Photo: Ken Yan
I love writing about the “stuff you don’t think about” when it comes to life as a musician, but in this ongoing series, I wanted to investigate something a little different: those who aren’t classical musicians, but studied it enough to reap the benefits in other aspects of lives. One reason I chose this topic is very basic: “studying classical music is good for you” and while that’s a given, I wanted to personalize why. The other reason was to sort out my own personal experience with studying music to a certain level, which sometimes conflicted with my knowledge I didn’t want to be a performer. I didn’t realize the advantages until much later.
In this ongoing series, posted every week or so, I’ll be speaking with doctors, lawyers, marketing professionals, accountants, actors, arts administrators, and people in all kinds of fields who studied classical music and are thankful they did. I’ll keep this going until I run out of participants.
I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did. Today, let’s meet business consultant Ricker Choi.
Please summarize your current career, and your duties.
I am a business consultant specializing in financial risk management. My clients are financial services such as banks or insurance companies. My role is to interpret regulatory and management risk reporting requirements, and translate these into specifications from which developers will create the software solutions that produce the required risk results and reports.
What instrument(s) did you study, and at what stage in your life?
I had a few piano lessons at age seven, when I was still in Hong Kong. But at that time I hated the piano and I quit very shortly. Then, I entered a school in Hong Kong (St. Paul’s Co-educational College) that requires each student to play at least one musical instrument. I picked a Chinese string instrument called Erhu. I played Erhu between age 11 and 14. It was at this school that I got my first exposures to classical music, and I fell in love immediately! In music classes, l heard my classmates perform classical masterworks such as Chopin Waltzes and Beethoven Sonatas. So I decided to learn the piano myself. I fooled around with the piano on my own for about one year at age 12. My first piece was Fur Elise, which I incessantly struggled for a whole month just to get through the first page. I practised extremely hard despite not having a teacher.
When I immigrated to Toronto at age 13, I started having piano lessons. I was pleasantly surprised when my piano teacher at that time, upon hearing my playing, decided to start me at grade 8 of Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) syllabus! Concurrent with piano studies, I played the flute in band class at a high school in Toronto (Brebeuf College School). That was between age 14 to 18. But piano was my true love.
Were music lessons intended as a hobby or did you have a performing career in mind?
Before I entered university, piano practising was a serious obsession for me. I practised three to four hours every night, and on weekends as long as seven hours a day! I finished the RCM’s Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music degree in five years, at age 18. When I graduated high school, I didn’t personally know anyone who was pursuing a classical music career besides my piano teacher, nor anyone who was studying music. So I had no guidance and felt lost in what might lead to a musical career. So I decided to study business – a subject people told me to pursue if I didn’t know what to study.
Business! Such a change from music! Was quitting your music lessons a welcome relief or a complete heart-wrenching moment of reckoning?
It was a heart wrenching moment for sure. I tried initially to keep up with my piano studies while pursuing Bachelor of Business Administration at York University, and concurrently working various part-time jobs to prepare my future career in business (such as working as a part-time Excel VBA developer, which was a much sought-after skill for entry level analyst positions). Soon I realized I could only focus in my business career and dropped piano completely, not knowing when I could pursue it again. It was a sad day indeed.
How did your classical music studies (and music theory, if you studied that too) impact your ability to do your job today?
In 2006, my career settled down and I had completed the extra studies I believed beneficial to my career (MBA, CFA, FRM, PMP). So, after 12 years with no piano in my life, I started playing again. I also began organizing and performing in charity fund raising concerts.
I suffered from stage fright the initial three, four years of performing after a twelve-year hiatus. I read books on high performance in sports and in performing arts. I practised meditation and visualization techniques to address performance anxieties, which also helped directly with my business career to deal with occasional stressful situations at work.
I initially strived to attain perfect performances, but very soon realized that the harder I struggle to achieve a perfect performance, the more accidents will occur. Momentary slips of concentration or dreaded wrong notes will decrease by simply letting go and remain “unthinking” during a performance. These I also learnt through books on Eastern religions by Alan Watts. Now, “letting go” applies to all aspects in my life.
For those interested, I have a blog on techniques I have tried in dealing with performance anxieties.
My goodness – this sounds like a kind of spiritual meditation that you learned as a result of playing again. I love this. Is classical or music in general (playing, listening, attending concerts, getting your kids to practise) a part of your life today? If not, do you think you’ll return to it?
Music is a very large part of my life. I continue to perform actively and attend concerts. I am planning to organize more charity fundraising concerts in 2019 and beyond (in the past, they’ve included World Vision, United Way, Oxfam, Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto).
I also actively pursue performance opportunities when they arise. Last three years I had the privilege to perform three concertos with two local orchestras.
Ricker Choi performs Franz Liszt’s monstrously difficult “Mephisto Waltz”.
Please visit Ricker’s website; it’s a wealth of information, travel photos, his paintings, and helpful blog. There’s nothing this guy can’t do.
Want to share your experience how studying classical music shaped your life and career?