From “America’s Got Talent” to a Doctorate in Musical Arts
An interview with the classical pianist, Alexander Bui
Vietnamese-American concert pianist, Alexander Bui, is a first prize winner of the Lillian Fuchs Memorial Chamber Music Competition, a two-time winner of the Esther C. Weill Music Competition, “America’s Got Talent” semi-finalist and a prize-winner of the Steinway & Sons Piano competition and is known for sensational performances and standing ovations throughout his piano career. Alexander Bui has performed as a soloist in numerous venues including Steinway Hall of New York City, NBC Studios of Los Angeles and the Atlantic City Borgata Resort & Spa Casino.
Interview conducted and transcribed by Jade Yeen Onn.
J: To start this off, you mentioned in your submission that you’re currently at Rutgers University, so maybe you can tell us a little bit about that and how you got there?
A: Well, I started piano when I was 4 — with my mother — and she graduated from the Vietnamese conservatory of music and she was the one who took me on and introduced me to the piano. We had an upright piano at home and when I touched the keyboard, my mom saw that I had an interest in it, so she began teaching me. She introduced me to a lot of popular works and composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and I learnt a lot from her growing up. Then in high school, I met a wonderful teacher who was an interim piano teacher at my high school.
I was in the midst of transitioning because there weren’t a lot of musicians at my school and there were a lot of activity clubs, like sports, so I sort of geared a lot away from the piano during this time and I started to lose interest because I was more into sports — that’s what my friends were doing. But then I met my teacher, Edward Robert Nelson, and he really inspired me to go back into music, which was a wonderful thing because I got my passion back and quit everything in order to pursue piano.
After that, I was on the television show America’s Got Talent in 2010, which was a big step for me because I had never performed for 40 million people before, so it was a huge shock for me, but I performed and after that experience, I really wanted to pursue piano as my career. Then I got into the Manhattan School of Music in 2012, completed my bachelors in music there as well as my masters in music, and all of my experiences in those 6 years in New York City has really inspired me to perform for people and spread classical music to everyone. Especially those who are not very knowledgeable about it.
There are also a lot of people who, you know, don’t have the capacity to learn about classical music and — classical music has been around for so long, for over 400 years, so many great composers are no longer with us, and when these great composers are no longer around, we tend to lose the music with the modern age, with new music and pop culture and technology. So as I was studying at the Manhattan School of Music, I made a lot of connections, I made a lot of friends and colleagues, and every time after we perform together, it just bring a smile on my face because the audience really appreciates classical music.
I feel like, with piano, there’s no words or speech. It’s all with the listening and I really “speak with my fingers”, so it’s sometimes much harder to connect than, let’s say, singing with words.
So after my masters, I decided to go into my doctorate in musical arts at Rutgers University because I really wanted to pursue teaching the younger generation in the university to become renowned pianists. And to be an educator is also my dream; to spread classical music throughout the world.
J: I imagine that your doctorate path would be very different from other PhD careers in, say, the sciences or literature. Could you introduce us a little to what life on your path is like?
A: Oh, of course! Well, I’m in my first semester here, so everything is still being introduced to me. For example, one of my classes is introduction of music research and what that entails is selecting pieces of music that I personally want to intensely research, using past books, notes, articles, dissertations… just seeing what ideas people have already had on this piece of music. Currently, I’m doing research on Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 109 and Beethoven had written 32 Sonatas, but I wanted to focus on something that is not really known to many other people- and that’s this late piano sonata, Opus 109. This was the period where he was coming close to death and, at this point, he had also lost a majority of his hearing, which was very difficult for him as a composer and as a musician — to not be able to hear what he is playing or composing. And this sonata really explains the way he viewed the end of his life despite his struggles with people, with his family life, and his approaching death. He still sees hope at the end. He was a great believer of God and, when he wrote his works, God really influenced that, so this became a very sacred idea in his work.
Another area is theory and, as (undergraduate) freshmen and sophomores at the Manhattan School of Music, we were all required to take it but, at the doctoral level, it becomes really intensified- I’m currently taking a class and we meet once a week for 3 hours, but there’s always assignments after that which take hours to complete. My third class is piano literature, which is basically a very comprehensive history class. It’s more for composers who influence the ones we know today — so the teachers and the ones who are lesser known, but helped influence the ones who are known today.
And although I’m “just” taking 3 classes, it does take up a lot of my time, and this excludes practicing — because I do still need to practice every day.
J: So how does your performance tie into your doctorate right now? I saw on the Rutgers website that you teach piano there as well, so how do you tie all these things together?
