Member Spotlight: Katy Luo Gives Her Students a Platform to Live the Music They Learn
Two-year Local 677 member Katy Luo is a triple threat: she plays piano with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, she teaches music at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and the University of Hawai‘i at West O‘ahu as a lecturer, and before all that, she created exciting, immersive educational programs for student musicians to spark their own creativity, as well as showcased programs mixing the works of traditional and contemporary masters.
Originally from San Francisco, Luo applied her knowledge, experience, and skills as an alumna of the University of California at Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program to teaching and performing all over the U.S., notably in New York City. Her formative time in the community outreach music program as a student musician lit a fire for her own unique community outreach as an established artist and instructor.
She thrived at the Bloomingdale School of Music as a resident teaching artist and director of A4TY (Album for the Young), helping realize young dreams.
The Student New Music Project she founded encourages students as young as five to write their own compositions for fellow musicians their age, and perform the music of great living composers for a live audience. The program is a deserving recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
As a performer, Luo ignites fresh interest in classical period pieces, with renewed appreciation for the modern, reveling in the resplendent evolution — buttoned-up to boundless — of the formal music of the Western world.
She loves to let her fingers explore themes of the various times, etudes and litanies, romantic, lyrical, brilliant, bracing…the all-encompassing arc of human thought and feeling…from dance suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, Isaac Albéniz, Arnold Schoenberg, and John Cage, to Johannes Brahms and György Ligeti horn trios, to a mix of Bach’s Baroque finery and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s controversial 20th century controlled chaos.
She’s collaborated/performed with the New York City Ballet (Shostakovich Piano Quintet) at the 2011 Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival, the Boys Choir of Harlem at the Cathedral for St. John the Divine, and the Guerrilla Composers Collective for world premieres by composers Danny Clay and Nicholas Benavides at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Hot Air Music Festival.
Luo graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and a master’s in music and doctorate’s in musical arts from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Ke Ola O Na Mele learned a little more about her unique take on teaching.
You’ve been a MAH member for two years. How has union membership benefited you?
It has allowed me to play with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra.
Your collaborations with student musicians are especially heartwarming and interesting. What drew you to working with and giving children such an important musical platform, as with the Boys Choir of Harlem and the Student New Music Project? Was it because you came from a young musician program yourself?
I founded the Student New Music Project in 2005 in NYC while I was living and teaching there. The purpose was to give young musicians ages 5-18 the opportunity to interact with music written by living composers, and to try composing themselves. I found that for most young musicians, the composer was nothing but a remote figure. I wanted them to realize that music is an ever-evolving phenomenon, where new ideas are constantly sprouting up, and that they too, can be a part of it.
The program puts out a call for scores every year, and pieces submitted are not vetted, every piece of work is accepted and performed by a fellow young musician. It was inspiring to see one 11-year-old coach another 11-year-old, and suddenly become very particular about the performer following dynamics! Students are encouraged to experiment with all kinds of compositional techniques, from inventing new notations to composing in the aleatoric style [some parts left to chance].
How has the Young Musicians Program at the University of California at Berkeley influenced you as an artist?
The Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley was an incredibly inspiring music community. Not only did I get to play a lot of chamber music, but I also got to conduct, compose, and sang in a gospel choir. My teachers highly encouraged me to forge a musical path that is unapologetically my own. I learned there that music has the power to bring people together. Students in that program were all from different ethnic backgrounds, but through playing music together, we developed a common bond. It was what inspired me to go into music.
Your teaching philosophy is also quite unique. Describe your approach and why you believe it’s important to guide young musicians with such a positive outlook:
I love a quote by Nayyira Waheed that says, “The greatest teacher will lead you back to yourself.” What I aspire to (and I’m still learning) is that no matter what teaching tools/methods I use, I always make space for their self-discovery and self-growth.
What courses do you teach at UH?
How are you liking Hawaii and its unique musical styles?
I love Hawaii, and I love Hawaiian music.
Why piano and not, say, strings, horns, or percussion?
Piano wasn’t my choice, it was my parents’. I wish I played percussion.
How would you describe your style?
I like to explore different styles. I enjoy the process of finding a personal connection with each piece of music.
Your resume indicates a profound interest in exploring connections between traditional and modern styles, classic and contemporary masters. Most classical musicians tend toward that old and new mix, often delving into the experimental of classical/jazz. Where would you like to go with your evolving programs?
I would love to play in a salsa band, and I’d like to learn to play the accordion really well.
Brahms, Bach, and Mozart figure highly in your programs. Who are your favorite traditional and modern composers?
Bach is a constant in my life. Stravinsky is the most “romantic” in my book. The Catalan composers are a luxurious experience. Gamelan music is essential for my survival. BTS brings me immense joy.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years… Any pipe dreams?
I don’t even know how to think 10 years ahead. A pipe dream would be to travel the world and perform with a Gamelan music group.
What else gives you bliss?
Being in the ocean. Playing with HSO. Listening to Gamelan outdoors.