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Interview: Amateur is just a label for Toronto pianist Ricker Choi

By Margaret Lam on October 24, 2012

Amateur pianist Ricker Choi performs with Toronto’s Sneak Peek Orchestra on Friday (Chris Hutcheson photo).

While the term ‘amateur’ is often used to describe people who are pretty good at something but don’t make a living doing it, this over-simplification can cause us to overlook the musical gifts around us.

Toronto analyst-by-day, pianist-by-night Ricker Choi is a case in point.

As a 7-year-old, Choi found his first music lessons so boring that he quit. It wasn’t until he heard his friends play Für Elise and Beethoven sonatas at age 12 that his own interest in playing stirred up.

Using what he could remember from the half-dozen or so lessons he had taken, he painstakingly worked out every note in Für Elise. The first page took about a month for him to learn how to play, with the unavoidable wrong notes.

But he persevered, taking lessons from pianist Boris Zarankin in high school, but the pressure of university studies pushed the piano out of his daily life.

Although Choi stopped playing, he didn’t stop engaging with music.

A voracious reader of everything from European classics to modern psychology, he also read biographies of musicians and music theory texts on harmony.

Once he found his place in the working world, the piano beckoned again. He was surprised when, 12 years after taking his last lesson, Zarankin remembered him instantly when he called. Choi resumed lessons and made swift progress.

“I think I practice much more appropriately now,” says Choi. “I practice a lot less than I used to when I was younger, and also much more efficiently.” He adds that all the background reading helps, too.

Films are also a great source of inspiration, as they help him understand more viscerally the close relationship between narratives and music, and the range of emotions music can evoke.

Choi relates an example. “I attended a masterclass where I heard the teacher say, ‘This piece should not sound so personal, but more universal,'” he recalls. He wasn’t sure what this meant, until he began to pull in impressions from his other interests.  “The Lars von Trier film Melancholia, is a great example of both. The opening is a very personal tragedy, but in the end the tragedy becomes universal, when three people in a tent accept their fate,” he says.

The means of crafting creative expression is what really animates this pianist — and he takes any opportunity he can find to put this into practice, performing regularly in amateur piano competitions and organizing an annual charity fundraising concert every year in Toronto.

Choi explains his approach to performing Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, which won him an award at a recent competition for amateur pianists where he was given the opportunity to play the piece at the Philharmonie in Berlin. He performs the piece again on Friday with the Sneak Peek Orchestra.

The pianist finds that the music can make him get carried away, which leads him to forget where he is in the piece. So, to create the illusion of being carried away, “I usually record myself playing the music without any restraint, not worry about mistakes,” Choi explains. “Then I listen to it, and practice to create that same sound while reining my feelings in.”

Although he approaches each piece of music with the seriousness of a professional, Choi is proud to be an amateur. The availability of opportunities to compete and perform at top venues around the world in amateur competitions makes the long hours of practice even more appealing.

Choi gets the rewards of performance without the stress and pressure of living and dying by his art. “When I won those competitions, many people said to me, ‘Oh, your dream came true!’ But to me, I never really dreamed of anything; I just tried it, for fun. If it happens, ultimately it’s just the music that I love,” he says.

The pianist believes that, along the way, he is also making a meaningful contribution to the larger music community.

“To a professional musician, I may always be an observer, an audience, and I’m fine with that,” Choi explains. “But as an active contributor in the amateur community, I see a lot of benefit to society. We often bring people in the community together, spread the love music to those that have not encountered it. Someone might never go to the TSO for a concert, but they will certainly go see a family member perform in a community orchestra.”

Choi would like to see an amateur competition take shape in Toronto. “Berlin has something that is truly amazing, so why not in Roy Thompson Hall, or Koerner Hall?” he asks.

In the meantime, getting a chance to play with the Sneak Peek Orchestra is just as exciting.

For more information on Friday’s concert, which includes other ghoulish delights besides the Totentanz, click here.

Here is a clip of Choi at the Berlin Philharmonie, playing the Totentanz:

Margaret Lam

Margaret Lam is an occasional contributor to Musical Toronto. She also helps several younger Toronto-area music organizations, like the Sneak Peek Orchestra, with their websites and social media marketing.

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