George Ko: Pianist, Young Steinway Artist, Harvard Undergrad

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George Ko was Introduced to me by Barry Alexander from Alexander and Buono International. Barry was a wonderful guest from an earlier episode on the Feisworld podcast. George Ko joined me in a 2-Part interview. I had so much fun chatting with George at a piano recording studio inside Harvard University. We met for the first time during the interview but somehow it felt like we’d known each other for 20 years.

“Growing up in the Asian community, people are obsessed with Ivy League schools. All the successful people I’ve met, Harvardian or not, succeed because of the people they are, not because of the schools they went to.”  – George Ko

George had an unusual path to becoming a successful pianist. As a young boy, his mom refused to prescribe medication for his severe case of ADHD and instead invited a piano teacher to their home. At the beginning, George struggled to sit still and play for even just 5 mins.

Today, more than a decade later, George earned the title of Young Steinway Artist, appeared with Harvard’s prestigious River Charles Ensemble, performed at Carnegie Hall more than half a dozen times, as well as Steinway Hall that led one critic to proclaim “a rising star if ever there was one.”

To my surprise, George never planned on becoming a pianist. He thought playing the piano would just be a hobby on the side. He majors in Music at Harvard and founded 4 startups during freshman and half of sophomore year.

“My father was an entrepreneur and I was able to learn a lot from him. At age 5, he gave me my first briefcase, At age 8, I made my first hotel reservation. At age 10, I made my first sales call. At age 12, I became my father’s temporary accountant.” – George Ko

George found himself feeling depressed during the second half of his sophomore year at Harvard. He didn’t know why. Then he heard Benjamin Zanders conduct the 4th Brahms Symphony, he knew right way that he had to be a musician, either a pianist or a conductor.

When George finished sophomore year, he convinced his parents to make a very unconventional Chinese-American decision: George wanted to take a year off so he could study piano under John and Mina Perry, who taught George the professional side of being a pianist. The wonderful learning environment was fostered by St. Margret’s School, where George attended from pre-school through high school. At the end of the year, St Margret’s invited George to showcase his work at a solo recital in front of hundreds of students.

“During my year off, I always questioned myself:’Am I doing the right thing? Is this the right path for me?’ A the same time, I was bombarded by internship offers from LinkedIn and Google. I had to turn them down. People asked me why I would do that and how I could survive in the competitive field (music).” – George Ko

The most important lesson George learned in his magical year off was: You have to stop comparing and start connecting with people. Work is important, but time with people is also important. This observation, in turn, enabled George to become a much better musician.

“The view for classical music today is that you have to be hyper virtuosic. There’s a specific set of rules for how you should play. But people forget that music is organic, and music is an expression of the human soul (as cliche as it sounds).” – George Ko

Given the path George had chosen, I was intrigued to ask if he had to face any challenges, or rejection from family and friends, specifically as a Chinese-American. Perhaps his struggle and wisdom will aid many of us Asian Americans in the pursuit of our dreams.

“One thing I am very passionate about is the Asian American culture. As a child, I visited the Chinese American Museum. My father helped found the Irvine Chinese School I went to, and he is also a member of the Community 100, which is an organization for leading Chinese Americans in the US.  He supported candidates to get into office, such as Ted Lieu and Judy Chu. Judy is the first Chinese American congresswoman.”

“Only a scholar deserves the highest regards in society” is an old Chinese saying. It can be inspiring but the path of getting one there is questionable in this day and age. As an Asian American, you have to represent your culture, educate other people about your culture, and you have to be willing to step  out of your comfort zone to fight to be heard.

Growing up, many Asians and Asian Americans are taught to be restrained. We are conditioned to exercise our mental control over our emotions. We don’t attack, we reflect. 

“It is our duty to show people our culture. Being part of this ethnic group is part of being American. America is a melting pot – we are group of people forming this wonderful fabric of culture and experience that supports one another.” – George Ko

For George, the importance of playing music isn’t about never making mistakes (everyone, including the top performers, make mistakes!). Instead, it is about creating an experience that reminds the audience of something important in their lives, or inspires them in some way. The audience is not only enjoying music as entertainment but as a moment of reflection.

“I never change the way I play”. – George Ko

An older Polish woman walked up to George after his concert in Italy and said to him:” The way you played reminded me of my time during World War II”. That was all she said. But to George, the message was more important than any applause he could have hoped for.

“My job is not just to provide a source of entertainment but to touch people. My role model is Yo-yo Ma, who received many criticisms. He may not have the best techniques, but listening to him makes you look inside yourself. ” – George Ko

I believe that people like George have obligations to share their skills with the world, to touch people in ways they didn’t think they could. These specialized skills come at a cost – that is to practice relentlessly, to learn from everyone and follow no one, to tune out the chaos from the world (the criticism, judgment and rejection), and eventually to hear the calling beyond themselves for the good of the people.

In Part 2 of my interview with George, he talks about the business side of things. After founding 4 startups in just 1.5 years at Harvard, I figured that George must have a “secret set of skills”, aha moments that contributed to his success. George built his website including writing and photography in one week (hint: very few technical skills are required and anyone can learn how to do it!). I was also surprised to find out that someone as young as George, already has a clear vision of where his journey is going to take him, and what he really hopes to accomplish. It is not as simple as just being a successful musician himself. It is rather a universal message that’s going to change music and music education around the world.

During George’s year off, he had the pleasure to conduct a youth orchestra in Orange County, California, where he’s from. He quickly realized that it’s not because pop music is better or easier to consume, it’s because we never gave it a chance.

“If I could somehow, in my life, help bring these (classical music) programs back, give people a chance, or at least open the cover of this wonderful book, that will be the ultimate goal of my career.”

George Ko

George Ko is currently practicing:

  • Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 7
  • Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 3, 4, 5, 6
  • Chopin Nocturne Op. 48 in C Minor
  • Ravel Tombeau de Couperin

Repertoire currently used to perform:

  • Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 54
  • Chopin Etudes Op. 10 No. 1, 2; Chopin Etudes Op. 25 No. 3, 4, 5
  • Chopin Concerto No. 1 in E Minor
  • Chopin Ballade No. 3
  • Chopin Scherzo No. 3
  • Debussy Sutie Bergamasque

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