Friday, April 17, 2015

With Much Gratitude...

What can I say about someone I never knew? Tony Cantu, President of Fresno City College, an influential figure in Fresno just passed away this last Easter Sunday. I didn't know him, but I might have shook his hand a year ago, not realizing who's hand it was.

Why I am writing about someone I don't know? Because without my knowledge, he played in instrumental role in my success. Because of him, I can proudly call myself a full-time musician.

A few days ago, I was asked by Fresno City College to submit my current photo, a bio of what I've been doing, and a letter of how much receiving the Outstanding Musician Award meant to me. For the life of me, I couldn't remember receiving this award. 

At my high school graduation, I wasn't the student who got the baccalaureate recognition. I wasn't the student who earned any academic sashes or pins. Nor was I the student who got any kind of scholarships to any UC schools. In fact,  I didn't get into any prestigious schools like all my friends did. I was that student who got left behind. Therefore, I went to Fresno City College. 

I still remember my first day of piano class. As we went around the room to introduce ourselves and shared our hopes and dreams, I said to the whole room, "I'm going to be a Psychology Major. Because my parents didn't want me to a Music Major. But I want to work in the performance arts. I want to play, sing, dance, act, and do...everything!!!" I also remember the reaction from the other students. There were eye-rolls, there were head-tilts, there were "wows", and glances of skepticism.

In the three years I was there, I fully immersed myself into the music program. I joined the Concert Choir, and City Singers. I even got paid to accompany both groups.  I took all the required music classes to transfer, not knowing exactly where I was suppose to go. I also performed in every monthly recital I could. If I was lucky (worked hard), I got selected to perform at the Honors Recital at the end of each semester. I even got to participate in a master class with the former conductor of Fresno Philharmonic. 

All the professors had a "plan" for me. I didn't know this at the time. I learned hard lessons in not turning my work in on time. I also learned hard lessons in not practicing. I honestly can't count how many times all my music professors at some point said, "Get your act together. Stop partying. Stop hanging out with your friends outside the quad. Do your work. Practice. Go to class." 

At the end of my three years, it was time for me to make those college decisions. I had lingered around a community college long enough. I had to transfer somewhere. My options were limited. I didn't make grades to transfer to a UC school like my Chinese parents wanted me to. My next option was Fresno State. In my parents eyes, why not stay in Fresno if you got into Cal State Fullerton or Long Beach? All Cal States were the same, right? I knew for sure I wanted out of Fresno. I discovered a small college in Riverside. I would get a partial scholarship for being a pastor's kid. I also found out if I got into as many performance groups there, I would get partial scholarships for every group I was in. I had a ticket out of Fresno and I took it. 

My last year at Fresno City College, under my piano professor Olga Quercia's tutelage, I performed the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 25 with the Concert Band. The performance was a success, and one I will remember for the rest of my life. With that concerto, I auditioned for several scholarships that would help send me off to college. This was 16 years ago. I don't remember which awards and scholarships I received and which ones I didn't get. 

Fast forward to a few days ago when I was added to a group to help remember Tony Cantu. It was a group specifically for former students who had received the FCC Outstanding Musician Award. I voiced my concern that I don't remember getting such an award. Come to find out, I was the very first recipient. What does this have to do with Tony Cantu? He was the anonymous person who established this scholarship. In that moment, I took a pause from my day to think about the significance of this discovery. It left me speechless. 

Here I am, sitting in the Plaza Square of The Music Center in beautiful Los Angeles, after playing for company classes with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the week. I had just told the company teacher about what an honor it is to be the first recipient of an award from someone who chose to remain anonymous. I started to tear up. I was crying for someone I didn't know. I was overwhelmed with sadness that I didn't get a chance to thank him in person. Then he said to me, "This here, what you just told me, is exactly what you should write about." 

President Cantu, I never knew you. If I knew just last year, I would have thanked you in person. But, thank you for believing in me. I am living my dream working with the "crème de la crème" of the dance world. I have played, sung, danced, acted, and have done...everything I have ever dreamed of doing.

With much gratitude, 

Rebecca Wong Burdett

Never Forget the People Who Helped You Get to Where You Are

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

So...What DO you do?

Years ago, I use to get very defensive when it comes to how people react after I tell them what I do for a living.

