Kuang-Hao Huang and Helen Zell

Recorded June 29, 2021 Archived June 28, 2021 36:02 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: chi003597


Kuang-Hao Huang (50) and his piano student, Helen Zell (78), talk about how they began working together, former piano teachers, experimentation, contemporary music, and their virtual piano lessons during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Subject Log / Time Code

KH talks about when he started teaching HZ and the older music she was accustomed to playing at the time (i.e. Bach), whereas KH plays a lot of contemporary music and is known for experimentation.
KH and HZ talk about experiments KH has gotten HZ to try.
HZ talks about the connections between new music and modern art.
KH talks about learning piano as a child.
HZ talks about taking piano lessons at age 9 with a beloved teacher, Lucy Hudson.
HZ talks about why she stopped taking lessons at age 15.
HZ talks about taking online piano lessons with KH during the Pandemic. "It's like I didn't miss a beat," she says.
HZ talks about her former teacher passing away and how KH became her teacher.


  • Kuang-Hao Huang
  • Helen Zell

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type



StoryCorps uses Google Cloud Speech-to-Text and Natural Language API to provide machine-generated transcripts. Transcripts have not been checked for accuracy and may contain errors. Learn more about our FAQs through our Help Center or do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions.

00:00 My name is Helen Zell. I'm 78 years. Old. Today is June 29th, nineteen 2021.

00:20 My name is Quan. How long I am? 50 years old. It is still June 29th, 2021. We are in Chicago, Illinois. Interviewing, Helen cell, who is my piano student?

00:40 We talked about things outside of just piano.

00:47 So, you know, because this is for your taxi figured, this is a fabulous opportunity, I guess for me. I've always wondered because when I first came to this thing, we started lessons in 2014 and

01:11 When you came to me, you are on a very, very steady diet of that was.

01:25 You are the best and you do for me as someone who plays a lot. I thought it was just kind of peculiar that didn't play much. But then, in the past.

01:43 Grown into a very curious how you wcnn.

02:07 It's funny when you were recounting, you know, like what I was like, when we first met I can only think about what I was like when I first encountered a piano teacher, who preceded, you who is also a very your life to my teacher. After many, many, many years of not playing with a teacher. I think that she was so focused on having me, enjoy myself and be really comfortable playing the piano again and succeeding, not being challenged by things that were totally unfamiliar. Letting me pick anything. I wanted to play that. She felt that I would have a chance at maintaining this it's sticking to it. I think in some respects you probably was right? Because it took me awhile before I kind of ventured out with you as well.

03:07 You play and quite honestly, I think that's how I grow. I don't tend to be like is active in my choices, whether it's music or whatever it is. If somebody says this is really good. Why don't you try it? I do. So, I've become more adventuresome as a result of trying things. I think that's one of the reasons why I just seen unexposed because I wasn't really into try.

03:42 But that changed, if you are restricted to that old directly play music that was not written for the instrument that we plan out. And I feel like, you know, it isn't until music written in the past 50 years that we really start to.

04:09 Can I get the stats of the composer is taking full advantage of the Modern Piano? Do you feel like

04:19 You have more possibilities at the piano when you play Modern repertoire.

04:25 That's a toughie. I mean, I don't, I still don't think I'm sophisticated enough to appreciate all the abilities of the Modern Piano for me. It was a stunning experience to play a piano recently. Huge Concert Grand at a level that I only heard in concerts play by famous concert pianist, and I couldn't believe it. I mean, and I only was there for 2 days playing it. But all I want to do is go back and keep playing it because I never like that before. So this is a journey that, you know, maybe I'll begin now, you know, I think I have a few good years. I'm a like a couple years ago when you had me play the harpsichord.

05:25 Preciate it that at all. I think maybe even just simply at the level of like the range. Write the range of the instrument in Mozart. Stay, right? And all the sudden you are playing next weekend or something like that. Where you are, using the very lowest notes on the piano and the very highest note on the piano, open up the possibility to find that kind of fun, just to be able to explore those sounds.

05:56 Yeah, I mean that's goes back to the that's really disturbing to me to call them, but I didn't have to do that. And so the use of doing it with

06:27 It just

06:28 Zeze.

06:33 What's up?

06:45 August 1st.

06:47 You know, a lot of people who are classical music listening to classical, that's being created nowadays because of them for you or have, you just always been open to it was a bigger and that was more comfortable than spring. I could connect to that or petrushka or what?

07:37 Really key in my evolution of that kind of music was taking a course. When I was in college where I was forced to go to Williston lab and listen to these pieces that were not listen to them over and over and over and over. Until I actually could hum along, you know, what was originally dissonant wasn't so dissonant anymore. And I'm sure there are pieces today, that are still even some of the lads, this music is really hard for me, but there's a lot of them in my notes for my chorus listening, really changes you

08:37 And I go back to what it must have been. Like, when people listen to Gregorian chant and listen to open for us and then all the sudden you go from open 4th to try it, right? You don't like post-modernism sort of gave way to what's going on now.

