Class Act: Piano teacher Yvonne Chen

New piano teacher Yvonne Chen started teaching at age 14.

Jordan Fullen

New piano teacher Yvonne Chen started teaching at age 14.

Katina Christensen and Tyler King, Staff Writers

At an age when most music students are starting lessons, Yvonne Chen was teaching piano lessons.

Growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., Chen started playing piano at age five, inspired by her older sister, who also played. Chen practiced with her house windows open, and her neighbors heard her playing. Eventually, they asked her to teach their children, launching her teaching career at age 14.

Her goals for teaching have not changed since she started teaching her neighbors in that D.C. suburb. She aims to instill her students with a passion for music and provide the tools to explore a large range of music.

“I hope to give my students a solid foundation. That way they can explore the whole trove of music,” Chen said. “When you have the foundation of knowing about rhythm and tempo, you’re essentially learning a language, and having this foundation opens the door to all these works to explore.”

Chen plays piano professionally along with teaching. Although she considered pursuing a career away from music during high school, she ultimately attended Juilliard, where she studied piano performance. Her early Juilliard experience inspired her to pursue a career as a concert pianist.

However, during her freshman year there, a diagnosis of thyroid cancer changed her goals for music.

“I got a glimpse of what a performer’s life would be like, and I realized that it was something I would like to continue. However, because of the cancer, it made me pause and reflect on what the purpose of life is. I realized that I really liked communicating with people one-on-one,” Chen said.

After graduating Juilliard in 2012, Chen decided to pursue a Master’s at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, which she completed in 2014. Currently, she is working on a doctorate in piano performance also at Rice University under Brian Connelly, Director of Piano and Chamber Music at Rice and artistic director of CONTEXT. When Chen came to Houston to continue her studies at Rice, she joined the Houston music community.

“Music followed me throughout all the steps of my life. It’s definitely something I resort to as a way to explore new things,” Chen said. “It can take you to a different time in history, and you can learn a lot about different cultures.”

Chen’s primary focus with music is the community. During her time at Juilliard, she and other students traveled to areas affected by Hurricane Katrina to perform, teach and build houses. She has performed with various arts organizations, such as the American Festival for the Arts, Musiqa and Loop38, a Houston-based contemporary music collective that she co-founded.

Chen credits a similar organization, Da Camera of Houston, with changing her understanding of being a 21st century musician.

“Their programming isn’t just totally dependent on whether the artist has been practicing enough but is rather guided by thematic motifs or the places they perform in,” Chen said. “That kind of artistic programming is really inspirational.”

Chen’s colleagues look forward to the new perspective she brings to the music department, as a trained teacher and a national performer.

“Ms. Chen’s very open minded and easy to collaborate with, and is full of some great ideas that she’s drawn from her past experiences,” fellow piano teacher Dr. Michael Zuraw said. “She’s performed all over the United States with some of the most amazing musicians. She has a lot to offer because of that.”

Chen’s students already feel that she is helping them grow as pianists.

“Ms. Chen has a very unique but awesome approach to teaching,” freshman Anna Prillaman says. “Each lesson I am definitely improving and learning something new.”