Conservatory Spotlight: Yanfeng Tony Bai

Yanfeng Tony Bai, 20, studies piano with Fabio Bidini. He is from Shenyang, China. This is his second year in the Bachelor of Music program in the Conservatory.

This interview has been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.

Why did you come to Colburn?
I got a chance before the year I was applying to the school to attend a piano seminar held here. One of my friends recommended it to me. He said, this is a new school, and it’s really great, with great faculty. You should attend the seminar and some lessons there and see how you feel about them.

So I came to the piano seminar, and I played the Liszt Piano Sonata for Bidini. That experience made me feel like I got a strong connection with him, and I really do think he was the new teacher I needed.

What has your most memorable experience here been?
There are two parts. The studying part—basically every lesson with Bidini is already a huge gift for me. I think he’s someone who understands me and what I’m trying to say with my music. When he plays some excerpts, I’m really touched by him and really moved by him, and I can literally cry in class.

So that’s one part, and another part is performing. I strongly believe that if a musician lives without performing, they’ll just die. So I’m so lucky that I have so many opportunities to perform in school.

What is being a piano student at Colburn like, since the orchestra experience is such a big part of most other students’ experience?
Being a pianist is quite lonely, most of the time. We practice alone, we don’t really have opportunities to communicate with each other. But there’s a good balance here, because in Bidini’s studio, we have a policy that everyone can come in during anybody’s class, so we can hear our colleagues playing. We’re not trying to critique their performing, but we learn a lot, we gain a lot of ideas, we get inspired.

And the environment for chamber music is really good, especially if you really enjoy it and want to put effort into it. We have a lot of great coaches who give a lot of advice, not just for strings but also for piano. I think pianists learn a lot from other instruments and trying to recreate their sound on the piano, so we can make piano more colorful, with more layers, more expression.

As a pianist, how do you feel about being an accompanist vs. a soloist?
It’s hard to say specifically, because I think, and this is only my personal opinion, when we start to play piano, I think everyone has a dream of being a solo pianist. But I really enjoy playing with other people, because you learn a lot, it’s a lot of fun, and it makes you feel like interacting with people is one of the most pleasant things you can do with music. Solo is kind of lonely, kind of harder because you have to work through things on your own, you have to make your own logic and ideas.

But I’m not considering accompanying as my first goal with my career. It’s completely two different fields, because you have to be very thoughtful when you’re being an accompanist. You have to think further than the soloist, you have to think about what he wanted to do before he ever plays, so you have to make sure there’s no problem with your performance, to make it very natural. It’s a tough ability and it takes a lot of thinking from their perspective.

What is your musical background?
Sadly, I’m the first family member in our whole family to do music, which is pretty tough, especially in China, because we don’t have any knowledge about classical music. I think I started learning piano at five, just trying it as one of many skills.

When did you know that you wanted to become serious about music?
I think it was around when I was 10. I won a few competitions, the national amateur competitions in China, so a lot of my friends and teachers really encouraged me, like if you don’t do this, you’ll regret it. They were trying to push my family because of the education system in China. Because if you don’t do it as soon as possible, you’re kind of left behind. If you go to a normal middle school, you don’t have time for practicing, because the classes are really intense, and people really care about grades. So we moved to Beijing for conservatory education.

I started pretty early and I do think it fits me better than just sitting in a classroom forever. I feel more proud when I’m doing it, especially when I accomplish something or have a performance, I do feel like I’m kind of shining or glowing on the stage. I’m a stage person. When I go on stage, I’m kind of different than I am usually as a human being.

How is different studying in the US than in China?
In China, college is not that intense compared to high school. In the US, it’s kind of the opposite. In China, there’s so much pressure in high school, so everyone tries to relax a little more when they go to college.

But here, you can do whatever you want. If you want to relax, you can relax and have a reasonable grade. But if you’re interested in a topic, you can gain a lot of experience and knowledge based on that. People are especially not afraid to give their opinion, like when doing presentations or talking in class, which is really good. I really love it.

What are your interests outside of music?
Oh, a lot. I don’t really let myself think in a circle. I love music, but I don’t want to make music occupy my whole life. I have lots of interests in sports, soccer, basketball, tennis. I watch Japanese anime, American TV series, documentaries, especially based on history or art, or sometimes even science.

I’m interested in everything, having a great connection with life. I love food, I love going to other countries and new cultures, although I’m really a lazy person. But in my mind, I’m really open to every field. I’m proud of that, because I think it actually makes my music better, because it makes me more unique as a person. I feel like I’m living in a worthy way. Music is my blood, but I have to have other things to entertain myself.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding students, faculty, and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.