The conversation goes something like this...

P: So...What do you do for a living?
Me: I'm a Musician.
P: you in a band?
Me: Not THAT kind of musician.

Or this...

P: So...What do you do for a living?
Me: I'm an accompanist.
P: Oh...What's that?
Me: I play the piano and "accompany" anything from solos, ensembles, shows, and dance.
P: So...Are you a teacher?

Or this...

P: So...What do you do for a living?
Me: I'm a Pianist.
P: Oh! So you're a piano teacher!!
Me: Just because I'm ASIAN doesn't automatically mean I'm a piano teacher!

Or this...

P: So...What do you do for a living?
Me: I'm a Ballet Pianist.
P: So you're a dancer.
Me: I'm a pianist who WORKS with dancers.
P: does that work?
Me: I'm the music instead of the stereo.
P: ...But don't they have iPods for that?

And the GRAND finale follow-up questions to all of these conversations turns into: How do you make a living?

I'm doing it! 

I use to get so offended when people really don't "get" what I do. Along with my fellow colleagues, we have had to defend ourselves from the stereotypes of our occupations. Dancers turn into strippers. Artists are always starving. Costumers are "just" seamstresses but they are so much more! Being a musician, or an artist, or a dancer sound like "play-time" and people don't understand that you can still make a living doing these things. 

What is my point? I'm finally matured enough to know that it's okay when people don't understand what you do. Because in reality, I haven't a clue what my brother does. I just know that he's a talented artist who works for a company that rhymes with Biz-Knee. It pays his bills and he supports his family with it. So now...when people ask me that question, I respond with, "I get paid to play."

Remember: What you do does not define who you are as a person.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

No, I will not put on my big girl pants!

No one ever wants to get that text message. I received it last night. My mentor, my catapult, my beloved friend has gone to be with God. Marie was a pillar. Even in her 11-year battle with cancer, she continued to work, continued to inspire, and continue to cultivate young minds. Marie would not want us to weep for her. In fact, she would tell us to buck up and move forward. Marie would want us to laugh, and celebrate life one moment at a time. But in this moment, I simply cannot laugh nor celebrate, but weep for the lost of a bright light. 

I've tried to put on my big girl pants for the last two weeks in holding back tears. I tried to share a hilarious story in hopes that whoever reads it, will take a moment to laugh. I've met with friends who share the same sentiment I do. It helps a little, but the tears are still there. So right now, I simply will not put on my big-girl pants. I need a moment to cry for my friend.

I have lost quite a few people in my life. Some have passed of old age, and some were taken too soon. I no longer ask why God takes the good ones. Because in reality, the bad ones are taken too, we simply don't give a shit about them. But when the good ones are taken, it shakes us to our core. I can only come to this conclusion. God takes the good ones so we can be better people, by honoring their memory and live life as they would've lived it. Marie saw the potential in me. Therefore, I will pass this on to my students.

Marie is dancing with the good ones up there. I know this without a doubt. Her light will shine on in all the people she has touched. But for now, the world is darker without her here. My heart is shattered. I miss you, and I love you Marie! Please say hi to my PoPo, GungGung, YehYeh, MahMah, Nanna, Pop Pop, Matthew, Michelle, Eddie, and Lisa for me. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Cinema at the Edge

I am so overwhelmed by the response of STILL.

To date, the film has been screened at:

Festival Fiver  (Spain)
16th MECAL International Short Film and Animation Festival of Barcelona  (Spain)
Asians on Film (USAs)
CINEDANS (The Nederlands)
International Speechless Film Festival (USA)
Busan International Film Festival (Korea)
American Online Film Awards (USA)
Salon Internacional De La Luz (Colombia)

This weekend, I am honored to attend the Cinema at The Edge Film Festival in Santa Monica on behalf of William Lü, and also participate in the Post Screening Q&A afterwards.

Words can't describe how I feel right now. A serendipitous moment on Facebook lead me to explore a part of Music for Dance I had never done before. The process from beginning to end was tedious, yet so much fun, being able to collaborate on a project Intercontinentally from The Nederlands to the States. The film world is a world completely foreign to me, and yet they have embraced this film.

