1. What is your name and your profession(s)? Jonathan Tsay (Tsay Eu-Ming)
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? 2nd generation American, born in Texas to Taiwanese parents.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? Both parents were in the accounting field, dad was self-taught in piano/guitar. Both now sing in a choir.
4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies. Seemingly normal childhood in suburban Dallas, I had cousins around my age and we would hang out with non-AAPI and other AAPI friends/classmates. My Tae Kwon Do instructors were Caucasian, as were my music teachers. My parents were quite active in the Taiwanese-American community, so on weekends we would go to gatherings/rallies where the kids would socialize with other 2nd generation kids.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? Loosely. Never learned Mandarin (I’m doing Duolingo now, feel kind of like a fraud!) because scheduling made it an either/or situation between Chinese school and youth orchestra, so I chose the latter. In the last couple of decades, I go back to Taiwan every couple of years or so, always accompanied by family or a manager/handler.
6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)? 6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now? Grew up playing the piano (as did my older sisters), then added the violin in the public school systems as they became available. I fell in love with music through the works of P.D.Q. Bach, whose errors were so laughable it actually got me to try to discover what were the things that made Peter Schickele’s jokes understandable even in an “abstract” medium such as music. The other thing that really got me into music was chamber music - in 8th grade a friend of mine who was a cellist showed me a copy of a Beethoven cello sonata (G minor) - until then I had no idea that that sort of collaboration was possible (and written out!).
Only around junior year in high school did the thought of pursuing music as a career come into mind. I didn’t know if I wanted to do it in piano, conducting, or composition (my attention was quite divided at the time). My mom’s reaction when I told her my plan was this: “Well, Jonathan, you’re not good, and you don’t practice.” (she was right - but I worked on that). My sisters were overjoyed that someone in the family was going into something other than accounting (they both have Master’s degrees in accounting). It took a while for my parents to come around to music being something other than a “good scholarship opportunity” while trying to find myself/my real job (after undergrad I actually took the GMAT thinking I was going to go to business school, but the scholarship and study opportunity in Montreal was too good to pass up), but after a couple of years knowing that I was able to support myself through music, they’ve become very supportive.
Bachelor of Music from Southern Methodist University, Doctorate of Music (D. Mus) from l’Université de Montréal. No Master of Music, as I was in an accelerated program in Montreal.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? I was able to tour Taiwan a few years back, playing the National Recital Hall and other notable venues with a program that featured American and Taiwanese composers. This was the first time many of my extended family heard me play.
I formed a chamber music series, Ensemble75, which ran for almost a decade (www.ensemble75.com). I may bring it back to life next year (being Artistic Director is really time consuming, especially if it isn’t your only gig!), but while it was going, the level of performer we were able to bring in really exceeded my expectations.
Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse. I worked with my friend and violinist, Chloé Trevor, on quite a few projects, but the one that has garnered the most attention was our Danse Macabre video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsYMD620-u4) which was recorded/filmed/edited basically by ourselves in 2015, when this type of stuff wasn’t as widespread as it is today.
8. Describe to me your dream project. Dream project… I have a lot of those. One thing I really would like to do is put together a small-ish ensemble (10-15 people?) to do a lot of concert works/concerti featuring each of the members in some fashion… the ego/nerves of the solo combined with the collaborative effort into the group. Ideally, we’d all just load up in a bus/van that could fit a hybrid piano (for smaller towns/outdoor things) and hit the road for a couple/few weeks at a time.
9. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry? This is somewhat difficult to comment on, as my experience has been my only experience, and I really can’t tell if any difficulties that I have had were because I wasn’t a good enough musician/good enough fit or if there was actually something systemic behind it. That is not to say that that kind of bias doesn’t exist in some form, however.
I do, however, know that a lot of where I am now is based off of a lot of support and opportunities (benefitting being born into an upper-middle class family and having institutions/people that trusted in me) that have been given to me (fairly or otherwise) and while I don’t have some overwhelming guilt about my privilege, I do understand very clearly that my successes are not wholly my own.
10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why? 10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general? I’ve been really fascinated by the works of an early 20th century Taiwanese composer, Jiang Wen-Ye, who wrote pretty sophisticated music (think Asian Bartok) in a time when it might not have been the norm for that part of the world (also taking into consideration that the world was not nearly as much of a global community with communication/travel back then).
My hope for AAPIs (and in no way meaning to trivialize this project) is that someday soon we will be described professionally without the AAPI label being the first adjective.
11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they? Netflix/Amazon/Dogecoin. Get in early and hold.
More career-related, though, I would tell myself that while a sense of humility is always needed, not to let the fear of looking foolish/failing prevent you from taking on projects, because no one really notices everyday people’s failures but rather their successes.
12. Do you have any upcoming projects for which you are excited and about which you are allowed to share? Is there anything non-music-related on the horizon about which you would like to share? For now, holding down the fort! The last couple of years have been a sea of change for me, from obtaining a position of piano professor at the University of Memphis to doing all the things related to understanding/exceeding expectations in the job while in a pandemic. Ensemble75 may make a comeback, but only if I can get some concert programs that really excite me.
I do have some concerts coming on the horizon - next will be a recorded program with Fine Arts Chamber Players’ summer concerts (Basically Beethoven) in which I’ll be performing two American trios, by Charles Ives and Amy Beach - I think that one will have some web presence, which will be linked in my IG bio. The other one is a violin recital with Chloe, but I think that will be in-person (yay) but not streamed (boo).
13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate. I have a dog, Peyton, who I try my hardest to keep alive and entertained, and she does the same for me. I’ll hop on to IG and share pictures/videos of her and also things that make me chortle (@jonathantsay_piano).
Facebook: Jonathan Tsay Piano