Pei-yeh Tsai seems at home in the lurid glare of vending machines in the College of Fine Arts student lounge. It is an unseasonably warm spring Saturday, and the dim cafeteria is deserted, except for a stray student asleep on a couch in the corner. He snores softly, which makes Tsai laugh. She spends more than four hours a day here in the Boston University College of Fine Arts, and she seems to know every odd character in the place. Tsai is a young Taiwanese woman, a distinguished doctoral student in piano performance, and a rebel at heart.
She has just come from a performance, and she looks the part: Her shoulder-length black hair is swept up in a bright silver butterfly pin, and she wears a bold fuchsia sweater and trim black slacks. Seated on a cafeteria bench, Tsai looks as graceful and self-assured now as she did five minutes ago in front of two university adjudicators. So when I ask if I can tape record my conversation with her, I'm puzzled by her answer.
“Why, no!” she exclaims with indignation, blushing as she explains that she would be too nervous to speak on tape. Even though she has lived in the United States for seven years, Tsai remains bashful about her language abilities. In light of her impressive list of accomplishments on the concert stage, her reticence in front of a microphone may seem paradoxical. Yet Tsai would be impossible to describe without recourse to paradox and contradiction. How else could you explain a girl who dreamed of becoming a veterinarian while in high school - only to find herself studying piano at Juilliard a few years later? Her life seems to be a tale of two psyches - scientific and musical, disciplined and rebellious - that nonetheless seems to resolve in harmony.
Tsai's musical life began without dissonance. She started studying piano in Taiwan at age six, and at 12 she found out she had received an opportunity most young musicians could only dream of - a scholarship to study piano in Vienna. At an age when most kids are worried about how they'll survive middle school, Tsai was prepared to move halfway around the world to pursue her dream.
What she wasn't prepared for was her mother's reaction. The answer was an emphatic “no” - Tsai was too young to move away, according to her mother. But Tsai was bitterly disappointed, and she resolved to make her mother pay for crushing her dream - by whatever means necessary.
She retaliated by renouncing music forever.
“I was so mad at her, I just decided to quit piano,” Tsai says forcefully, as if anyone in that situation would have done the same. Her eyes glint and she tosses her head in defiance. She laughs at her youthful antagonism, but her voice is still tinged with a distinct willfulness that is undiminished after 16 years. “I was like, 'Yes, I want to quite piano!'” she says as she pounds her small fist on the cafeteria table.
Tsai's childhood rebelliousness has only grown since then. Today, you can see the former headstrong child in Tsai's fierce determination at the keyboard.
“She's ridiculously disciplined,” says Marcus Eldridge, a friend of Tsai's who studies music and linguistics as an undergraduate at Boston University. “She can be so funny, and she has all these strange quirks, but at the end of the day - God, she's ruthless! She just works and works and works. She's made of iron.”
True to her word, Tsai didn't touch the piano for the next six years. She excelled at her science-oriented high school, made plans to pursue a career in psychology or veterinary medicine, and even won a prize in mathematics. And her interest in science was more than a disingenuous ploy to upset her parents; by her senior year, Tsai was ready to go off to veterinary school.
All this changed when she heard Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto at a friend's recital. “I felt so touched, and I just cried and ran out of the auditorium,” she says, her eyes wide in amazement as she remembers that performance.
The concerto that night moved her to tears, but it also moved her to a new determination: She resolved to make music her life - and damn the consequences.
“I said, 'I'm gonna play piano! I don't care!'” Tsai says as she smiles with delight from across the cafeteria table. Her shining eyes provide a clear answer to anyone who might doubt the wisdom of her decision.
Ever since the night of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, Tsai has tirelessly worked her way up through the ranks of the music world. She studied music as an undergraduate in Taiwan, earned her graduate performance diploma at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and earned her master's degree at Juilliard. Within two years, after obtaining her Doctor of Musical Arts degree, Tsai will have earned virtually every available piano degree. She is only 28 years old, and her dedication to music is evident in every choice she has made in the last ten years.
A successful piano career, of course, requires nothing short of complete and utter dedication to the music. Learning and memorizing scores of solo pieces, chamber works, and concertos; practicing piano six to eight hours each day; teaching group piano lessons twice a week; taking weekly private lessons with a seasoned master; and performing virtuosic repertoire in front of international judges - all this may sound like an exhausting and downright impossible life to lead. Sometimes, in fact, complete and utter dedication to the music just doesn't quite cut it.
“In most things, you don't have to be at the top - you can still survive. For performing arts, you have to be at the top, or you won't survive,” Tsai says seriously. But her expression lightens, and she seems unconcerned by her dire analysis. “There will always be people more talented than you. Do I worry about this? Yes, but when you're on stage you don't think about it. You do your best and play the music.”