Stay tuned or "like" STILL on Facebook for news and future screenings!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Leaving it at the door

As I wrapped up my 9th year at the local arts high school, I realized I had to deal with an unnecessary amount teenage angst like NEVER BEFORE.

I had to stop a class because the seniors decided that was the day they all hated each other.

One took off in tears
One ran off after the girl in tears
One curled into fetal position in the back of the class
One is circling around chasing an invisible tail because she didn't know what to do
One is calming the teacher down
The only boy in the class decided that he was done with all the estrogen in the room and walked out.

They decided to lay it all out on the table in the middle of a dance class because they felt that it was necessary to talk it out. I had to stop the whole thing to remind them:
1) They are seniors, therefore, they are almost adults. Act like it.
2) At this school, we teach them to be professionals before they are professionals. So when they are out in the professional world, they are prepared far beyond anybody else.
3) The problems you are dealing with has nothing to do with the class, so leave it at the door.

I also had a group of 10th graders who made the teacher cry. Not just a little tear down the face. No. Ugly cry.

I also had a student who confided in me and told me how some kids are mean to him. One girl in particular was bullying him. The awkward Asian kid who grew up in a culturally-ignorant town in me felt for the kid. I consulted with my colleagues and addressed the issue with my superiors. Through a series of events, I ended up being the one accused of bullying Said Bully by her mother. I thank the LORD above that my superiors had my back, and the problem was immediately resolved without any further action.

When someone accuses you of bullying, it really shakes you to your core even though you know you did nothing wrong. It makes you question whether or not you should be working in the position you are in.  The one thing that I did do was address Said Bully every time she was on her phone, missing 80% of rehearsals, making excuses, rolling her eyes, and leaving early because she was "sick." Apparently, that wasn't okay with her mother. Long story short, when that production was over, I cried some ugly tears. I was happy it was over, but I was also sad that I wouldn't be able to see the rest of the cast on an every day basis.

It got me thinking:

One time, a good friend who happens to be a professional dancer for a major dance company asked me:

"When you come in to play for company classes, not just for us, but for everybody else who comes through town...Do you see the conflicts the members have with each other? Or the inter-personal problems or tension that they are currently dealing with?"


I actually had to think about it. The short answer is "No."

Unless I am purposely looking for trouble, I don't see trouble. The professionals do a good job in "leaving it at the door" when there are guests in the room. Luckily, I am that guest.

Going into the next year, that will be my motto especially with teenagers. Please leave it at the door. Thank you.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Presenting: STILL - the movie

I will be quick. Remember this?

Project Schubert

I am proud to give you some awesome news. STILL - the movie as been selected to be screened at 6 festivals so far. William's Brain-Child will make its World Premiere this weekend at the Asian On Film Festival and I get to see the premiere!!  So exciting, and terrifying at the same time.

And look, my name is in the credits!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Taking Dance-Musicianship to a WHOLE new level...Intercontinentally

This past month, I had the honor to collaborate on a dance film project filmed in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This entry is about the process from beginning to end. The steps I took, the hurdles I had to take, and most importantly, forcing myself to ignore the voices in my head.
This opportunity came about when William Lu needed a pianist who was familiar with Schubert's works. William is a talented dancer and choreographer I've crossed paths with many times. We have worked at the same studios, and he has taken many classes I've played for. However, we've never directly worked together. He has since relocated to Rotterdam, The Netherlands and creating another dance journey in another continent. Of course I jumped at the chance, not really knowing what I was jumping into.

William was at his last mile of his dance film, and hit a snag when getting the licensing to use Alfred Brendel's Schubert Moments Musicaux Op. 94 would be drawn-out and costly. Attached to the message, was a link to his rough cut of this beautifully done dance film. I told him I would look over the music before I agreed to it. Though, I was pretty certain I was going to say "Yes."

Before I did say yes to him, there were a few factors I had to consider. Schubert's Moment Musicals are pretty standard in the piano repertoire. Unfortunately, the ones he asked for are the ones I have never played. Considering I have spent 4 years in my teens pounding out the 4 Impromptus Op. 90, I figured Moment Musicals wouldn't be too difficult for me to learn quickly, and crank out a few recordings by the end of the month.

