Teaching piano to youth a ‘labor of love’ for lecturer

Topics:

As a crowd filled the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Amy I-Lin Cheng could feel the nerves filling up inside her.

She was making her Boston concerto debut with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra around Christmastime as a 17-year-old, the prize for winning a concerto competition at the NEC Preparatory School.

Conductor Benjamin Zander spotted Cheng backstage struggling.

“Recognizing my anxiety, he told me, ‘This is the gift you’re going to give the audience for the holiday,’” she said. “That really eased my anxiety. He saw music making as a gift.”

She performed and has been sharing her gift for decades since and with countless students, ranging from those at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance to children simply looking to bring music into their lives.

Amy I-Lin Cheng, pictured with her husband, Chad Burrow, and children Alexander and Elizabeth at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival in Tennessee earlier this year, is a lecturer of piano in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. (Photo courtesy of Amy I-Lin Cheng)
Amy I-Lin Cheng, pictured with her husband, Chad Burrow, and children Alexander and Elizabeth at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival in Tennessee earlier this year, is a lecturer of piano in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. (Photo courtesy of Amy I-Lin Cheng)

Cheng is a lecturer IV in piano at U-M, her latest university position after she taught at Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma City University for several years.

She also maintains a studio in Ann Arbor for private students ages 7 to 17. Teaching those students takes her back to her younger days in her native Taiwan.

Cheng said her mother provided the push for her children to learn and appreciate music. Her mother would listen to classical music from Western artists, especially Franz Schubert. While she could not understand the German words in the songs, the music was mesmerizing.

“She would cry. It would move her,” she said. “She didn’t know the language, but the music simply moved her. When she had her own family, all three of her children learned instruments.”

She said her earliest recollection of playing piano was being 6 years old and practicing with a metronome that made an abundance of noise. Cheng and her younger sister would sit at the piano and make up tunes. She also recalled a picture of her when she was around 7 years old playing piano at a recital — all decked out in her red dress shoes.

“In Taiwan public schools, children would pick up the recorder, which was a wonderful instrument to introduce children to playing in public,” she said. “I remember having my recorder outside of my house, looking at the sunset and just making up music, feeling connected.”

By the time she was a teenager, she had become so adept at piano that her teacher recommended she continue her studies in either Germany, Austria or the United States. She picked the Boston area, where she had relatives, and studied at the Walnut Hills School for the Arts.

That’s around the time she won the opportunity to play for the crowd at Jordan Hall.

“That was highly competitive,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to win, because I always thought other people were better than me, and I still do.”

She attempts to instill that humility in the children she tutors in her studio. She said when she is approached by someone seeking piano lessons for their child, her goal is to provide the best possible foundation.

NOMINATE A SPOTLIGHT
  • The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, email the Record staff at urecord@umich.edu.

Cheng said she respects the variety of talent levels and experiences the students bring to her studio.

“I work with some pre-college students as though they’re born to be musicians. They’re gifted children who have the ability to tackle multiple instruments,” she said. “Many years ago, there was a young boy who was also a composer at age 9 and he claimed he dedicated a piano piece he wrote to me.”

Ann Arbor youth are not the only ones benefitting from Cheng’s teaching and support. She and her husband, Chad Burrow, associate professor of music in SMTD, maintain their connection to Oklahoma where they both began their teaching careers. They serve as artistic directors of Brightmusic Society of Oklahoma, a small nonprofit organization in Oklahoma City that presents chamber music concerts several times a year.

“My work with youth, I would say it’s very important as a bridge for me not to forget that music is not just for consumption of the highly accomplished,” she said. “It’s really for everyone, and I’m reminded of that. I’m reminded that as an artist-teacher, we really need to cultivate our youth in a positive way through music.

“Teaching the youth is a labor of love.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

When I collaborate with my colleagues to present chamber music works on campus. We have such an amazing art supporting community here. Also, when piano chamber music groups I worked with received awards (schoolwide and nationwide) or positive feedback from the audience.

What can’t you live without?

Coffee. I especially love latte.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

I love the pond and the green space behind the Moore Building.

What inspires you?

Any good music. I listen to many different genres of music, in addition to classical. Just to name a few non-classical musicians I listen to from time to time: Bill Evans, Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, some Queen and crossover instrumentalists. I also find nature inspiring. Open-minded conversations with people are especially inspiring. And of course, making music with others.

What are you currently reading?

I try to read with my kids, and recently we finished a wonderful book, “Echo” by Pam Munoz Ryan. It’s a 2016 Newbury Honor Book, New York Times Bestseller. For myself, I’ve been trying to read “China: A Macro History” by Ray Huang in Mandarin. Huang actually did his graduate work at U-M.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

As a pianist, I am indebted to several of my mentors for helping me along the way. My childhood teacher, Yi Hsian Chang, for laying a strong foundation for me; Rolf-Peter Wille (German) for teaching me to think about music; Wha-Kyung Byun for giving me the drive to excel and to think big; my late mentor, Claude Frank, for the spirit of humility and beauty.

Tags:

Comments

  1. Anna Feeny
    on November 19, 2021 at 8:55 am

    Beautiful, Amy! You are a gift to our community!

Leave a comment

Please read our comment guidelines.