Music is a language that most everyone from any country can understand.
Jiayang “Shawn” Shao is a first-year piano performance major at Keene State College. Shao came to the United States from China five years ago to pursue a goal of becoming a professional pianist.
Shao began playing the piano at the age of nine at his parent’s suggestion. However, the piano wasn’t something he immediately fell in love with, according to Shao.
“I think initially, I [didn’t] really like it very much, but as time goes by, I started to have more passion into it,” Shao said.
Initially, Shao said he just wanted to be able to play a few songs.
That passion inspired Shao to pursue a career as a musician, so his parents sent him to New England, where Shao said that there were better schools for music than there were in China and more opportunity to succeed.
After arriving in the States, Shao attended The Winchendon School in Massachusetts.
He said that the transition and difference in cultures took a while to get used to, but he was able to adapt in a matter of months.
“Even though language of the culture possess a little bit of a problem for the first few month[s], but as I proceed into the environment, I think there was more engagement and I quickly [got] used to it,” Shao said.
He added that his boarding school was small, around 250 students, and many of which also came from other countries including China, which made the transition easier.
While preparing to graduate from The Winchendon School and searching for colleges, Shao said that he was contacted by Keene State music professor Dr. Matthew Odell about coming to Keene State for a visit. Shao took the trip to campus to observe Odell’s classes and to have a lesson with the professor.
“I was really initially very impressed by his desire to improve,” Odell said of the then prospective student.
From there, while still attending The Winchendon School, Shao continued to take lessons with Odell, making the trip from Winchendon to Keene in a taxi.
“It was a big investment for him of time and money, but he was willing to do it because he wanted to improve,” Odell said.
Now attending Keene State, Shao said that he sees differences in the methods of playing and teaching styles between China and America, with details like the posture of the pianist’s hands.
“One thing I [found] out in America the music education was a lot different than China because it’s not so much enforcement and I believe even in teaching, I think there is no particular or specific way that you have to do it so there is more freedom,” Shao said.
Odell said that Shao’s ability to pull from two different cultures to influence him as a musician was a benefit that other students at Keene State may not have.
“It’s just that with Shawn [Shao], you know, he’s fortunate because he has a couple of different cultures that he can draw on. He’s learned things from being in America, but he also has experience from growing up in China so that just gives you a whole different culture that you relate to,” Odell said.
He continued, “You’re going to approach music maybe a slightly different way just because of how you were brought up or the kinds of things you saw when you grew up and experienced. It just gives you a slightly different take on things. Not better or worse, just different.”
Those few songs that Shao learned over a decade ago have turned into a repertoire.
Shao’s classmate and fellow pianist Jacob Huggins said that the first-year pianist’s musical know-how helps Huggins improve as well.
“He has a really good, vast knowledge of repertoire, which really impressed me. I could pretty much say anything that interests me and he automatically like kind of already knows it. And not only that he knows it, but he also has opinions about it.”
The two musicians had an opportunity to work together whose another for an accompaniment piece written by late Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Huggins said he was impressed by how fast Shao was able to learn the music after only a few times playing it.
Shao said he hopes that upon graduating, he wants to collaborate with other musicians by playing piano in a chamber music setting.
Huggins said that he could see his classmate be successful doing that, and the biggest reason why is that he recognizes the areas which he needs to work on and willing to put in the work to improve.
“He knows what he has to do and [for] most people, that’s half the battle,” Huggins said.
Jacob Barrett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org