A: Yes, right. So, this degree is a doctorate in musical arts, which means that I am more performance-based than academic. As you know, with every doctoral degree, no matter what doctorate it is, it is still academic. So in comparing this to a PhD, if I were doing a PhD, it would be more academic. (But) with my doctorate, performance wise, I have to give at least 3 recitals in my degree, including 2 solos and 1 chamber recital. Chamber recitals are performances with other musicians. Let’s say, a piano, violin and cello would be called a piano trio. So I also have lessons in chamber music.
J: Right. So are you still with Mr Nelson these days?
A: No. He was my former teacher, my “pre-college” teacher, but I’ve studied under Nina Svetlanova for my bachelors, Olga Kern for my masters and, now, I’m currently studying with Daniel Epstein.
J: Ok so, taking a step back, I want to go back to your America’s Got Talent (AGT) performance and the lead-up to it, because I think that’s what a lot of people would be really interested in. Were you already training with Mr Nelson before AGT?
A: Yes, I trained with him for at least a year before AGT.
J: So what motivated you to audition for the show (AGT)?
A: There was no motivation *laugh*. Basically, one night, I was browsing on YouTube and I saw an ad for AGT which said “show case your talent, submit here” and I said “oh, I have a piano video that I can submit so, why not? It’s already on my computer anyway”. So I submitted and, a few weeks later, the producers of AGT called and said that I made the top 40 online. I was really, you know, shocked. I did not expect it all.
After that, there was a voting stage for the top 40 and then the top 12 to go on the live show, so I contacted all my family and friends. I think I had a Facebook and I probably shared it on my status (asking them) to vote for me. And, after that, the producers contacted me again to say that I had made the top 12 and they pulled me out to Los Angeles to meet the producers and everyone for the show.
J: That must have been such an exciting experience.
A: Yeah, and I was still a minor at the time so, of course, my father went along with me.
J: Ok, so, there was a really interesting moment in the show when one of the judges gave you the “X” and said that he expected more. Do you mind talking about the reaction you had in that moment?
A: Umm.. I’ve watched the video a couple of times and I still remember my facial reaction at the time because — I did not completely agree with him despite all my hard efforts. It was a bit like a pie thrown in my face at that point, but I could understand where he was coming from because it was a talent show. It was not just serious music. It’s also danger acts, comedy acts, entertainment… And so, it depends on how you define entertainment. You could go to a classical concert and be entertained or you could, I don’t know, go to a movie and be entertained. It depends on opinion. This show is called “America’s Got Talent” so I think (his comments) was just based on his own opinion and, for me, to hear that was sort of, like I said, like a pie in the face. Maybe he expected me to dance on the piano and play — but this is what I do and I’m very happy that Pierce Morgan (another judge) backed me up. He understood where I was coming from.
J: And I’m sure the audience agreed as well. I mean, they were booing the first judge pretty hard.
A: *laugh* Yeah, they did.
J: So when you were doing this performance, did you already know that becoming a pianist was what you wanted to do?
A: Yes. After the show was over, I knew I wanted to be a pianist.
J: So, after the show, you were still in high school. What was that like? Because you mentioned earlier that your friends were more into sports and all these other different high school activities, but you were more drawn to the piano. How did all of this affect your high school experience?
A: When I came back, it was quite different. Everything around me was different — especially when I first arrived (back) in September, after the show. I think I missed a day of school because I was still in Los Angeles. I came back in the middle of the day so there were students waiting for gym class or something and they saw me, and they all came up to me. You know — they clapped, asked for my autograph, treated me like a celebrity. So it was nice and, you know, some of these people — I didn’t even know (them), didn’t even recognize their face, but I guess word spread around school and all my teachers were really supportive. As weeks went on, people looked at me differently because, before, before I was on the show, I would tell people that I had to go practice so I can’t do this and I can’t do that. I was doing sports and I had to make excuses to get out of sports to practice, and my coaches would be kind of angry at me. But after the show, I think people were more appreciative of my interest and passion toward the piano. They didn’t make fun of me going to practice and they kind of understood why I practice.
