Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Helen Sung

Pianist Helen Sung. Photo by Kathy Villacorta

Musicianship requires more than just knowing how to read a sheet of music and press the proper keys. Both of those skills are critical of course, but so is knowing the tradition of your art form, understanding the masters, and learning which techniques to borrow and how to make them your own. So when classical pianist and violinist Helen Sung caught the jazz bug, it was more than just a matter of learning to play a new time signature. At the time, she was pursuing a degree in classical piano performance at the University of Texas at Austin, and her decision to seriously pursue jazz shook her entire musical foundation. As Sung said, “It was learning a whole new language, a new culture, a new worldview, attitudes, and musical practices.”

A composer as well as a performer, Sung went on to graduate from the elite Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. In 2007, she won the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Pianist Competition, and has since performed around the world, earning countless accolades along the way. Her sixth album, Anthem For a New Day, will be released later this year. We caught up with Sung via e-mail and learned about her transition from classical to jazz, her creative process, and how she views the relationship between artist and community.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience with the arts?

HELEN SUNG: Tough question! I can’t think of a single, definitive experience---it’s more like a ‘mosaic’ of memories. I remember having a red, plastic keyboard (with 12 keys, each a different color!) that I kept at my side as a three year old. My mother says I would play melodies we heard on the TV or radio on that keyboard. When I was four, I remember my folks waking me up from a summer nap to show me the upright piano that had arrived. And in kindergarten, I remember playing the violin and suddenly feeling that this was something I already knew about and understood. It was kind of spooky…in a cool way.

NEA: You were originally a classical pianist and violinist. How or why did you make the switch into jazz?

SUNG: I was completing my classical piano performance degree at the University of Texas at Austin. I had a wonderful teacher, a great community of fellow classical piano students, and yet, I felt vaguely restless about the future path placed before me. Even as a young teenager, I remember thinking I wanted to PLAY music! I wanted to be a performer, even though most people said how impossible it was, how slim the chances were, to not set myself up for disappointment, etc.

In this case, I have a definitive experience of what started me on this new path. My friend invited me to a Harry Connick, Jr. concert in Austin. I wasn’t familiar with him at that time, but she waxed eloquent about how cute he was so I decided to tag along. He performed with his big band and it was great fun, then in the middle of the concert he played a couple of solo piano pieces. I remember wanting to jump out of my seat! There he was, breaking all the rules I’d been taught to follow, playing music that was so alive, so fun---I had to find out more. So my great adventure started. I enrolled in a beginning jazz piano class and gradually took more and more jazz courses at UT. My decision to switch over was finalized after I was accepted into the Monk Institute’s jazz performance program.

NEA: Was this a difficult transition, not only for you, but for your family and the community of musicians you had belonged to?

SUNG: It definitely was not an easy transition, although I’d do it again! Musically it was a whole new world: an entirely different aesthetic, approach, feeling---let alone learning how to improvise, and to swing. It was learning a whole new language, a new culture, a new worldview, attitudes, and musical practices.

My family---my parents especially---were baffled by my desire to pursue jazz after studying classical for so long. They wanted me to be a doctor, so to become a classical pianist was bad enough, but at least they could somewhat relate to it. But jazz? Besides having no precedent or reference for it in their life experience, they also worried I wouldn’t be able to support myself.

My piano teacher at UT was supportive although she thought I was going through a "phase." I remember another teacher saying to me, "One day you’ll come back to us." My musician friends were mainly curious to see how things would play out. In the years since when I’ve reconnected with old friends, musicians and non-musicians alike, most are very surprised that I am now a jazz musician, and they’re very supportive and happy for me.

NEA: How does your classical background influence your jazz composition?

SUNG: Mainly in the sounds, colors, and textures I hear and want to create. As a classical pianist, I played all kinds of repertoire, from the Spartan two-voiced contrapuntal inventions of J.S. Bach to Franz Liszt’s flashy and grandiose piano transcriptions. As a violinist, I played in student orchestras and Houston’s youth symphony---I love the orchestral repertory. I also played in chamber groups, both as a pianist and violinist. I accompanied vocalists, instrumentalists, other pianists. Today I feel very fortunate to have this deep pool of experiences and sounds to work from.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process when composing?

