Conducting and the Creative Process

Last week, I got to witness my friend Jojo make his orchestral-conducting debut, conducting the Brahms’ first symphony. It was an incredibly moving performance to say the least, and it was particularly special to me because Brahms’ first symphony is a work that I have always loved.

Many people think that conducting is about the motions, and understandably so because that is the obviously visible part of a conductor’s work that you see every time you witness an orchestra perform.

However, having talked to conductors, it seems to me that that is actually not what conducting is about. Even though I sometimes hear reviews that focus on the motions, such as “that conductor was so into the music” or “that conductor was a bit tense,” such reviews might be missing the most important aspect of conducting. Conductors tell me that conducting is much more about the skill to rehearse an orchestra in a limited time to unify their playing so that the group performs as one, instead of 100 independent musicians. Simply put, conducting is not about the conductor. It is about the music.

Joshua Bell once said this in an interview: “A bad conductor is someone who can get in the way of the music. I mean, the great secret is that an orchestra can actually play without a conductor at all.”

Talking to Jojo after the performance, I gained some insights that parallel my desires to produce good works as a fellow creator and a musician.

For one, a conductor’s work begins long before the first rehearsal with the orchestra. That is actually true of any genre of art, but especially important for a conductor. Conductors who show up to rehearsals unprepared are not only useless, they are almost criminal. They are essentially taking the precious time away from the lives of the members of the orchestra, and throwing it down the garbage.

In Jojo’s case, he studied meticulously the music and created in his mind the sound that he wanted, months before he even met with the orchestra for the first rehearsal.

It can be a bit misleading when you see any kind of a music performance, because all you’re allowed to witness is the final performance. But it turns out that music is actually so much more about what happened behind the scenes long before the music was produced: all the preparations and the rehearsals. For many aspiring musicians, this is a turn off. They like the idea of performing a beautiful peace of music, but do not want it enough to actually get up in the morning everyday and go through the process to develop the required skills. That is such a shame, because it is precisely in this process from which I gain my happiness and a purpose for my life.

I often hear people tell me, “I wish I could play music like you.” My response is usually the same. “Do you really? There is nothing stopping you.”

Morning Calm

“Morning Calm” is the title of my new piano piece.

About six months ago, I moved closer to my day job in order to give myself more time to work on my music. My new apartment is just a walking distance from the office, and one of the best consequences of this change is that I no longer use an alarm clock to wake up. It is such a blessing that my life is not dependent on the hours of traffic or bus schedule.

Every morning, I feel relaxed, and my mind is more focused on the music I create.

Why I Make Music

The musician in me wants to embrace this romantic notion of music-writing. Something like “I got inspired today, so I wrote this beautiful song.”

But the educator in me wants to teach the world about the misconception of such a notion, what it means to actually pursue music, and why, although the actual process may not be as cool as the above romanticized version, is actually the coolest thing ever.

It is great that there are so many ways to enjoy music. I am a creator, and I am much more interested in creating rather than consuming. I’m not as interested in consuming music, or rather, consuming much of anything, hence the reason I don’t own a TV or a smartphone, and I don’t surf the internet unless specific circumstances require me to. Some people even find it shocking that I don’t have internet at home, but to me, living distraction-free is a great way to maximize the time to create music and thereby increase my level of happiness. However I do appreciate that the world also has consumers, like the people who like to enjoy music by listening to them. Many of my songs were written with a specific audience in mind.

But one thing is very clear to me. The world needs more creators. Fulfillment in one’s life pretty closely matches the ratio of how much one creates as opposed to how much they consume. The happiest people I know and have worked with closely are all creators. So although I don’t advocate that we stop being consumers completely from this moment on, I do encourage everyone to create more. It doesn’t have to be a piece of music, and it doesn’t even need an audience. But do create something. Maybe a wonderfully tasty meal, a lecture on a topic you care deeply about, or the first draft of the first chapter of that novel you’ve always fantasized about writing. You will notice that all of these things don’t just happen simply because you got inspired. It takes a lot of time to build up the necessary knowledge and to refine your skills to get to a point where you can create something beautiful.

