Take 5: Pianist Melvin Chen

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Take 5 offers a brief introduction to Yale faculty members in a Q&A format. The featured faculty member selects 5 out of 10 questions to answer. Any opinions shared are not necessarily those of YaleNews.

Pianist Melvin Chen is an acclaimed soloist and chamber musician who has performed at major venues in the United States, Canada, and Asia. His performances have also been featured on radio and television stations around the globe. He earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and physics at Yale, and studied piano and violin as an undergraduate. He holds a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University and a double master’s degree from The Juilliard School in piano and violin. He has been teaching at Yale since 2012 and is also the deputy dean of Yale School of Music.

What scholarly/research project are you working on now?

I’ve become interested during the past few years in exploring and expanding the boundaries of traditional classical music concerts, especially in trying to connect music with other disciplines in meaningful and artistic ways. So I’ll briefly describe three projects in which I’m involved. The first is an extension of the idea of chamber music. Traditionally, chamber music involves a small group of musicians interacting and responding to each other within the framework of composer’s notes and indications. My collaborators, theater studies faculty member and dancer Emily Coates and School of Art faculty member Johannes DeYoung, and I are working on our version of “chamber music,” in which I am playing ballet music from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Emily is dancing an original choreographic response, and Johannes is projecting and manipulating images and video in real time. The second project centers around a biography my wife, Karin Roffman, is writing on the young life of great American poet John Ashbery. Since his work and life were deeply influenced by music, we’re going to create a musical portrait of Ashbery’s life, using the music that he was influenced by and some of the music composed by his friends. Finally, I’m working with composer and music technologist Jason Freeman, who teaches at Georgia Tech, to create a piece for piano and laptop, where the synthesized sounds are influenced by audience members interacting through their smartphones, which in turn changes the piano part. It is another version of chamber music, this time between pianist and audience. These projects, along with the other parts of my job, should keep me busy for a long time!

What important lesson(s) have you learned from your students?

In teaching, I learned quickly that knowledge never flows strictly from the teacher to the student; instead, there’s always a two-way exchange of information and ideas. So I’m constantly learning important lessons from my students — some are things I know but need to be reminded about, and others are new ideas that are startling and valuable.  I particularly like when students bring music that I’ve never heard before  —  it’s nice to figure out a piece together, and on several occasions it has inspired me to learn it myself!

What do you do for fun?

Most of my free time is spent playing with my son, Milo, and it is great fun for me.  I’m happy to indulge with him in his latest passion, so we’ve been through Legos, origami, super heroes, and, currently, soccer. I’m wondering with great anticipation what his next obsession will be!

What would people find surprising about you?

This question is hard to answer, because it’s hard to know exactly what other people think of you, which makes it hard to imagine what others may find surprising. So I’ll answer this by saying something that I am surprised with in myself. Most people think of musicians as peripatetic. While I enjoy being in a new place, I don’t enjoy the experience of getting there, and I’m always happy to return home. But I love to perform, too, so finding the balance between these two impulses is an ongoing process.

What are you reading for pleasure?

I am about to start “The Year of Billy Miller” by Kevin Henkes. My son is reading it in school and loves it so much that he insists that both his parents read it too.

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