Most of the artists that I’ve inteviewed have been composers rather than arrangers or song-stylists, so this feature will be a little different. Steve Siu does compose music, but his five CDs to date have been his interpretations of other people’s music. Known in Southern California for playing in upscale restaurants, resorts, and Nordstrom (he was the youngest pianist ever hired by the department store), Steve has recently decided to focus on his concert and recording career. Here is his story so far:
KP: Where and when were you born?
Siu: Hong Kong, August 18, 1975.
KP: Are there any other musicians in your family?
Siu: I am an only child. No one from my family is even mildly musical. I am the only one. In fact, neither of my parents can sing in pitch!
KP: What are or were your parents’ occupations?
Siu: My dad operates a restaurant. My mom worked various jobs throughout her life, such as banking, retail, restaurant, etc. She does not have a particular occupation.
KP: How old were you when your family moved to the US?
Siu: I was 13 when I moved to the States.
KP: How old were you when you started piano lessons? How long did you take formal lessons?
Siu: I truly don’t know when I started my first piano lesson. It could be as early as age 6 or as late as 8. I’m not sure how long I’ve taken formal lessons, either - probably between 8-10 years.
KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your teachers?
Siu: I was encouraged to improvise by one particular teacher, but I have never been discouraged from improvising by my other teachers.
KP: Did you play in school orchestras or bands? Did you enter music competitions?
Siu: I played in the band in junior high and high school. I also accompanied the choir. I entered a number of music competitions, both in piano performance and composition.
KP: Do you play other instruments?
Siu: I used to play the saxophone.
KP: How old were you when you started improvising?
Siu: I was very little - probably 3.
KP: Have you done any composing?
Siu: Yes, I have composed a number of pieces. In fact, I was a composition major for awhile at USC. I have discovered that my true love is in the art of interpreting.
KP: Did you play with any rock bands in high school or college?
KP: At what point in your life did you know or decide that you were going to be a professional musician? Did your parents resist or object?
Siu: I knew I wanted to become a professional musician when I was in high school. Unfortunately, none of the members of my family is supportive of my musical career and they have discouraged me from day one, saying there is no security or future being an “artist,” and that no one will respect such a career choice. Therefore, I’ve done everything - and I do mean everything! - on my own so far without the support of my family.
KP: When did you start playing professionally?
Siu: I started playing professionally when I was 17. I was hired to play at the Nordstrom department stores.
KP: Where did you go to college? What was your major?
Siu: I received my degree in Music Industry from the University of Southern California School of Music.
KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?
Siu: Surprisingly, I actually don’t listen to a lot of music, partly because I was discouraged from listening to music when I was young (since my parents didn’t want me to become a musician). I never developed an interest in listening to music, so I really don’t think I have a single biggest musical influence yet. This is probably why people say that my music doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. I must admit, though, that I love Elton John’s music very much.
KP: I read that every dollar you’ve earned has been from music. That’s really unusual. Where are some of the places you’ve played?
Siu: Since Nordstrom, I’ve played at most upscale hotels and restaurants in the Southern California area. My most notable engagement was The Ritz in Newport Beach, where I performed for four years.
KP: Are you currently playing in restaurants or clubs?
Siu: No. I am focusing on my recording and concert career at the moment.
KP: Have you done any playing for films and/or television?
Siu: Yes. I was the music director/pianist for a late-night talk show called “Orley After Dark.”
KP: How do you see your musical future shaping up?
Siu: I see myself eventually touring the country doing concerts and being signed to a label where my CDs are distributed throughout the major retail outlets nation-wide. I definitely see myself being a performing pianist for the rest of my life, because there is nothing I love to do more than play the piano.
KP: What has been your most exiting musical moment or experience so far?
Siu: It has to be my debut concert this past September. It was exciting because during the performance, I entered “the zone,” and I realized that the concert stage is where I feel most at home and inspired, which is a beautiful thing. I seem to play better when there are a lot of people watching me, and there were a lot of people in the audience. That was exciting!
KP: How do you choose the songs you arrange and record?
Siu: First of all, I only record songs that I love to play. That is the number one criteria. It just so happens that the songs I love to play are also songs that people like to request. Second, I look for diversity. It is not unusual to find an old standard, a classical piece, a show tune, a classic rock song, and an alternative rock song on the same album.
KP: Do you have any favorites of your arrangements?
Siu: Yes. “My Funny Valentine,” “Iris,” “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” “The Music of the Night,” “Titanic,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Over the Rainbow,” “The Godfather,” “Summer of ’42,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “An Affair to Remember,” etc. are some of my personal favorites and I think they have more or less become my signature songs.
KP: What is your ultimate goal as a professional musician?
Siu: My ultimate goal is to 1) maximize the potential/talent God has given me and 2) to share this gift with as many people as possible in my lifetime.
KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?
Siu: No. My mission is to create some of the most heartfelt, beautiful piano music in the world. It is up to the individual listener to interpret what he or she hears.
KP: You have done four “Most-Requested” CDs and a Christmas album. What’s next?
Siu: This past summer, I recorded a Sony Music Multi-Channel Surround Sound Super Audio CD for one of the most respected audiophile labels in the world, First Impression Music, Inc. It should be released by the beginning of next year. It is basically a “Steve Siu’s Best” album.
KP: What are your five most-requested songs? Do you ever get tired of them?
