Creating a piano portal

Professional pianist links music with life

Professional pianist Alpin Hong talks about music during a Tuesday presentation to students at Marquette Senior High School. Hong will give a public concert at 7 p.m. Thursday at Kaufman Auditorium. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Most kids don’t grow up to be concert pianists. There’s a lot, though, they can take away from those who have reached that level.

Professional musician Alpin Hong, 41, of Riverside, California, is one of those talented performers. The pianist, who also plays the violin and clarinet, is in Marquette this week, visiting local schools to show them how music can play an important part in their lives, even if they don’t make it to Carnegie Hall.

Hong, who was born in New Jersey, moved to Michigan where his parents got him taking piano and violin lessons. The “great fork in his road” took place when he was 12 when his parents were killed in an auto accident. Fortunately, an aunt in California adopted him.

He studied medicine at UCLA, with the intention of being a doctor, but music drew him back, so he entered the master’s program at The Juilliard School in New York City, a prestigious institution. Before he graduated, he entered the Concert Artists Guild competition, winning by unanimous decision and then given the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Hong has been performing professionally ever since, but it’s not all about simply playing the piano to please an audience. He wants to bring music appreciation to a different level.

While Hong was in school, he started “Kitchen Sink Music,” an after-school program for at-risk children in Harlem.

“I fell in love with this idea of what classical artistry could do for kids, regardless of their socioeconomic background, you know, racial, religious, whatever — there was that unifying force that uplifts them and elevates them and connects us all,” he said.

His approach to students?

“I’m a big comic book geek and pop culture fan and video gamer and martial artist, and my nerd life, I see it as a portal to connecting with what kids are interested in,” Hong said.

He believes if he can establish that connection with youngsters, he can teach them anything.

Hong warms up on the keyboard before his presentation to students. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

“Classical music — it’s still emotions, just like pop music is,” Hong said. “That girl doesn’t like me, that boy doesn’t like me. That’s basically what half the songs are based on, right?”

He acknowledged classical music pieces have no words, and the music is several hundred years old.

“But they’re just as poignant and they can speak to you,” Hong said. “It’s just that you need to see them in context.”

Showing kids the similarity between Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and the Darth Vader Imperial March, then, can get them to dig deeper into musical understanding, he said.

This has to be accomplished in what he calls “a world of Netflix.”

“For $7.99 a month, you can sit on your couch and get all the entertainment in the world for virtually nothing,” Hong said. “But I’d like to make a distinction between the arts and entertainment.”

For him, entertainment might change a person, but no investment needs to be made.

The arts are different.

“The more you invest yourself in it, the more you can get back,” Hong said.

That’s the message he gives to kids.

“The privilege they have to study music under such dedicated teachers, as I see it in Marquette, this is transformative, because every one of them is going to have to perform at some point in their life,” Hong said. “They’re going to have to apply to college, hopefully. They’re going to apply for a job, negotiate a salary, ask someone out on a date.

“At some point you have to step to the plate and swing, and if you’ve never taken that risk and run that tightrope walk, you probably will fail. And so, I’m trying to set them up for success in any of the other academic fields that they might have, but using music as the vehicle for some of them.”

He believes middle school and high school age is the time to get through to kids in this way since this is when they’re forming boundaries of their possible interests.

“This is the time to blow them wide open, to maybe blow open their ideas of what a classical musician is like,” Hong said.

A local steering committee brought Hong to the area through a grant obtained from Art Works and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Through its efforts, Hong is able to further his “global mission” of making concert band and orchestra music relevant.

And if he has a political agenda, it’s to help music create a more informed electorate.

“It gives you historical and cultural perspectives in a universal language,” Hong said.

He had no problem entertaining students when he gave a presentation to them Tuesday at Marquette Senior High School.

Of course, he played classic pieces like Frederic Chopin’s “Harp Etude,” but he also put a special spin on well-known tunes like the “Jeopardy” theme.

Hong talked about creating different moods with different chords and how he uses pedals, for example. Technical brilliance aside, he kept the students’ attention by relating humorous stories, even demonstrating “non-confident” and “confident” ways a kid would enter a piano recital.

In the “non-confident” version, he made a tentative appearance and then mangled the Beethoven piece “Fur Elise,” which elicited laughs from the students.

Then he walked in confidently.

“I didn’t even play anything, and already I have your attention,” Hong said.

The kids appeared to get his point: transcending expectation.

“It was amazing,” said MSHS sophomore Chris Belles after the program.

Belles, who called Hong “very, very talented,” noted: “He puts a different flair on music and has his own personal style.”

The community will have an opportunity to witness that style when Hong gives a public concert at 7 p.m. Thursday at Kaufman Auditorium, 611 N. Front St. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for anyone age 62 or over and free for students. Proceeds will go toward refurbishing the Steinway piano at Kaufman.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.