Then there's the technical side. My husband, Dan, listen to Brendel's recording and already had technical concerns. The recording is done in a large room with a 12-foot Steinway. My recording will be done in my loft, on my 5'2" Yamaha C1. How am I going to make my munchkin sound like a 12-foot Steinway in a large room?

I took the leap of faith and said, "I'll do it!" William and I mainly corresponded via Facebook messaging. We had one telephone conversation. He was thrilled I had agreed to do it, and quite frankly, I was shocked he trusted me enough to do this recording for him. I was also excited that I finally get to work with him, with the two of us being on opposite sides of the world. William had requested that the length of my version would match Brendel's version. Also, if there was a way to tweak a few things to help with transitions from one section to the other.

Find the Music. I hopped onto to IMSLP and found the music right away in public domain. Problem is, these editions are so old that the details are sometimes not accurate compared to the newer, 20th century editions done by folks who have done extensive research on performance practice. I knew I had to lean on Brendel's interpretation to guide me along the way for dynamics, articulations, and tempo references.

Do a plunk-through. Was it easy to pick up? Yes.

Re-score the music to a larger print so I can...
a) Play it off the iPad to avoid page-turn interruptions and noises that could be picked up by the microphones.
b) Scribble my own notes, such as visual cues, dynamic changes, time markers from the film, and dynamic changes.

Really take the time to learn the music. As an accompanist, we learn the music so quickly that we do gloss over the small details and miss a lot of notes. I am very guilty of it. Here was my chance to really take the time to learn these pieces, get it right, and get it into my body.

Learn the movement in the film. This was a challenge I wasn't 100% prepared for. There is a huge difference between a Dance Video and a Dance Film. A Dance Video is normally shot from one perspective. It's used for educational purposes. Ex: Bolshoi's Don Quixote would be a Dance Video.  A Dance Film however, sometimes tells a story, sometimes it's abstract, and sometimes they are a compilation of One's ideas formed into images. Therefore, a Dance Film isn't all "Tombé pas de bourrée, glissade, saut de chat!" It's more intimate. It's close-ups of a hand, or a gesture, or a look, a quick frame of an eyeball, it's not JUST dance.

Tagging the score with movement and visual cues, and time markers. This was also a challenge because again, it was mostly gestures. My music was filled with words like, "Look. Look. Look. Walk on back. Sit. Arm. Look. New frame. Head on tummy. Finger walk. Cross the street. Look. Arm Circle." Finally towards the end there were a few "Lunge. Pirouette. Grand Battement."

Put it all together. Movement + Visual Cues + Time Markers + Music = WHAT THE HELL DID I GET MYSELF INTO?!

Once I thought I had the music down, I realized I had to look up at the film where I marked my music. Ex: By the time the dancers cross theirs legs on the couch, I need to be here in the music. When she walks on his back, I need to hit this chord at this time, at this very moment. If I miss that cue, I miss the next cue. I have no meter to work off of. Just Visual Cues. My first play-through with the film streaming was filled with, "Shit I missed it! Shit, I was too fast! Shit, I missed it again. Ohmahgahd! This is so hard!" My tempo was all over the place. My dynamics and nuances that I thought sounded so brilliant in my own head all went out the window! My original plan to imitate Brendel was immediately scrapped. This is not as easy as it looks.

In a live performance, the dancers and I rely on each other and every performance is slightly different. In a film recording situation, I only have the film to guide me through the music, but it has to be the same and perfect every time. It's impossible!

Humor me: Turn on a random movie on Netflix, mute it, now play music over it and hit all the nuances when you see someone smile, someone cry, or someone in deep thought. It's HARD.

Then I thought to myself, am I making this harder than it is? I went to bed thinking, perhaps I should sing the music and record a click-track so when I record it, the timing will be JUST right. I woke up the following morning completely determined that this was the way to go about it.

(For those of you who do not know what a click-track is, it's a metronome done over film so you hit the music at the right points at the right time.)

That afternoon, I went-a-clicking. It was too hard. I couldn't do it. I was over complicating EVERYTHING!!!! That's when I realized my "solutions" to saving time was actually wasting time. I was trying to find short cuts when I should just practice while streaming the film.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Here is my set up...

Because my MacBook Pro was being used to record the actual music, I used my old white MacBook "Dino" for streaming.

