When pianist Jian Liu was 15 he had a revelation. Liu, who began learning piano when he was six in Qingdao, China, was in the midst of an American piano competition, the Missouri Southern International.
"It was my first international competition in the US.
"Before that I practised [piano] because ‘I could do it'. I was enjoying it but I didn't really understand the idea of music as being something personal, something meaningful for me. It was just a skill I had, like playing sports. I could play a lot of fast notes.
"But at the competition I remember the final round. All of sudden music started to make sense to me. It became, ‘I have to do it', not just that ‘I can do it' to make this beautiful sound. All of a sudden it became emotional rather than purely [an] activity. It became connected to me all of a sudden.
"After that," says Liu, who then laughs, "the rest is history."
Liu won first prize in the junior division of the competition and later several other prestigious American and international competitions. He's performed in the world's top concert halls, including Carnegie Hall in New York three years ago - and for radio and television, including China's CCTV.
In Wellington there's plenty of anticipation for Liu's performance on Saturday with Orchestra Wellington. But rather than it being another touring soloist, it's because Liu and his family have been based in Wellington for the past three years.
He's a lecturer in classical performance and is head of piano studies at Victoria University, a position rarely held by someone aged under 35. And in all that time New Zealand's classical music community have been clamouring for Liu to perform as well as teach.
The Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, which had been keen to work with Liu, finally got the chance in May.
"[It was] my pleasure," he says with a big grin.
"The first year when I got here Chamber Music New Zealand offered me a 10 concert tour and after that every year I've been playing with different orchestras. It's been busy."
Along with Liu's international reputation, before moving to Wellington he was an instructor at Yale University's Department of Music. So why come here? Liu says he saw the position at Victoria University advertised online. One reason he decided to apply was because there would be some freedom.
"There's a lot of programme development, so there's a lot of things I can develop on my own, compared to courses I taught at Yale University."
The other reason was because the job was here.
"It has always been a dream of mine to come to New Zealand," he says with complete sincerity.
"The country had a huge pull for me and my family. I had heard many wonderful things about how beautiful the country is and wonderful the people are."
Liu teaches 11 of the 14 students in his department at Victoria. His office is dominated by two grand pianos. One for him and one for a student.
At age nine Liu moved from Qingdao - known for producing the popular Tsingdao beer - to study piano at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Liu says about 80 per cent of his time was spent studying piano.
One of the first things he noticed when he began teaching at Victoria was that many of his students had never spent as many hours, or years, learning piano before entering university - unlike in China or the United States, where they would practise four or five hours a day.
But Liu doesn't believe that puts New Zealand students at a disadvantage.
"Students [here] can't practise four or five hours a day. They have other work and other activities - which is great. One thing that stands out for me is how they are so passionate about wanting to learn music. No-one pushed them to. They just love music and that's why they are here.
"In China, when I was growing up, [with] a lot of the younger students it was their parents that wanted them to learn. It's a different mentality, it is much more positive and encouraging for the students here."
LIU is also conscious of how support can make a difference for any musician. Winning an international competition at 15 opened doors in the US. In 1996, he moved to Phoenix for eight years, where he studied at Arizona State University.
All his costs were covered by an American professor.
Aside from his studies Liu had to adjust to a different culture and learn English. He enrolled in a high school.
"I was one of two Chinese students at the high school. I immersed myself in the English language, but it was quite stressful for the first couple of months. I remember ordering pepperoni pizza for almost a month. I didn't know what to order and the person in front of me said, ‘Pepperoni' and I said, ‘Pepperoni, please'."
Liu is also aware of the American connection to the work he will play with Orchestra Wellington - Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. The composer was inspired to write the work after touring the US in the late 1920s and hearing jazz.
Liu knows the work from recordings, but had never played it himself. In having to learn it and prepare for performing with an orchestra, he's been reminded of the discovery he made in the middle of that piano competition years ago.
"For this concerto I can honestly say, ‘I'm playing for myself' because I love [it] so much now. I used to know it before I actually played it, but I didn't like it as much. Now that I'm actually playing it, it's ‘Wow - this music is just so wonderful'."
Jian Liu performs with Orchestra Wellington as part of its Song of the Nightingale concert at Michael Fowler Centre on Saturday, 7.30pm.
- The Dominion Post
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