Siu: My five most-requested songs have to be “Somewhere in Time” (the most requested song of all time), anything from “Phantom of the Opera,” “Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago,” “Time to Say Goodbye,” and “Over the Rainbow.” And no, I never get tired of them. In fact, I love playing these songs more and more each time. There is a reason that people love these songs - they are truly beautiful melodies.
KP: Are there any songs that you refuse to play?
Siu: I refuse to play songs that I don’t know, and there are a lot of them!
KP: What are your favorite classical pieces?
Siu: Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise, Op. 53 in Ab” and “Ballade in G Minor (Op. 23)” are some of my favorites.
KP: Who are your favorite composers?
Siu: Michel Legrand, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, John Barry, James Horner, Elton John, Victor Young, Rodgers and Hart, David Foster, and Dave Grusin are just some of my many favorites.
KP: Who are your favorite performers?
Siu: There are many. Keith Jarrett (I think his interpretations are genius), Elton John, and Arthur Rubinstein (no one can play Chopin better) are some of my favorites.
KP: Do you have any hobbies?
Siu: I love trying out new restaurants and new foods. I also enjoy reading a good book and watching movies. In terms of the outdoors, I enjoy bike-riding the most.
KP: What do you like to do in your free time?
Siu: I enjoy spending time with friends and family. They are very important to me. It doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as we are spending time together.
KP: What are your favorite colors?
Siu: I don’t have any favorites.
KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?
Siu: For my first wish, I would ask for a million more wishes. Just kidding! I would wish for good health. I would wish for peace in the world. And I would wish that I can continue to have the luxury and blessings to do what I love to do most in my life for a career for as long as God wants me to do so.
KP: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Siu: I see myself married with children, performing concerts across the county, and sharing my music with millions of people. I also see my artistry continuing to mature and exploring different kinds and genres of music.
KP: Do you have any words of advice for young people who are studying music now?
Siu: Yes. My advice is to not worry about playing fast and being technically correct all the time. Rather, try to play from your heart and with feeling. I am more impressed by a pianist who plays a piece of music with imaginative thoughts and heartfelt emotions who may make a dozen mistakes than a mechanical player who plays with no feelings but plays every scale and arpeggio with speed and gets every note right. I encourage young people to not be afraid to make mistakes, especially when they are improvising. Also a tip: To learn to play a passage fast is to learn to play it slowly very well and gradually increasing the speed. Last but not least - I don’t believe that practice makes perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect.
KP: I understand that you have an incredible Hamburg Steinway. What makes it so special and unique?
Siu: This is my favorite question of the interview! I am so passionate about the subject of piano that I think I can write a whole book about it! First of all, I encourage parents to provide the best piano that they can afford for their children to learn on. I cannot stress enough the importance of this matter. Inspiration is “everything” when interpreting any kind of music from the heart. It is hard to be inspired when the piano is not responding to the pianist’s command. And there are very very few truly responsive pianos in the world. In my whole life, and I have probably played hundreds, if not thousands, of pianos, maybe only a half dozen truly feel responsive to me. Only one out of the half dozen has what I call a “delicious” tone. That’s my Hamburg Steinway, Artist Model B. I don’t want you to think I’m a piano snob - I want you to KNOW I’m a piano snob. It is special and unique simply because it is extremely hard to find a Hamburg Steinway in the US. You see, Steinway has two factories - one in New York, one in Hamburg. In my opinion, New York Steinways are not nearly as good as those from Hamburg, and many technicians would agree with my point of view. The Steinways you see in the US are all made in New York. Dealers are not allowed to import Hamburg Steinways to the States. Let me describe to you the feeling I got the first time I played on my Hamburg. Imagine that all your life, all you ever ate was watermelon, and you think that’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever tasted. Suddenly someone gives you chocolate fudge. It is simply (in my humble opinion, that is) the best piano I’ve ever seen, and I doubt that I could find another piano for any amount of money that would surpass this instrument. It was fate that I ran into this piano - I was very fortunate. Of course, I’m not telling you to go buy a Hamburg Steinway for your son or daughter. There are nice pianos you can invest in that are more affordable. One of my favorite middle-price brands is Kawai. In fact, in most cases I’ll take a Kawai over a New York Steinway.
KP: Is there anything else you would like to share or add?
Siu: Just as important as having a nice, responsive piano to practice on is maintaining the instrument - and that doesn’t just mean tuning it. If you can’t afford to have a budget to maintain a piano after you bought it, you can’t afford to buy one. A piano is just like a car. There are many parts, and they need attention from time to time. Can you imagine driving your car for a year without an oil change? That’s what a lot of people do with their pianos. You see, to bring out the true potential of a piano, you need proper tuning, voicing, and action regulating. And just like pianos, not all piano technicians are created equal. I went through more than a dozen technicians before I was finally satisfied with my current technician, who was trained at the Steinway Factory in Hamburg. I guarantee that you or your son or daughter will be much more inspired to play when the piano is in tune and feels good to play. Here is a philosophy of mine that I’d like to leave you with: A very nice piano will actually “teach” you how to play better, and a superb piano will actually “play” for you. I’ve experienced that with my piano. It is a feeling that can’t be described with words. You have to experience it yourself to know the true essence of what I am talking about. You can’t expect a child to create greatness on the instrument when they simply don’t have the tools to do it with.