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An Honest and Sincere Love of Music

Interview with Sa Chen, the winner of the Crystal Award at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, whose pianism was once described as that of “an angel from heaven”

By Bożena U. Zaremba

Bożena U. Zaremba: Playing the piano seems to be extremely popular in China. Why do you think the Chinese like this instrument so much?

Sa Chen: I don’t think it is just the piano but classical music in general. This passion for classical music and arts started before the Cultural Revolution. But then, during the Cultural Revolution, such passions were forbidden and people could not pursue them, so paradoxically somehow, they grew stronger. When the Cultural Revolution ended, everything started to bloom and grew very fast. The change we see now happened over a long period of time; we are actually talking about a whole generation. That’s how I see it.

There are estimated 20 million pianists in China. It must put immense pressure on artists who want to distinguish themselves from others.
This is a shocking number, but it probably includes children who are studying the piano. Learning music to be a star was never my intention. I chose to play the piano myself when I was seven. My parents love classical music, yet they never pushed me into anything. On the whole, my family was very supportive, and my experience of the learning process was healthy and balanced, so I was never under this kind of "competing" pressure.

You come from a family with musical traditions.

Yes, my father played the French horn, and my mother was a ballet dancer. My father was the very first person to infuse me with music. When I was little, he would copy piano scores for children for me, and he taught me how to read music. He also played records for me. At that time, we did not have a CD player or any sophisticated audio system, just a tape recorder. We would invite friends over to our house to listen to music. These were very nice and cozy times.

I’ve read that your parents had to sell the tape recorder to buy the piano. Is this true?

Well, I don’t recall such a story, but at that time, it definitely required an effort and sacrifice to buy a piano. It was not very practical, either, because people did not have too much space in their homes then. But my family was very excited to see how I was interested in playing the piano, so they thought they should support me, for which I am very grateful.

It looks like your parents played a crucial role in shaping your musical interests. Are there any other people who had a similar impact?

Before I was nine, I think, I had not been under much influence of the outside music world except for a group of my father’s few friends, who played at the opera theater. When I was nine, I started to study with Professor Dan Zhaoyi, who was my teacher for eight years in China and had a great influence on my artistic path. Then a lot of influences came from the conservatory, which would invite musicians from all over the world for master classes, and that was a big source of inspiration.

You have studied music in China, England, and Germany. How do you compare those experiences?

I am very grateful that I had the right teacher at the right time, for instance, Professor Dan Zhaoyi, who was so involved and very enthusiastic about his teaching. He discovered a lot of things for me. He taught me the basis of piano technique and how to be natural and true to what I feel about music. That beginning was very important to me. It provided the necessary foundation. And then, when I was 16, I went to London and then to Hanover, where both my teachers, Joan Haville and Arie Vardi, were very caring and inspiring. Western teachers generally offer you a wider area for inspiration and arouse your interest in different kinds of art; they also tell you how to play a certain piece in a certain style and give you clues of how to access it. Generally, they give you more freedom to fully express yourself, your own feelings, which is very valuable.

Why did you decide to settle down in Germany?

Basically, I found an excellent teacher, and that was the main reason. Also, there are a lot of composers that are German and Austrian, so I thought it would be nice to live in the center of European culture and to get to know it better. Besides, I had lived in London for four years before, so I felt it was time to move forward and do something different.

Recently you were asked to sit as a jury member at a piano competition for children. How would you compare it to professional competitions you have participated in?

The difference was that in this competition, there was a part in which the participants had to answer questions about music. It was good for the kids who were watching because they had a chance to gain some knowledge. Also, the participants had a time limit for each round, due to TV programming constraints, so it was hard for them to show the full array of their skills. On the other hand, the whole experience was as intense as a professional competition. I was amazed how the kids could hold on for such a long period of time; it was almost every night for more than 10 days, and the level was very high. It was interesting to see how some of the young pianists demonstrated incredible technique and how others chose musical pieces to show their souls, the two most important qualities in music, so, in that sense, it was a miniature of what we see in the professional music world.

You have made yourself known in China and all over the world. What does a pianist need to be successful in the music world?

From my experience, I can tell it is never like a one-night legend, like you are successful on one night and then you are famous forever. It is more of a growing process with a lot of different elements. First of all, you have to love music, honestly and sincerely. Only then can you discover something unique that belongs only to you. Of course, you need a lot of people around you. When you are faced with difficulties and hard moments and you have to be courageous and determined, you especially need their support and advice. And society is important, too, because without their support art would have no place to grow. But if we are talking about how to make oneself famous in the music market, that may be another story.

You have often been praised for your performance of Chopin’s music. What place does his music play in your repertoire?

I like Chopin very much. I started to play his music when I was about nine, and since then I have always kept his music in my life and my growing path. And then, of course, there was the International Chopin Piano Competition, which brought me closer to his music and to him as a person. I felt like he became my close friend.

What qualities of his music appeal to you most?

His music has a lot of character and subtlety in the harmony changes with which he varies the mood of a piece. His music is sentimental and passionate but proud at the same time.

Do you have a passion outside of music?

Yes, of course. I like to travel, but I wish I could travel more without giving the concerts, just to be able to visit different cities and different places. I like watching movies with my friends or family. I also like outdoor sports and wish I had more time for that.

You also find inspiration in nature.

I like nature because it is honest. It is always the truth. What you see is what it is. Nature is very peaceful, powerful, and beautiful. When I walk in the forest I really forget about myself, and the moment you forget yourself you receive more from the surroundings. You become part of nature, and that is the utmost relaxation.

Do you consider yourself an ambassador for Chinese culture?

When I’m traveling outside of China, I am always being automatically reminded that I am Chinese. About being an ambassador, maybe I am not very self-conscious about it, but sometimes during my recitals, I present Chinese music, and I enjoy it very much. And people like it, too.

Is there anything in particular in Chinese culture or traditions that you associate yourself with?

Maybe the way of thinking—that is, how you think, how you see, and how you accept the world. The roots of the Chinese temperament are based on sensation and fantasy and not much on reality, and on the inner power that you build within yourself. And happiness comes from spiritual rather than material experiences. In the aesthetic sense, the Chinese would always leave a bit of space to breathe and feel, rather than put the whole picture right before one’s eyes. When faced with the modern world, the Chinese have the culture of being modest, but they still attach importance to the recognition of their own value.

Where do you see yourself as an artist in 20 years?

By then, I hope to grow artistically much, much bigger and release many albums. I also hope to teach classes and have a chance to share my experience with others. In 20 years, I would also expect to have a family and children. In short, I wish to be a great artist, great daughter, and great friend and become a great wife and great mother—if only that would ever be possible in life!

January 2, 2009

The concert took place on March 22, 2009, at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center in Roswell, Georgia.
To learn more about the pianist visit,

Photo: maxresdefault