Conversations with Li Churen

By Sherry Tan and Kuo Pei Yu

Li Churen is an award-winning classical pianist who has performed in various countries worldwide. She is passionate about new music, having experimented increasingly with combining musical genres, as well as reconsidering performance practices in the programming of her concerts, and was listed in 2018 on Singapore Tatler‘s Generation-T List. She graduated from the NUS Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at age 19 and is currently an Artist Fellow there, teaching courses in music theory. She also holds graduate degrees from Yale University, and Cambridge University. In this article, she shares more about her journey in becoming a classical pianist and some tips for people pursuing music, both as a full-time musician and as a hobby.

As a classical pianist, I have quite a varied portfolio career consisting of performing, teaching, composing and writing – but the core of my work is as a performer and everything else I do emanates from that. 

I receive invitations to perform with arts organisations (e.g. orchestras, university departments) or venues (e.g. Esplanade, Victoria Concert Hall). I also self-organise concerts and conceptualise interesting ideas that speak to me but might not necessarily be picked up by large organisations. For example, two years back, I co-organised a concert at Zouk, a popular Singapore dance club. It was a classical concert merged with theatre and experimental performance techniques. Last year, I also co-organised another concert at The Moon, a bookstore and cafe in Chinatown, inviting audiences to recite poetry excerpts in between my songs. 

In addition to performing, I teach at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (NUS), as an adjunct faculty member for music theory. As part of my role as Artist Fellow, I also help to curate the research catalogue for the university’s online publications. On top of that, academic research is also a big part of what I do because this is where I get my musical inspiration from.  

When I have time, I compose music and am working on pushing out an EP next year or so.

There’s so much variety in what I do, so I don’t really have a fixed schedule. It depends on what projects I am working on. If there is a project coming up, I will spend 6 – 8 hours a day practicing the piano. As my teachings at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (NUS) are mostly in the morning, I will usually then spend the rest of the day practicing the piano. Generally, I like to group my performances into chunks so that I can focus on practising for those performances for a few months and another thing for another few months. 

There is also a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes unnoticed, such as maintaining my websites, creating publicity materials and posting on Instagram for my audiences to keep up with the content that I am creating. 

Yes! I always knew that I wanted to be a pianist, but I was just unsure of what form I wanted it to take. It has taken a vastly different form compared from what I have envisioned it to be back when I was in secondary school. 

I used to think that being a pianist is about playing concerts, competing in piano competitions and practising 6 to 8 hours daily to keep up my skills. Of course, all these are important and I have done all of them at some point in my career so far. But this kind of lifestyle comes with huge sacrifices: being a pianist is a lonely career as you spend so much of it by yourself, usually either holed up in a practice studio.  

A performing career in today’s world looks quite different from what I envisioned. The music scene is changing so fast because of technology and economics. I don’t think we can expect to make a living exclusively from performing, especially in Singapore where the market is relatively smaller. Most musicians create a portfolio career for themselves, usually consisting of activities such as teaching, music arranging, composition or production.   

My interest in musicology stemmed from a desire for a more critical lens to evaluate what I was doing at the piano. I think the central question that the classical music industry needs to ask itself is: how do we make this tradition alive and vibrant, for both audiences and performers? By reflectively and reflexively considering my artistic praxis, as well as issues surrounding this praxis, it actually feeds into my creative work and helps me to grow as an artist.

I am a part-time academic faculty member and I teach music theory to first-year university students. 

It is through this teaching stint that I’ve begun to understand why my teachers used to say that they learn from their students. Watching my students learn – and sometimes being frustrated by their inability to grasp my teaching points – has been a journey for me in learning how to learn optimally.

Oh, there are so many! But probably the most important thing is the value of appreciating different cultures – and showing them hospitality and kindness, the way I was welcomed when I visited their communities. 

I think that it is still performing. There are so many instances that made me sure of why I wanted to be a performer. For example, recently, I did a five-concert tour of the UK, varying from an orchestra concert to solo piano pieces in a small town in Cambridge and a concert on Singaporean music. My friends and I did everything from marketing to venue bookings and concert conceptualisation. By trying out a little of everything, I realised that there is really nothing that compares to the feeling of being on stage – there’s a moment of transformation onstage that’s so incredible, where the music really speaks and every moment of silence is palpable. Psychologists call that “peak performance” or “being in the zone”, and that is the moment I live for.

It is true that many people believe that music can be pursued as an interest and as not a career. I have so many friends who are fantastic amateur musicians, pursuing careers in law and finance, but deriving great joy from their musical pursuits.

I think that people will find ways to live with music if they truly love it, regardless of their career choices. I think what is most important is to keep the passion alive, to continue finding joy in music. Even if one is not a practising artist, one can find ways to be in touch with music. The assumption that it is difficult to make a comfortable living out of an arts career stems from a skewed idea of what an arts “career” entails, and also relative definitions of “comfortable living”. There are many jobs available in the arts industry that we don’t normally think about, but they are absolutely essential: art managers, art therapists, music producers, sound designers, etc.  

For me, one of the obstacles I faced was precisely this – the paradox of choice. There are so many ways to pursue music and many of these options seemed attractive. I would be perfectly happy playing music for myself in my bedroom after work. However, I realised that music was not something that existed as a concept. I wanted to continue performing because the physicality of performing gave me a lot of energy. I knew that to dedicate my life to this to reach a professional level, which is why I still chose to be a full-time musician. 

If I had to pick out one decision, it would be my decision to not attend junior college (JC). I knew that if I wanted to be a piano performer, I needed to practise a certain number of hours a day. Being in JC wouldn’t have given me the time to do that. Hence, I went to the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (National University of Singapore) after Secondary 4 to pursue a Bachelors Degree in Music.

However, I also missed out on what would have been a very memorable part of my teenage years. Being in university earlier was not easy and I needed to grow up very quickly. As a kid, I also missed out on a lot of activities with my friends, like going ice-skating or to the arcade, because I was clocking in my hours on my piano. Looking back, I think those sacrifices were worthwhile, but I shed a lot of tears over them as a child.

I am a ‘go big or go home’ kind of person, so the idea of a high stakes career path entices me! More importantly, I really, really love what I do! For me, it is important to live with beauty and to perceive beauty in my works and in my surroundings. This is how I live out my life value. 

I don’t know if I can really answer that question because I think it is possibly more exciting to keep my options open. I know that five years ago, I would not have envisioned myself here doing what I do right now. I did not expect myself to be back in Singapore at the age of 24 and taking a part-time teaching position at Yong Siew Toh (Conservatory of Music). I also would have never expected to do a degree in Musicology and be organising my own concerts. Hence, we shall see where the next five years take me.

Passion shouldn’t just be something that you enjoy, but something that aligns with your life values. I think youths who are interested to pursue a career in Arts really need to consider if they can still persevere when things get hard and when their artistic passion, inevitably, stop being enjoyable at certain points.

The second thing is to develop skills in areas that align with their primary passion too. For example, if you are a songwriter writing love ballads, maybe consider developing a passion for taking videos or marketing because those skills will help you to push your music out. Follow your passions but develop them in a way to make a career out of them.