Who or what inspired you to take up the piano?
I think for me, inspiration to play came in waves. I can tell you the first time I played the piano, it wasn’t by choice. Like many immigrant kids, I was required to play the piano at an early age. Of course, it was because my parents wanted me to learn as many things as possible since they didn’t get those opportunities in their childhood. Nevertheless, I hated the thing. It wasn’t until I saw Lang Lang perform that I started to appreciate the piano for the first time. He played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the San Diego Symphony. I never forgot how beautiful the piano sounded. I still didn’t enjoy playing it, but it was the first time I saw how the piano can really do anything and move people, as Lang Lang’s performance moved me. It really wasn’t until college that I really wanted to learn the piano. Just starting sophomore year, I had come out of a failed startup, torpedoed my GPA, and was utterly lost. Depleted, I went to a concert to hear my favourite symphony: Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. For some reason, a bolt of lightning struck me, and I realized I wanted to do what all those musicians were doing on stage: devote yourself to a craft, mould it, nurture it, and create. That’s when I decided to drop out of Harvard for a bit to study piano and conducting.
Who or what are the major influences on your musical career?
I have so many: the list is endless. However, given we all have short attention spans, I’ll be brief. Piano-wise, definitely Lang Lang. He’s the reason I started to appreciate the instrument. Arthur Rubinstein’s interpretations of Chopin have a deep impression on my heart. Hiromi Uehara’s vivacious style and harmonic sensitivity are why I started improvising in the first place. Lastly, John Mayer is a huge inspiration. I’m a die-hard fan. Maybe a little too much of a die-hard. I have his signature PRS guitar. I have tons of his records on vinyl. If I ever met him in person, I’d probably pass out.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Definitely booking concerts. When you’re an entrepreneur promoting a product or business, it’s expected that you promote yourself. However, when you advocate for yourself with venues, many see it as a desperate attempt to get booked and dismiss you immediately. It’s really one of the very few industries I know of that someone advocating for you on your behalf is almost essential. However, I’ve been so lucky to have booked this past tour with incredible venues that took a chance on me. For this, I am in their debt and tremendously grateful.
Classical improvisation is a forgotten art. What led you to explore this art form?
It really is! Imagine that there was a time when Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy regularly improvised at salons and cafés. Honestly, the real reason why I’m a classical improviser was this burning desire to be like a jazz and blues player on the piano. As an amateur jazz alto-sax and blues guitar player, I was envious of all those cats ripping it on their instruments. I wanted to do the same, but my vocabulary was roman numerals, triadic chromaticism, and sonata form. I was also tired of performing overplayed music. I wanted to play my own music and share with others what I was hearing in my head and in my heart.
Do you think it’s important for classical musicians to improvise?
Absolutely. All the greats did it, including Bach. I don’t see why we shouldn’t teach it to artists today. It also forces musicians to create, be spontaneous, take risks, enjoy jamming with others, and more. In a way, it’s more positive reinforcement than the traditional cynical approach to classical music pedagogy. It also gives musicians an innate understanding of why composers make certain choices, develop a subconscious sense of style, cultivate discerned tastes in melodic lines, and form a complex vocabulary of harmony and resolution.
Aside from improvising, what repertoire/composers do you think you perform best and why?
Five composers really speak to me. Chopin, by far, is the easiest for me to perform. For some reason, Chopin’s use of overtones, long melodic lines, and virtuosic piano technique comes naturally to me. Beethoven is the second. Maybe it’s because he had so many ups and downs in his life. The third is Bach. I love his use of contrapuntal lines and his unrelenting, unapologetic use of polyphony. Fourth is Mozart for his deceptive simplicity, whimsical charm, and unrelenting raw beauty. The final composer is Ravel. He’s just pure imagination. If you want to go wild on the piano, play Ravel.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I don’t really do anything in particular. Inspiration comes from anywhere. I would hear melodies on a walk to Blue Bottle, hiking in the Berkshires, or taking a dump. I think it’s more about accepting and being engaged in the state of being. If you’re hyper-focused on the present moment, open to anything, and accepting of all that life throws at you, you’d be surprised how inspiration finds you ever more frequently and unexpectedly. I learned that from Yo-Yo Ma in a masterclass. He’s probably the most in-the-present musician I know.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
As previously mentioned, hearing Lang Lang play Rach’s second piano concerto with San Diego Symphony. Specifically the second movement and the duet between the piano and clarinet. I was 13.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Oof, that’s a toughie. I think there are different types of successes. As a player, if I can constantly improve and push the envelope of my playing and challenge the status quo of musicianship, that would be tremendous. As a career, if I can keep the lights on, live comfortably, and go on food explorations or excursions in Japan, that would be a success. Lastly, if I can inspire more people than I can meet personally to love, appreciate, and learn the piano, that would be a great accomplishment in terms of legacy.
What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians?
Trust your instincts. Look for good mentors that encourage and guide you, not judge and demean you. Practice like hell: you have to be good. Take a break when you’re tired. Music is a long game, not a short game, so don’t try to burn out too quickly. Be humble. Accept that you will always be in a state of learning, and perfection is impossible. Celebrate each win and decompress each loss. Be realistic and manage your finances responsibly. And lastly, luck is something out of your control. What you can control, though, is the openness to new opportunities.
What is your most treasured possession?
Speaking of being realistic, I might have to sell my most treasured possession to keep the lights on and keep the music career going. It’s my Steinway Model D that currently resides at my parent’s place (because I can’t fit it in my apartment in LA). I spent 2 years searching for it, and it used to be the resident piano at Boston Symphony Hall and Tanglewood. So many of my heroes performed on that piano, including Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Emmanuel Ax, and more. I used my savings and also a generous gift from my parents to buy it. However, with my schedule right now, the necessity to hire help for the career, and more, I have to sell it. But I think that’s the normal part about being a musician! Our life is constantly in transition, and we have to play the cards we’re dealt with.
What is your present state of mind?
Grateful. I’m just so appreciative that so many amazing people have gotten me here to this point in my career. I’m thankful to my family for their support, all the teachers who taught me everything about music, my friends for showing up to gigs, my fans for streaming my music and buying merch, and so much more. I’m also excited. With the pandemic, we’ve all been so cooped up. I’m eagerly waiting for us to return more to normal, to play more shows, and to share my music with an even larger crowd.
Known for his alluring sound, expressivity, and eloquence at the keyboard, pianist/composer George Ko has appeared on stages worldwide, including nine appearances at Carnegie Hall. His performances have been broadcast on ABC, CBC and featured in music festivals in Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, and China. As a recording artist, his piano compositions and interpretations of Chopin have appeared on films at the Tribeca Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, and Netflix. His current discography encapsulates his improvisational technique blending classical virtuosity, jazz flexibility, and film soundscapes.
Artist photo by Anna Webber