To make good music first requires acknowledging your shortcomings. Only then can you define what work it will take to overcome them. It helps if you can find pleasure in knowing that there are things you cannot do yet but you do have the potential to accomplish with effort. Either way, in the end it simply comes down to actually putting forth that required effort. That’s all, there are no secrets to it. This process is not “fun” in the traditional sense that people use that word. “Struggle” might be more befitting. But I argue that the struggle is where the fun is. The constant struggle shapes you in ways you would never have imagined. There is nothing more fulfilling than going to bed each evening knowing that you made progress today, and you will again tomorrow. This daily progress is so small that nobody except you noticed. But the little steps add up over time, and in what seems like a blink of an eye (to others, not you), you will reach a point where people say things like, “How the heck do you do what you do?” “You’re so talented!”, and “Your work is so beautiful! What inspired you?”

It is a tragedy that “talent” is so commonly regarded as the factor that limits what a person can accomplish in life. “Talent” is a false concept, there is no such thing. So although it may be tempting to say that a person is “talented”, please, be careful when you use that word, especially around children who are still forming ideas about how the world works.

All of the above is not to discount inspiration, I do get inspired to write music from time to time. But most of the time when I write, it is intentional. And even in times when I get lucky and catch a whiff of inspiration, what I am able to do as a result of that inspiration is still limited by the skills I have built up slowly over time by being intentional about my growth.

I didn’t choose to pursue music because I wanted to become great. Actually, I admit, I do yearn to write a great song and I think all musicians do, but that’s just a possible outcome of my trying, and I don’t have full control over that, so it is not the most productive goal to work toward if I am to be at peace with my current self, because most of the music I write I don’t even like. They are pretty bad. And if I don’t ever achieve a point where people consider my music to be “great”, I will be perfectly okay with that. That’s not really the point of music anyway. Music was invented as a way for people to have fun. I am a musician because the very act of creating is fun and fulfilling. I simply feel blessed just for having the opportunity for even the remote chance that I might create something beautiful, and even if I end up creating a bad piece of music, well, I would still have had a whole lot of fun doing it, so what more can I ask for?

Evening Drive

For me, driving is a time of reflection. I love the solitude that it provides. I don’t even listen to music in my car as I find it distracting. I just listen to the white noise coming from the car’s engine and the road, and I simply reflect.

I have recently finished writing a collection of piano pieces which portray the different scenes and aspects of my everyday life. This piece is one of them, and is a portrayal of my car ride as it takes me through the various neighborhoods and highways in one Los Angeles evening.

The other pieces in the collection will be available in digital stores soon!


A few years ago, I took a bird-watching class. I learned about the great diversity of bird species that existed nearby that I never knew about. It was also a great way to force myself to leave my work at a reasonable time and go enjoy some sunlight and nature on a more regular basis. What started as my desire to satisfy my intellectual curiosity led me to realize that I was not taking very good care of myself. It was a waste not to spend more time basking in the beauty of this planet, the only home we have ever known. This song came about during that period.

Check out this song and more on my album, Memories, available on iTunes / Amazon / Spotify.

Music’s Purpose

Earlier this week as I witnessed L.A. Philharmonic’s deeply emotional performance of Arvo Part’s masterpiece, “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten,” I was reminded again the purpose of music.

In my daily life as I strive to become a better musician, it is very easy to get caught up in the minute details of trying to perfect my technique that I forget why I am pursuing music in the first place, and what I am trying to accomplish through my music.

I am not writing this to dismiss the importance of technique, rather, quite the contrary. Technique is important because it serves a higher purpose. All of the scales, arpeggios, and etudes that I play on a daily basis, and all of the time I have spent taking apart a phrase into even smaller parts and studying them, have equipped myself with the ability to express the emotion which I always knew in my heart that the music deserved, but did not have in my hands the ability to bring out.

This particular composition was just what I needed to hear, because of what the piece consists of. It is a piece written for the orchestra, yet unlike many symphonic works that consist of quickly changing themes and complex harmonic structure, it basically has one melody, a descending minor scale. It is a bold expression of how simple things can add up to so much more than a sum of its parts.

In a way, this piece is a perfect synonym of life; the world is like the symphony, and each of our lives express a small yet important piece that make up the beauty that is the universe. It was a slap in my face and a reminder of the sheer power of one simple idea.