Steven Lin: The magic is the worry


August 2016


Last fall in Taipei I met the American trained Taiwanese pianist Steven Lin just a few days before his homeland debut. Steven did his pre-college, college and master’s degree at the Juilliard School. In addition he also earned a Performance Diploma from the Curtis Institute. He is a veritable virtuoso who can play at a mind blowing pace, fast and clean. But despite his amazing talent, I also met a humble and sensitive young man trying to find his own voice and his place in the world. I was much impressed by his eagerness to understand his surroundings and to discover himself. 


Before making his debut in Taiwan, Steven visited several universities to talk to the music students. One of his biggest concerns was to inspire the younger generation through music, to encourage them to do whatever they want – and not just on the music scene. 


“My main purpose was to let the students know that my journey is very simple. I talked a lot about my failure in competition. I didn’t make it to the finals and that really gave me a hard time. I was devastated. That was pretty much the lowest point in my life. I didn’t practice for two months. People call it failure but for me I would not look at it as one. Obviously nobody would be happy to be eliminated from a competition. But the important part is to somehow learn from that process. It makes you realize a lot of things.” 


“When you just practice, practice, practice your mind gets so narrowed. Students tend to be so closely boxed into what they have to do. I myself was so goal oriented that I lost the life in my music. When you are away from the piano you start looking at it from another perspective. This distance gave me time to think and reflect. Later after the break I again found the passion for music. And this time it was genuine. 


Steven Lin says his relation to piano playing changed over the year. “I am still discovering myself. Through playing different pieces you learn a lot about yourself. I think most people know that I didn’t always love music. Even though I went to Juilliard Pre-College, at such a young age my interest was somewhere else. I didn’t always like to practice. It is hard when you are a child to understand the purpose of the process. And purpose in music is so important.” 


During his first two years in College at Juilliard Steven admit he was not practicing. Then in his junior year he started worrying about his future. As a consequence he started teaching quite a lot and preparing for all kinds of competitions. This energy and intensity resulted in him acquiring a genuine love for music during his masters. “During my master’s degree I was very fortunate to meet some colleagues who really loved music deeply and whose passion influenced me profoundly. My interest for music was changing because of my surroundings.” 


In particular one of his closest friends, the pianist Andrew Tyson, had a great influence on Steven. “The way he listens to music really opened-up my own perspective on it. Listening is such a simple thing to do but we don’t do it enough. We should listen a lot more and not just in a physical sense. We should sensitively listen. I think we overlook the importance of listening.” 


Beside his good friends, Steven was always influenced by the old school recordings. He mentioned great pianists and violinists of the early 20th Century. “I used to think they have so much personality but in listening to them I also came to realize they have so much life in their playing. They had the time to allow for imagination of which music requires a lot. Imagination is a sense that can be deceivingly abstract.” 


Recordings can be inspiring but there is nothing like live performances. Music is all about the moment, about spontaneity. It is what you create at that very moment and how you do so. That is what so special about live performances and what we sometimes lose in recording. It happens only once and then it is gone, leaving only a memory. And while we may remember it forever we may never be able to recreate it. 


“The magic is the worry. Magic is what keeps us going. Playing so many concerts can become a routine so I think it is important for musicians to seek the moment. Every hall is different as is every piano. So it is very important to have this relationship with the piano and the acoustics. Instead of trying to adjust to it, one can use all those diverse factors as an advantage to create something entirely different. Going beyond the physical sound, you have to go after the meaning and purpose behind the sound. Each concert has something special and you never know what is going to happen until you get on stage.” 


Steven has never been as focused on his music as he has been recently. “This is all new to me. Right now music pretty much takes up my everyday life. But music itself is so broad, I don’t just practice, I listen, I read about it. Now music means so much to me. Over the years I learned that the schools you attend don’t really matter, it is about having your own environment of studies. Music requires so much solitude. It also requires time. You cannot replace time. We feel like there is a deadline, but I try to remind everybody including myself that this is such a long journey.”