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Drawing Outside the Lines With "Don't Shoot the Pianist" Creator Eugene Chan

By Jennifer Liu on February 27, 2023

How far can one stretch the expression “don’t shoot the pianist”? In 2011, Vancouver’s Eugene Chan channelled his inner classical musician, and the result was a cartoon that hit all the right notes. His piano-playing protagonist is arguably the world’s most famous stickman in music — today, don’t shoot the pianist has a Facebook following of over 106,000 globally.

We spoke with Eugene about how the “don’t shoot the pianist” mantra has accompanied him from the Microsoft offices in Seattle to his musical rebirth in Toronto.

What’s his name anyway?

I’ve never been very good at coming up with names for characters. It’s not made any better by the fact that he’s indistinguishable from everybody else since none of the guys in my universe have visible hair.

Apart from the existing expression, what were your inspirations for don’t shoot?

My piano teacher in Vancouver used to have a sign in his studio that said, “Please do not shoot the pianist – he is trying his best.” I guess it’s like that stereotypical scene in Westerns where someone’s furiously playing the piano at a bar while there’s a shootout going on. Later on, I threw that phrase around whenever I made a mistake in the comics, usually copying out a score. And there are a lot of mistakes — nothing gets past my readership. If I screw up, someone usually points it out within five minutes, but then there’s little I can do because Facebook doesn’t allow you to edit photos after the fact.

Don’t Shoot The Pianist
Don’t Shoot The Pianist “Overwhelmed” (Courtesy Eugene Chan)

You went from a cool programming job at Microsoft in Seattle, to renouncing it for something even more hip: coming to Toronto to pursue music. In many ways, you stepped back in time — what brought about this reorientation?

I wouldn’t say I stepped back in time, though I won’t deny that there was a bit of nostalgia involved. Music was always an extra-curricular activity for me when I was getting my computer science degree, but after I graduated and started working, I didn’t really have time to practice anymore. Eventually, I just got frustrated that I couldn’t perform at a level I knew I’d once been capable of, and I started to miss working on music, having high-level conversations about music, and just generally being involved in the world of classical music. In fact, don’t shoot the pianist was an expression of me missing the experiences that my friends who did study music were going through. It was a way for me to say to those friends, “hey, I understand you, we have some of the same shared experiences, and you find the same things funny as I do.” Then a few strips went viral, and then I wasn’t just talking to my own friends in music anymore, musicians everywhere were part of my audience.

But at some point, it wasn’t enough just to tell jokes about classical music. Drawing don’t shoot wasn’t going to fill the void entirely, and wasn’t going to make up for not practicing and not progressing as a musician. So I said, you know what, music’s always been an extra-curricular activity in my life, the side hobby — what if I were to make it the main focus and pursue a degree in music? So I put in a few applications. It wasn’t easy getting back onto the scene. Five years away from the piano and… well, it’s not that your technique gets any worse (although it does), but you forget what to listen for when you’re playing. Your ability to listen to yourself just gets worse. I have a sample of my playing from early in my first year. It’s amazing I passed any auditions. I’m just thankful that someone was willing to take a chance on me.

Is there anything Jamie Parker and your other mentors have imparted on you over the last four years in Toronto?

For sure. The most important thing I’m learning is to treat a musical performance as a mode of communication. You have your text, but the purpose of that text is to be delivered in a way that evokes some feeling, some emotional reaction in the listener. I find I’m often guilty of treating the text as a to-do list: I have to play this phrase legato, then I have to nail this jump here, there’s a subito piano here, then a crescendo to forte, etc. But a to-do list doesn’t make people feel emotion. You can’t just deliver your lines. You have to have something to say.

Tell us about how awesome K-pop is, don’t shoot nearly converted musical forms on one particular April 1st.

It’s more of a guilty pleasure, but it’s pretty awesome nonetheless. To be honest, I used to be rather elitist about the whole classical music thing. You know, like not listening to the same pop trash as my peers made me an intellectually superior person. Then it was, hey, look, pop music that uses more than four chords and even has secondary dominants! Then it became a scene to follow, an identity to have as part of a “fandom”. Next thing you know, I’m driving a thousand miles to go see Girls’ Generation live at Google’s headquarters. I don’t regret it one bit. It opened me up.

Your other side hobby, fashioning Post-it notes into Pokémon-shaped wall art…

Oh boy. So there was a pretty good culture of practical jokes at Microsoft. Someone would go on vacation for a couple of weeks, and then they’d come back, and every last thing in the office would be wrapped in aluminum foil. Or bubble wrap. Once my manager came back from paternity leave to an office door that was completely duct-taped shut. From the inside. […] So one of my teammates goes on vacation, and I got this idea. You go through a lot of Post-it notes when you’re developing software, and at the time we had these bright yellow ones in huge supply. So I found this sprite of Pikachu, did a few measurements, and reproduced the whole thing on his office wall, pixel by pixel, with Post-It notes. The hardest part? Finding a good colour to emulate black. […] Funny enough, the same colleague went on vacation the next time we moved offices too, so Charmander showed up in his next office.

Anyway, when I got to music school, I wanted to reproduce the stunt. So we have this practice building which used to be a university dormitory, and a couple of rooms for whatever reason don’t have sound paneling. They just have bare walls. They’re almost impossible to practice in because it echoes so much in there. So the summer before my final year, I did another Pikachu in one of the rooms that had no sound panels. I kid you not; there was new soundproofing in that room within one month. I can’t be sure that the Post-It art had anything to do with it, but I’m taking credit for it anyway.

Your take on viola jokes?

Mostly overdone. They’re the blonde jokes of the music world, and most of them aren’t even specific to viola. But I’m not above cracking my own from time to time, though.

Metronome: yay or nay?

Rarely, and only as a diagnostic. I prefer the tape recorder — it tells me when I’m not listening closely enough to myself.

Bernstein or Karajan?

I prefer Karajan as a musician, but I have to imagine I’d enjoy playing for Bernstein more.

Ailee or BoA?

Forever Girls’ Generation.

Toronto or Vancouver?

I’ve been at home in both cities. I still cheer for the Canucks, though…

But let’s be real: what do you miss about the West Coast?

The constant rain, of course. Ha. Just kidding. But seriously, probably the abundance of nature everywhere. At my parents’ home, I could look out the back window and see mountains in the distance. You don’t get that so much in Ontario.

Is the pianist always the goat?

No, that would be the page-turner.

Any chance of politicians waging wars against musicians soon?

Literal war? Probably not. Metaphorically… well, it’s been tried. It didn’t work.

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