young musicians. It was very competitive, and I became less confident. Now, I still feel nervous before performances, but I’ve found ways to take my anxiety and turn it into excitement.”

This is yet another skill that needs to be communicated to young musicians, regardless of which instrument they play. Being surrounded by other skilled players should spur collaboration, not insecurity.

Perhaps it will be helpful for the young pianists of today to know that even accomplished players like Li have their bouts of anxiety and self-doubt.

Top of the Liszt

Through the IIPA, Li has found a way to share her deep love of classical piano works. In particular, she loves to discuss her favorite composer: Franz Liszt.

“Liszt, as a classical pianist, was the first rock star in many ways, and that was 200 years ago. His works had a profound impact on classical music and modern music in general.”

This Austrian-born Hungarian pianist, composer, and conductor was popular in his time but was also sometimes seen as showy or overly flashy. As time went on, history seemed to validate his genius.

Many of his works served as precursors of 20th-century classical music developments and trends.

During our conversation, Li noted that Liszt’s career is typically broken down into three main segments: early work, the virtuoso years, and his late-career experimental works.

The public tends to focus on his virtuoso pieces, as they are by far the most popular of his compositions. But Li much prefers a different era of his work, one that tends to go underappreciated.

“His late-career experimental works are more attractive to me because of the deep spiritual world and religious faith that informed this corner of his repertoire.”

For Li and many other contemporary musicians like her, the sheer variety and creativity of Liszt’s work is further evidence that the piano is one of the most impressive instruments on the planet, and certainly one worthy of our attention.

More Relevant Than Ever

We ended our discussion on this overarching question, of where the piano (and piano music) stands today with regards to contemporary music and what people tend to listen to.

The average individual might claim that the piano has been largely forgotten in the wake of digital music production, but Li begs to differ:

“Believe it or not, the piano is actually growing in influence! More people are seriously studying the instrument now than ever before. In Asia alone, the numbers are staggering and seem to be exploding. In addition, the repertoire for the instrument is undeniably the rich and diverse.”

It’s true. The piano remains a massively popular instrument. The difficulty is that public perception doesn’t always acknowledge this. The spotlight tends to shine on the latest pop sensation rather than inventive contemporary pianists. At least for now.

For Li, this is a temporary problem, one that will be overcome by the work she and her organization are doing, all of which stems from her undying enthusiasm to share what she loves rather than keeping it to herself.

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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