09:06 Today, I find composers not so dissonant anymore. It's almost like they're yelling from all of the different music that was written. It doesn't sound like a did, you know?

09:38 I think listening is a big deal. No, listening a lot.

09:48 Define parallel to Modern Art without a doubt. And this is something else that I course. I took in 1963. This instructor has a world-renowned between music that was written in a certain time. The culture overall, you know, what was happening in the world in that way. So, you know, if I look at the composers that were breaking everything up and go from the old traditions to something, totally new and everything throwing it all up for grabs. And I look at.

10:48 Sears in the work anymore. It's all color and no snow recognizable forms, but it's just a scrape canvas exploding with you know stuff you do, you know what it is? And you forget it.

11:08 That eventually Returns the artist to resurrecting the form against the forms are all back. Again. Don't lie evolving, and it's all on the Spectrum and the music and they are very much alive and is up for grabs. It's amazing.

11:48 Okay, I just

11:51 I just got a question.

12:11 I can ask you one really study of your whole life has been the piano when you started out. Did you like all this strange stuff that you love to play? Now? Will you take the piano apart? You put little felt strips in the piano. And where did you start out with Bach and Beethoven just like I did.

12:39 Yeah, I mean, I think.

12:42 Or most of us are just going through a regular.

12:47 Catalyst introductory as a kid.

12:53 That's kind of techniques at least not when I was growing up. I mean these days, I think teachers are

13:04 Inside the piano to pluck. Strings, are the mute Strings & things. But yeah, it was a pretty traditional.

13:14 So, you know, I did come across.

13:17 Several contemporary pieces and I think it's almost to the point where you can't believe that some of the notes are correct, right. Because they sound wrong but then you can I learn to like it taste for it. And I think by the time I became an honest-to-goodness music Major

13:59 More than ready to expand my ears.

14:04 Attitude and I think in different ways.

14:21 Working on Pieces by dead people, you know, you have all these lingering questions that you can only make really good educated guesses about what they may have thought or desire and then all the sudden you have an auction where you can ask the composer.

14:39 Is this what you intended or is this what you like? Or sometimes? You can surprise them? That'd be like, why didn't hear it this way, but I like it this way too and the, the process is just more exciting because there is this collaborative nature to it.

14:54 And then, you know, I think also.

14:59 You know, I'm sure all class.

15:07 You're all the standard repertoire comes with so much baggage. So many people have played with music before you and so many incredible people that play this music for you and you are certified. Like what can I bring to this piece that somebody else hasn't already brought to it. Where as if I'm the one that's bringing peace to life for the very first time, you know, there is no traditional way of playing it. And so incredibly free thing that I still am very uncomfortable playing with them and you starting to make me think about that like when I said, what house is supposed to sound like

16:05 That same thing happened to me when I came back to the piano.

16:11 7 years, experience that we had in the studio and was finding a recording and then playing it to me. Wasn't on top was an accomplishment. Oh, yeah, I think of playing it. Like, I wonder, how do I even have a

16:42 How do I even decide how I want to play it?

16:48 I know it's like when I talk to some of my musician friends who we share it, One of them will say to me, well, music you're just let it feel it. And that still happens to me once in a blue moon.

17:19 I know, I have to learn to do it.

17:24 Heart of what I still need to do.

17:31 You know, what's funny? I I started playing the piano when I was 9 years old and I at that time had a teacher who?

17:41 I don't think she has many students. She was the organist at the local Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And at the time, I started my lesson. She had just given birth to twins already. In this, the twins used to sit on her and she, she loved me. I loved her. I was never more comfortable than when I was playing with Lucy. I mean, Lucy Hudson was, he was the be-all and the end-all and then eventually after a couple of years. She had another set of twins. And then she sent me to a real piano Studio teacher, that was being demanding and had a ruler, and she's a whack.

18:41 But she was also considered the best piano studio in Baton Rouge or some sort of performance and she started a quartet that I played in and that was my first experience playing with other people. And that was a whole new life. I love that too. Unbelievable that I experienced figure out things about the music. Without somebody telling you what to do when it's like I forgotten all that only happened with those people.

19:41 I guess cuz I wasn't taking lessons.

19:44 I think that's that's actually a real challenge for a lot of people. We are siloed. Mostly. I got a limited by your own thoughts in your own creativity.

20:20 Creativity,. But when you get other people to bounce, ideas off of her to contribute.