Tsai's theory was put into practice during a recent jury performance. As she waits to enter the music room, Tsai paces up and down the hallway with a light scowl on her face, flicking her hands furiously as if she were flinging off angry water droplets. The sound of her knuckles cracking echoes down the halls. She walks, stops, flicks her hands vigorously, and stretches her arms high above her head, looking more like a sprinter before a race than a pianist before a performance. She looks up, confused and startled, whenever someone speaks to her. When she enters the room to perform, however, her coiled, catlike intensity is beautifully channeled into every brilliant crescendo and sforzando. The performance, of course, goes off without a hitch.
Like her calm demeanor and internal willfulness, Tsai's appearance on stage is part of her paradox. She somehow manages to present a perfect picture of assurance and composure even when she herself is strung tight as a drum.
Takehiko Ohnuma, also a doctoral student in piano at Boston University and a friend of Tsai's, is impressed by her stage presence.
“Even for grad students, it's scary to play on stage,” he says intently as he waits outside a concert hall in the College of Fine Arts. “But whenever I see her perform, she plays like it's nothing! She might be nervous, but we never know.”
Eldridge, however, sees a different side of Tsai when she is on stage. “She's such a nervous performer,” he says, shaking his head incredulously. “Lots of people are nervous performers. But especially as skilled and experienced as she is, you think she wouldn't be so nervous.”
Tsai's stage personality is just another example of her many contradictions. As a friend and teacher, she could not be more kind and deferential - but she is ruthless as a musician and competitor. The true meaning of what she says and does always seems to lie just beneath the surface of her words and expression.
For example, beneath her iron discipline lies an irreverent spirit of iconoclasm - the same spirit that led her to quit music out of spite and return to it six years later against all odds. Tsai laughs as she explains how people react when she tells them she is a classical pianist.
“People say, 'Why would you choose a career that's not really popular?' They ask why I don't study jazz or something,” she says.
Tsai has, in fact, tried to enjoy jazz. But all her attempts have failed: She simply cannot abide the disorderliness of it.
“You can't analyze jazz in a classical way. It's all over the place, and I get a headache,” she says, frowning. “Other people listen and feel relaxed - and I just get stressed out!” she exclaims, throwing up her hands in despair.
Once she went with a friend to hear a famous jazz musician play in Carnegie Hall. In a perverse way, the scene ended up mirroring the scene of the Rachmaninoff concerto. “All the fans were going crazy, but I had to run out of the hall because nothing was making sense!” she says, visibly upset. “Everything was out of the rule! It was so noisy, so loud, and I couldn't stand it - there was no order! I was like, 'Oh my God, what's going on there!' The improvisation part just drives me crazy.”
But when she talks about why she doesn't listen to popular music, suddenly Tsai's vehemence melts into excessive politeness.
“I don't want to be too rude,” she says with a small laugh. She draws back from the table and looks away into the back of the lounge. “I don't know how to say it without being too rude.” Eventually, after much wheedling and cajoling, I get an answer. Tsai is so accustomed to analyzing everything she hears that she will pick apart even popular tunes. The songs' simple structures frustrate her ears and bore her beyond belief.
Tsai's paradoxical double interest - in both science and music - continues even after ten years away from the sciences. She says that studying science has given her an edge in music - knowing psychology helps her perform, physics aids the physiological element of playing, and her ability to analyze problems translates into a deeper analysis of musical form.
Her background in science is not unusual, and, like other musicians who come from non-musical fields, it has given her a fresh appreciation for the world of music. Gabe Merton, a clarinetist who is friends with Tsai and who has a master's degree in math, describes the pedestrian world outside of music.
“It's nice, you know, and they care about their houses. But it's boring,” he says, leaning back and swiveling in his office chair. He comments on Tsai's strong will and imagination. “Pei-yeh is a free thinker. She won't do just whatever her teacher says. She has her own ideas.”
Tsai's genuine passion for her music shows through her calm, easygoing demeanor. When she practices, she plays with grand emotion and sensitivity, leaning into the big chords with her entire body - and then suddenly she will stop, pick up a pencil, and study the music with a cool, analytical eye. Today, on a warm spring afternoon, she sits calmly in the softly humming emptiness of the cafeteria, but I suspect that she will erupt in roguish laughter at any moment. She is a paradox of discipline and playfulness, analytical thinking and irreverent excitement.
Today, though, she is just grateful that she decided ten years ago to throw caution to the winds and follow the music. Tsai says with a gleam in her eye, “You want to do something for so long and you can't. And when you can, it's the most beautiful thing, and every day is wonderful.”
Eldridge, Marcus. Personal interview. 23 Apr. 2006.
Hsieh, Huiju. Personal interview. 15 Apr. 2006.
Merton, Gabe. Personal interview. 15 Apr. 2006.
Ohnuma, Takehiko. Personal interview. 15 Apr. 2006.
Tsai, Pei-Yeh. Personal interview. 15 Apr. 2006.
Tsai, Pei-yeh. Personal interview. 1 May 2006.