J: Something about being a pianist like yourself — it is a performance art and, even today, there is still an assumption that being in the arts, especially performance arts, is a very risky path. Realistically, there are far fewer guarantees if this is what you choose to do. Did you ever worry about this and how did you–
A: Oh yes, definitely. I always worried. Maybe in the middle of my undergrad, I asked (myself) “What am I going to do?” There are so many pianists going to school here, and there are a lot of international students too. The pianist “pool” is so large and there are so little jobs. I had to ask, is it worth it for me to practice so much? To engage myself in such a career that is not even financially stable. I often thought to myself, “would it be better for me to go on another path? Any other nine-to-five job.”. But then I think of the good days I have while practice, when I think to myself “this feels so nice (to play and produce music)”. And when I did performances, it’s that adrenalines running through me every time, before I step on stage to greet an audience with my music. I think, up ’til today, I think about my career a lot. I mean, I’m doing my doctoral degree. It’s the last degree I’ll ever do before getting into the real “real” world. So, now, I really appreciate what I do. Despite all the hard work, there are a lot of pros. There’s a freshness in not doing the same thing over and over again. Even practicing, I practice different pieces every day and I meet musicians, I get to work with them, I do concerts… I also like being a pianist, not just being able to perform, but also being able to teach and that’s why my position at Rutgers is very fun and enjoyable — to be able to see a younger generation with an interest in music; to be able to share my knowledge with them and pass it down.
It is also dangerous in the career area, looking for gigs and jobs, but it’s very fun and very satisfying when I fulfil them.
J: That’s very evident, just listening to you speak about what you do and, I’m curious, you were very open in other interviews about your parents’ role in this journey. At the start of our conversation, you talked about how your mother was your first piano teacher, and then you also mentioned that your father was very instrumental in helping to guide you with your career.
A: Sure. Well, they came over to the United States, from Vietnam, some time before I was born. I’m not sure exactly when, but they wanted to provide better lives for themselves and, especially, for me. For me to have the opportunity to grab whatever the United States had to offer me. So when I started on the piano, my mom was very supportive and she used all of her knowledge to go over the piano with me, especially when I was practicing. I remember practicing — I had just learnt a brand-new piece, so I was practicing by myself, but she saw I needed guidance so she stayed with me for like an hour or two per day, just so I could practice correctly. My mom always made sure that I practiced everyday because she knew I was interested in piano, but that didn’t mean I would practice every day — I was a kid too, so I wanted to have fun. But I think I was a very good kid when I was young. *laughs*
And my dad, he was not a musician at all. When we were growing up as a family, we didn’t listen to much classical music at all. But when I started playing the piano, my mom got CDs and DVDs of piano music, and we started listening to them together and my dad has been listening for years now, so he started to take an interest in classical music too. He found himself more open to classical music and that’s how I can tell he really wants to support me — not only because I’m his son, but also because he appreciates classical music now.
So yeah, they both played a big role as my support, growing up. I am the only child of the family, so they take big pride in me being their only son.
J: For sure, with everything you’ve achieved, they have a lot to be proud of! So, I think we’ve pretty much covered all the questions I have for you. Do you have any other comments you’d like to add? Or any advice you’d give to other people who similarly want to pursue a path in performance arts?
A: Yes, it’s– What ever your dreams and passions are, don’t be afraid to pursue it, no matter what the obstacles are. You shouldn’t be discouraged from pursuing it, no matter what anyone else says, whether your friends or family disapproves. The musician world, not just the piano world, is very small. I’ve travelled a lot throughout the United States and Canada, and there are a lot of mutual friends. It’s very funny in that way. I would be auditioning for one thing and, when I mention a name, someone else might say “oh! I know that person”, and we always support each other in our art. As musicians, we always encourage each other to word harder to share our talents with others. Like on social media, I always see my colleagues who are musicians support each other. Of course, there is going to be competition, but that’s healthy as long as you take it in that right way: it’s competition to strive for better-ness and to strive for success. That’s very healthy competition. And don’t be afraid of finances. There’s that saying– something to do with basketball. Isn’t there a phrase that has to do with shooting the hoops? Something like you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take? Yeah. That phrase is very realistic. If you say you want to pursue something but you don’t try, of course you’re not going be successful. I’ve seen so many people struggling, but they keep trying until they get it, and that’s perseverance. That’s the type of person that’ll make it big someday. I’ve seen that in my school and I’ve seen that with the older musicians and I say, go for it. Keep going, keep trying. Don’t (aim to) do it comfortably, don’t do it just for the money. Do it for something that you love, because if you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.
J: Some food for thought. Well, thank you so much for your time today and, last question, do you have any upcoming performances that we can look forward to?
A: Yes, actually. I mean, it’s not a performance, but it’s a radio broadcast with WRTI. I’m scheduled to do a live broadcast, and also talk on the show, on November 30th, at 12.10pm, and you can access it online.
J: That’s great, I’ll be sure to include a link to that with this interview. Thank you again for agreeing to this interview and I look forward to your future performances!
A: Thank you, this was fun!
Editor’s Note: Readers can livestream Alexander’s radio appearance on November 30th at www.wrti.org/listen-live-wrti. He also has a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AlexanderBuiPianist where you can find more videos of his latest performances, including his October performance at the Museum of Chinese in America, in Chinatown, New York.