20:30 So much more interesting. I feel really given me like a new energy, you know, I couldn't be taking my lessons, you're working with you but having all this outside stuff. Yo, playing the cellist thinking about playing with somebody working on all these other aspects or are you thinking about it today? Like some of these young groups when I was young? I wasn't even aware that. There were people young people who made music together, like Third Coast percussion, girl. I thought the only music there was with you music that is playing on the stage of large. So,

21:31 But one point in my life, I actually stopped taking lessons all together and that was really kind of a when I was 15. I was relocated. My father is my father's job. Moved him to New York and I was so unhappy being there that when it was suggested that I look for another piano teacher. I said, I'm not playing if I'm staying in the house everything away and I never threw away my love of it either. When I went to college. I started doing a lot of listening to music and I like, having a teacher again.

22:24 Classic guitar playing unbelievable and I loved it and then end up in Chicago and I started looking for teachers on and off over the years and I would find one and they would go away, and I find another one.

22:42 It just didn't just didn't, I wasn't forceful enough, but I kept it in the back of my mind. I started thinking about it again cuz I was now an old person with different kind of time frame in my life. So I went back to it and

23:09 It's been even better than it ever could have been before. I mean, I'm sure I recreate the memories, but now it's a great gift.

23:27 So, so impressed.

23:30 With you as a student, seriously, you take this more.

23:38 You take this more seriously than I think that it's amazing.

23:53 Maybe it's just the fact that you kind of know.

23:57 Can understand why it's important to you. Oh, yeah, I remember being where they are there. A lot of things that I didn't take very seriously either, but when you're the other and I mean, I'm ready to hang up yet, but your perspective changes dramatically, adjust your perspective,. And if there was ever of Love, or being able to play much more powerful,

24:48 So I feel it today like, dog to eat it or not go.

25:05 No, she call my mother and she scream and yell and say hi to show up for 11 and miserable miserable anymore. So I know that it's much better.

25:54 Was it I guess. I'm curious. Like wasn't ever a question.

25:59 In the past year, when everything shuts down, may we continue to do?

26:10 Did you ever think while you know, it's really just stop doing this. I mean, I was almost tempted to you. No, take more lessons to my days. Were, you know, I even came up with a wonderful project that you helped me see through the end of recording, some music, and I just normal year.

27:10 So,, I mean and you can hear everything.

27:24 Is amazing.

27:28 You know, actually.

27:31 I think there certainly are silver lining, for me. It was a

27:39 Get out of the Rat Race, you know, it.

27:47 Very often talk to my students.

27:55 Because they they ask they ask me if we talked about repertoire.

28:00 You know, I think I may be slightly Jaded by tell them that you know, because I think when you're that age and you're in school, like, you know, like the pieces that you play you become.

28:21 Ask for your number with write you. You love every piece that you play and that's kind of why you get into the business, right? Is because it becomes a job, you know that you don't care for it, but I've been doing it for so long.

28:53 Music.

29:03 That's really interesting. I never thought of

29:08 I mean, I play Loud luxury of time to kind of weed out. And so sometimes you come across some. Peace.

29:29 They're not as good as the other but you still have to give that performance and you still have to sell the piece because, you know, I always serve rely on this idea that obviously this.

29:58 But, you know, sometimes

30:07 Whereas yeah, like during the pandemic it was it was like

30:18 Now I have the luxury of I don't have any concerts coming up, but I still want to play choice of all these things. You know, what is it that I want to?

30:36 Revisit or go to.

30:44 Explore that again.

30:58 What was one of the things that you went back to help?

31:05 This is a little bit different, but it's sort of like revisiting music.

31:12 You know, I just started a new challenge and I found myself, I like the way through my practice time. But so, what did I do? I got out my little scriabin and I played all for them, you know, and it was still very, very with me and it was so wonderful. I felt so good and then I was you can put the numbers on the. You can do your fingering so that you don't have to forget it. And

32:06 Yeah, but the rate was you're going back to something that felt good.

32:18 I think about that a lot.

32:24 In a way through another third-party kuang-hao, chose me. I was really, I mean, I was bereft for many reasons. I adored this woman, but to have it happened at a point when I was really doing so well with my music to spell abandoned. So that was the selfish part of. So, what do I do? When I start talking to my friend, the cellist who plays with the Chicago Symphony who's music? I don't know who to go to. I don't know where to start. I don't want to go to the fall. I want I just want to teach you to fall out of the air and it's going to be wonderful and he said well, why don't you

33:23 She'll teach you and I

33:33 You'll be insulted. If I ask him to teach me he said why don't you just

33:44 It took me a little while and finally I did it. I had three graciously. So

34:04 My grandmother said it was for shirt.

34:12 Actually, no regrets.

34:21 You bring something to the lessons.

34:28 It's great that you have a perspective.

34:31 Music. They're not there yet.

34:36 Because they're young.

34:40 Why you live in the city of the organizations that make music in the city? I'm in and out of my life. Every weekend, just focus on, just the nose. Debbie was like that to. She was very rich for you and

35:18 That's important to me, makes my music.

35:33 So important to me, it's more than just the piano.

35:49 I'm not surprised.

36:00 Thank you so much for.