I divided the sections and placed time markers in the music, so I was rehearsing about 16 measures at a time. Again, WHILE streaming the film. This way, it's easier to go back if I missed the "crossing of the legs" or the second chord when she's taking her second step on his back. After "perfecting" each section, I put it all together. Then I rehearsed it over and over and over and over again, annoying my neighbors and hearing their windows slam along the way.


There were lots of "what-ifs" going into the recording. When I was in grad school, my piano professor told me about a piece she had done with her chamber group in a music performance setting. Years later, her brother had done the same piece in a dance setting. She was completely perturbed by the performance because it sounded completely different because it had to work with the choreography. I feared that this would be one of those cases because this Schubert collection was so well-known. If this was being viewed by the world, how would the rest of the music community respond to my performance? On top of that, my teachers use to tear me apart about my technique, my "disregard" for accuracy, or the fact that when I play a chord, the notes don't always all go down at the same time. Shit. Even with this piece, I played the first chord repeatedly because I STILL can't make all the notes go down at the same time. Guess what? You'll hear it in the recording. The mics pick up EVERYTHING. Finally I realized, this is what every performer goes through. The Voices. Well, I gave those voices The Finger and proceeded forward.

At the end of week one, it was go-time for the first piece of music. The tuner came to do some fine tuning, and actually spent some extra time on it to make sure my munchkin was ready for a recording session. Dan turned our living room and loft into a make-shift recording studio. The loft was covered in ugly blankets we don't even let our guests use to isolate the sound. (I'm not allowed to post those pictures. Sorry) We also had mic chords draped over the banister, connecting it all to the mixer down below in our living room. We put our dogs in their kennels and pushed them into Dan's office. They normally sleep in the loft.

Film cued. Music cued. Ready. Set. Rolling. Record.

This is what happens when you don't have a fancy recording studio and have a make-shift recording studio in your home:

-My Dino-White-MacBook's fan started to spin because I had been rehearsing with it all day. Dino was tired. The mics picked up the noise. We had to put Dino to "sleep" for  5 minutes before we tried to record again.
-My dogs started to talk in Dan's office. My boxer sounds like Chewbacca when he talks. "Let me out! Why am in in here? This sucks! I can hear you outside. You didn't even leave the house. So why I am in here? Let me out!" Yes. I can understand Dog. My neurotic rescued-Pekingese was scratching her kennel because that's what she does.
-My creepy next door neighbor decided to rev up his hog in his garage, and the exhaust crept into my house. It smelled like Disneyland's Autopia. ::cough cough::
-My creepy next door neighbor has like, 10 bird feeders in his yard and birds decided to congregate DURING my recording session.
-My neighbor behind me has cages and cages of bunnies and hamsters and they were making all sorts of cage noises.
-My neighbor behind me also has a little yipper-dog that wouldn't shut up.
-A plane flew by.

Then there was my own performance. If I was a little late on a visual cue, I had to start all over again. If I hit all the visual cues and hit a wrong note close to the end, I had to start all over again. If I had a perfect take and my boxer started speaking Wookian, I had to start all over again.

(Sidebar: Despite all the noise interruptions, I have to give a shout-out to AirTurn because that pedal didn't make a noise during the recording session. Kudos!!!!)

The first recording session took 6 hours with many noise interruptions and mistakes and missed cues. However, we were able to pull three good takes that I deemed passable to send to William for approval.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

The second chunk of music was a lot easier than the first chunk. It was an excerpt of No. 6 in the collection so I didn't have to re-score the whole piece. It took less time to learn, and less time to record. The challenge in the second recording session was having to remember how the mics and mix were set up the first time. Then it had to be mixed down to sound like the other recording so there was some form of continuity. But at the end, I was again, able to send off four takes for approval.

The film is now in its final stages. I am excited to see what the end product will be like. It was an amazing experience to be able to do this intercontinentally. Ideally, I would've loved it if I was able to fly to Europe to do this recording and have William just tell me when to speed up and slow down. But at the same time, I have never done an actual performance with my own piano before. How many times have I said to my piano teachers, "It sounded better when I did this at home!"

I am very thankful that I got to do this project. It was a learning experience for me. But most importantly, I am thankful William trusted me with his baby.

I cannot wait to share the film with you all.

Becca Wong