For the final Beyond the Notes session, PYSO Music Director Earl Lee was joined by Pius Cheung, a marimbist, composer, and educator. Cheung discussed his life as a musician and a composer, and even shared some insights on how to get started with composing.


The session began with Cheung performing of Bach’s 2nd Cello Suite in D minor on the marimba. Cheung then went on to give a brief summary of this path as a musician so far. At age 4, he started playing piano, and by age 9 became interested in becoming a percussionist. He joined the Vancouver Youth Orchestra, and later attended the Curtis Institute of Music, where he was a roommate with PYSO’s own Earl Lee.


It was around this time Cheung began to take writing and composing more seriously, as well as deciding to become a solo marimbist during his fourth year at Curtis. After graduation he attended the Boston Conservatory to focus more on marimba, and eventually ended up getting his doctorate at the University of Michigan so that he could begin teaching. After settling in to a new teaching job, Cheung was able to become more selective of the gigs he wanted to play, and devote more of his time to composing.


The discussion of being a performer/composer began with Cheung saying, “It’s important for performers to play with the understanding of a composer. As classical musicians we are trained to look at the page and follow instructions…but I think it is equally important to question these instructions and figure out how a composer came up with these instructions, so that we can do a better job at bringing the music alive. One of the best ways to learn how to do this is by writing.”


Cheung then shared some advice on how to start writing, and how the process is very much like a puzzle, with lots of small moving parts that eventually become the finished project. He emphasized developing some kind of emotional context or abstract of what the music is conveying. Other pointers included showing pieces to your colleagues, asking for their thoughts, and not being afraid to change a piece once you think you’ve finished it.


The session concluded with Pius sharing his very specific method of beginning to write a piece. His process involves using reverse analysis rather than starting out with traditional notation. He starts with thinking about the subject matter, timeline, motifs, and getting creative to find a way to articulate different details, such as dynamics, textures, registers, and more. The final step is actually where the traditional notation begins.


As a final wrap up, Pius played the piano part of a quintet he is currently working on.


Many thanks to Pius Cheung for taking the time to share his process and knowledge with us!


This session was the final Beyond the Notes seminar. Thank you to all who participated, and to Earl Lee who hosted such great discussions with his colleagues.

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