Balancing Act: Evelyn Chang on Life as a Professional Musician, and a Mother

Evelyn Chang is a Taiwan-born, Hong Kong-based pianist who enjoys collaborations with artists and composers around the world, including Maxim Rysanov and Dobrinka Tabakova. She trained in the UK, first at the Purcell School and then at the Royal College of Music; her teachers include Andrej Esterhézy, Irina Zaritskaya and Andrew Ball.

Dobrinka Tabakova: Whispered Lullaby

Learn more about Evelyn Chang's latest composition ‘Fantasies for Children’

Evelyn Chang

Evelyn has recently ventured into writing music and her debut composition, Fantasies for Children, is a delightful suite of 20 miniatures for solo piano, dedicated to her young sons. Inspired by different animals, these charmingly characterful and highly varied miniatures are musical mementos of special times spent with her children, redolent of earlier suites for children by Debussy and Schumann. The music is published by Universal Edition and is suitable for pianists of around Grade 4 level upwards.

I caught up with Evelyn to find out more about her musical influences and inspirations, and how she came to write the Fantasies for Children.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

There was already a piano in the house when I was born. It was a little upright my mum inherited from her family. Though both my parents loved music, they didn’t get to have music lessons when young, circumstances did not allow. Later they met each other in university’s music club where they formed a string quartet with others. I don’t know how they managed that without learning the instruments properly! My dad discovered a very broken violin in some warehouse and fixed it by tape, nails, and whatever he could find. For them it was pure joy to finally be able to experience music making with other students. Naturally when I came along, they wished for me what they did not have. I always loved singing and mimicking other voices and music I heard on TV. It was not difficult for me to repeat the tunes on the piano with my index fingers, so I began taking piano lessons at the age of three and a half.

At the weekends there were often ‘shows’ after dinner when relatives came by. I would sing and my cousins would play tambourine and my little sister would bang on whatever furniture that could make a sound while my dad played on cello. I don’t even remember why there was a cello in the house! Or why he could play it. The only person who could play an instrument in his family was my grandpa. He played the Chinese erhu for leisure. My piano teacher then was a grad student. She discovered my interest and ease with music and recommended my parents to find me a ‘better’ teacher. Years later I joined a music school and the rest followed. I wouldn’t say I ever aspire to have a career in music, more like I need music in life.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

There have been many at different ages. Moving from London to Hong Kong at 30 was one: starting a new life in a city I knew almost nothing about with no musical contacts and friends in a totally different culture and no one knew me. I did mainly solo concerts because it was not easy to find musicians to play with. Hong Kong has blossomed culturally with so many concerts and festivals. I am very grateful to Hong Kong; it freed me, in a sense, as I just had to try anything that I was given an opportunity for and I could begin a brand new life as an adult. The latest challenge I would say is ongoing; balancing life as a mother, like many in the world. Life couldn’t be more fragmented and distracted when you have to take care of young children, family as well as your work.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

None, ha ha! I can’t listen back to my performances. Maybe occasionally, given enough time has passed, I may find a few not so bad moments but generally I feel quite distant towards past performances; I prefer to move on. Having said that, I treasure all the experiences and what I learnt from them. I am more proud of the realisations I had because of the performance.

Shui-Long Ma: A Sketch of the Rainy Harbour – III. The Girl who Picks Seashells (Evelyn Chang, piano)

You are also a composer. How does your compositional life influence your performing, and vice versa?

I just started so yet to find out! I would say ever since I started writing it changed the way I read music. I became more determined to give definition to what I read, and more thought to the possibilities of expression. It’s a good change! When composing, I have very specific music that flows in my inner hearing. From trying to play it out to trying to write it down, I realised there were often gaps. By trying to make them all aligned with exactly what I hear is sometimes challenging and that makes me listen better in my practising, being more aware of what I want to hear and what I heard.

Tell us more about your ‘Fantasies for Children’….

It is a set of 20 miniatures for piano solo based on animal themes dedicated to my two sons. A few of the animal and the melodies came from way back during the time I was pregnant with my elder son. At the time, I spent quite a lot of time imagining how our interactions would be and how I would be sharing life with a baby. When he was actually born, all my time and energy went into learning to cope and how to look after a new born baby, so the ideas were stored away as notes for years until Covid arrived. Unfortunate as it may seem, there was more time spent with the kids and more time for myself during lockdown. I took out the old notes I’d made and picked up where I left off. This time round the music just flowed as I remembered, now as a mother of two, the moments from storytelling and play time with my sons. I decided to write them all down as a memo to remind us of the good times, something for the boys to keep when I am not here anymore. For example, House Sparrow was inspired by the time when I used to pick up my eldest from the school bus drop off and on the way home we would look for house sparrows, counting how many appeared each day, guessing which came, which didn’t, chasing after some. That was before his younger brother came along; it was quality time between just the two of us. There are also ones like Phoenix and Ants inspired by impromptu stories we made up after the excitement of a good read. More comical figures like Mosquito and Turkey came from funny cartoons we watched. And Cheetah is their favourite animal that they insisted I should include….

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Make classical music available for all children! Music is music, it’s personal that either you like it or not. When you play music to very young kids they don’t categorise the music, they just know if they enjoy it or not. And yes, it takes more time and some learning to know how to listen to music of more complex textures in order to enjoy it on a different level, but it’s all a matter of time and exposure, in my opinion. The earlier they start the longer they can enjoy it. Knowing how to listen to music is one of the most wonderful gifts in life.

Listen to samples of Fantasies for Children on Evelyn Chang’s website.

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