SUNG: My creative process is quite varied---sometimes I wish I had a sure-fire routine so I could be sure of writing something good. However, I have noticed one common event: a musical idea will come to me---perhaps a rhythmic motif, a melodic phrase, a harmonic progression. I might hear this idea in my mind, or something I hear in my environment will give rise to the idea. Whatever the inspiration, this idea will "stick." This is the initial clue that I need to develop this idea. Then comes the hard work of writing the piece, where I usually sit at the piano and gradually work out this musical "seed." It’s usually a fairly long, sometimes laborious, process; at other times (more rarely) a song comes out almost in its final form. As a composer, I personally need lots of time and mental space to just play around with ideas when I’m in the "writing mode."

NEA: You have also conducted a jazz residency for underserved youth, and taught piano classes for low-income elderly residents. How do you think music can make an impact for those dealing with economic or personal struggles?

SUNG: Music, like all forms of art, is truly a wonderful gift. For example, music therapy is something that has developed extensively in the past couple of decades and rightly so. Besides being something fun (healthy too!) to do and be a part of, music can lift one above difficult circumstances to offer a moment of peace, rest, and maybe even the inspiration to continue on. It’s magical to see young students lose themselves in the creative experience as they make visual art, sing songs, play instruments, or dance. To see them taking pride in and enjoying their work is thrilling. New England Conservatory’s continuing education group piano class for seniors is still one of my favorite experiences as a teacher. Not only was it a musical adventure, it was also a social event that brought together folks from all different cultures and walks of life.

NEA: You are not only an Asian American but also a woman, both of which are minorities in the jazz world. Do you see this as having affected your trajectory, for better or for worse?

SUNG: I would say it’s had a positive and negative effect. Being different can be an advantage in that you stick out, but it can also take longer to establish oneself in a place where others don’t expect you to, when you don’t exactly fit in or "look the part." The road for me might be a bit longer, but I remind myself to enjoy the journey, to appreciate and remember the great experiences and opportunities I’ve had, and to continue playing and writing the best music I can.

NEA: What do you see as your biggest professional accomplishment to date? What else do you hope to achieve?

SUNG: My next album! I just recorded it in December 2012 and it will be released some time this year. I’m proud of the music: the writing, arranging, and the performances, and I tentatively include my own performance too, which is a bit scary as I am a merciless self-critic. The album is called Anthem For a New Day.

NEA: Do you think the artist has a responsibility to the community?

SUNG: I remember reading somewhere that the arts are the preservers of society, that artists live in the vanguard, that they are the visionaries. If this is true, then for me personally, having a responsibility to the community means trying to stay connected, to regularly step outside of my world and find ways to contribute to my local community, whether with my time, my music, or money. Sometimes I can get so consumed with whatever I’m working on that I become a hermit; I have to remind myself that vibrant art is inextricably connected to life. Another thing I admire about Charles Mingus is his visionary interpretation of contemporary society and events through his music. He was in it: the good, the bad, and the ugly! The arts can be a powerful proponent for good, and the best thing is: everyone can participate. I like this quote by the writer Brenda Ueland: "Why should we all use our creative power…? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold, and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.”

NEA: Conversely, what do you see as the responsibility of the community to the artist?

SUNG: For better or worse, I think artists will always need some sort of patronage and support system---perhaps one responsibility of the “community” is to diligently search out and support promising artists. I can also speak to the many sacrifices an artist might make to dedicate him or herself to perfecting their craft, how it is often the practical considerations of daily life that can become overwhelming obstacles, things like health insurance, lack of sufficient resources and/or funds. There are some good programs out there, but it would be even better if arts advocacy and support for artists had a higher priority. I like this quote by President Kennedy: "I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well." (Amherst College, 1963; click here for full text)

Want to know which songs Helen Sung would include on her mix-tape of all-time favorite jazz tunes? Click here to find out!

On January 14th at 7:30 p.m., tune in to our live webcast of the 2013 NEA Jazz Masters Ceremony and Concert! The evening will feature performances by past NEA Jazz Masters such as Sheila Jordan, Dave Leibman, Kenny Barron, and Randy Weston, and will celebrate this year’s class of honorees: Lorraine Gordon, Mose Allison, Lou Donaldson, and Eddie Palmieri. Click here for more information.

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