You are here

Music Is Home

November 17, 2022


When Olivia Lee was in graduate school, her new piano teacher heard play for the first time and asked her how old she was. He seemed a bit disappointed when she told him 22 — she wouldn’t be eligible for the Cliburn Amateur Competition until she was 35.

Of course, Van Cliburn was a huge presence for a girl growing up in Houston, Texas, who loved piano. She’d started playing when she was six — mainly because her older brother took lessons and Olivia wanted to do everything he did. He quit after several years, but Olivia kept playing.

“I knew I loved it when I was around 10 or 11,” Olivia recalls. “That’s when I started to really feel the music and recognize all the emotions in it.” More than that, she realized that through the music she could connect with those emotions and thus with an audience. When she was in high school, her parents bought her a grand piano. Of course, as soon as they’d bought it, Olivia told them she was going to stop lessons after high school and probably never play again. “They were pretty ticked off at me,” she says.

Good as her word, Olivia did stop taking lessons when she matriculated at Rice University as a biology major. But every time she went home, she just naturally gravitated to the piano. Her senior year, she needed an art credit to graduate. Most students in her position took an Art History class, but Olivia took piano — “An easy A.”

“I realized I should have been doing this all along,” Olivia says. When she moved to Dallas for graduate school in biochemistry, her parents gave her the family’s old upright piano to take along. She took lessons on and off, and though she played infrequently, her musical maturation continued. “I didn’t have people telling me what I should sound like. I began to solidify my own musical voice.”

Olivia moved to Seattle in 2013. This time, she brought her grand piano with her. “I didn’t practice much the first couple of years,” she admits, “because I didn’t want to make too much noise.” But in 2017 two things happened: she connected with a new piano teacher named Mark Salman, and she got a new piano — a Steinway. For the first time she found herself practicing two to three hours a day — the result of that new piano and amazing teacher.

Finally old enough to compete in the Cliburn Amateur competition, Olivia decided against it at first. “I’m a nervous performer, at the best of times” she says, “and a competition is too much pressure.” But then the Cliburn introduced something new: a festival. Though pianists selected for the festival did not compete, they played in public recitals and participated in events and activities alongside the competitors.

To enter the festival, Olivia had to write a brief personal statement — and she struggled with it. What is the piano to her? She used to say it was a hobby, but it’s not really.

Was it a compulsion? That word has such a negative connotation — she doesn’t feel an obsessive need to play. “It’s not even a passion,” Olivia says — it’s just so engrained in her.

Eventually she wrote “The piano is home. Music is home.”

Because playing in front of an audience would be nerve-wracking, Olivia chose to play something she has technical mastery over. For her recital, Olivia played three intermezzos by Johannes Brahms, Opus 117, which she started learning 18 months before the event. “They’re not the flashiest pieces,” Olivia says. “They’re very intimate. Written in the later years of Brahms’ life, they’re very introspective.” Afterwards, an audience member approached her to say her performance brought him to tears. “My ultimate goal is to touch people — you don’t have to play something difficult to do that.”

Olivia has always been very clear that the life of a professional musician was not for her. “When your livelihood depends on it, it’s very different,” she says. Cliburn Amateur only reinforced that for her.

“You have amateurs who have pursued other careers besides music — Tech CEOs, nurses, doctors, stay-at-home moms — and everyone brings such different perspectives; you can see it in their playing and the joy of music. For amateurs, the motivation to play is often different from professionals — a different kind of love and dedication.”

Though Olivia likes the field she works in now — it’s interesting, she has an aptitude for it and it offers her stability, “I don’t burn for science.” Her experience at the Cliburn Amateur festival has started her thinking about different opportunities going forward — something she could burn for. Possibly a career in arts administration, helping to support the work that has given her life so much meaning for so long.