Serene On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Music Industry
Always keep playing music. Even if you already know this, and even if logistical challenges arise which prevent having a place, or even a piano… the reality is, whenever you play music, things get better. No matter how bad.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Serene.
Bösendorfer Artist Serene is a concert pianist who has taken a most unexpected trajectory to international success. Though she never attended conservatory, her solo performances have been described by The Paris Review as a “spectacle to match the New York Philharmonic,” and she has become one of the most talked-about young talents in classical music, and beyond. Having also taught herself to write code at age 9, Serene is a Carnegie Mellon graduate and former Google Software Engineer and Researcher. She is one of very few self-taught pianists who have performed and recorded, amongst a vast repertoire of solo and concerto repertoire, Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, infamously known as the “Mount Everest of Piano. Currently touring coast to coast, Serene dazzles audiences with a challenging repertoire that includes Liszt’s virtuoso “Rhapsodie Espagnole,’’ Russian jazz composer Kapustin’s Op. 40, and the works of George Gershwin. Learn more about her tour here.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Very pleased to join, and thanks for having me!
Growing up… well, in a lot of ways I never had a childhood. There were many challenges and unexpected adventures. We moved around frequently. As an infant, I arrived in the US with my single mother, who went through a lot. I taught myself to code when I was 9. I found myself in gifted programs which no longer exist. I went to college early, picked up a degree in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon, graduated a year early as well, and began working at Google, still a teenager. These days I play a lot of piano concerts. But, I never went to music school.
Given my origins, not really having a hometown, I speak many languages. However, none ever felt like my “native tongue” — other than music.
The origin story of greatest interest to me is the story of how all of us came to exist, on this rock spinning through space. And how what you and I can do whilst here might possibly make things better.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Real career paths are never a straight line. And a career in music, as an instrumentalist — especially so. By the very nature of learning and mastering any art: it requires not only gifts, facility, high-neuroplasticity, and the discipline and will to master the craft, but also quite simply the logistics of having time and space to do it. So that the years of practice are even possible.
While I always loved music, and piano, and was recognized as a prodigy as a child — for much of my life the logistics piece was insufficient. For one, pianos are pretty expensive. Spaces to practice are harder to find than expected. But eventually, I solved all those things.
The initial software gigs helped me afford my first piano. This unlocked many beautiful things. As I played in various contexts, just for fun — the piano at the Google NY office, the boat I lived on, the various venues and warehouses, in random forests, and deserts — the music seemed to draw audiences. People would come up to me afterward with tears in their eyes. Or with great surprise that I never attended conservatory, despite playing Gaspard de la Nuit or Rach 3. I was getting hired to play more and more concerts.
When I quit Google, a lot of people thought I was crazy. I thought it was crazy not to quit!
This meant I was able to fully throw myself 1000% into the art of playing the piano. Which led to the most amazing adventures, full of serendipity.
But behind it all is endless discipline. For a performer, the original artifact is not quite the performance itself, which evaporates into silence afterward, or a recording, which is at best a simulacrum of the performance no matter how beautiful. Or even the original score rendered by a composer in another century to be interpreted today. It is generated from essential structures in the brain, which need to be cultivated over time to build musical sense, techniques, and habits, which build upon each other to ultimately become capable of executing the music (quite similar to building software, pieces of code building on each other…), and tuning one’s mind and body with the spirit of the music, which becomes a fully embodied understanding and mastery of that aesthetic.
To intentionally build structures in one’s own brain takes a lot of awareness and focus — and at the end of it, it’s still an ephemeral structure that degrades without continuous practice. It requires not only deeply examining how one learns, but also how one learns to learn, and so on. All that requires endless uninterrupted time. Hence the need to arrange one’s life to be healthy and compatible with these needs.
Many years ago, when I was wandering Amsterdam after a tech conference, I came across an old used bookstore. There happened to be a collection of ancient volumes on the art of piano playing and classical music. Little interesting yellowed books by Henreich Neahaus, Yehudi Menuhin, Louis Kentner, Walter Geiseking, etc. I promptly bought all of them and shoved them in my suitcase. As I read them all, I noticed the many consistencies and contradictions and thought long and hard about how master pianists and musicians from different places and times could arrive at these various conclusions and methods. And meanwhile, I explored a lot with my own relation to the piano. This was the foundation of much of my approach.
Piano is my generator function. With it, I build and channel energy, physically and mentally. Without it, I begin to unravel. In some ways I didn’t ever really have a choice to arrive at this career path — it chose me as I can’t live without music.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are so many amazing adventures it’s hard to select just one.
Generally, the serendipity factor is very high, given the way music is able to reach and elevate people’s spirits and change the world.
Here’s a fun strangely loopy story. A long time ago, I wrote some code for an old synesthesia machine prototype (I have audio-visual synesthesia.) It generated audio-reactive LED particle effects mapped to the circle of fifths. Then, years later when I found myself playing a concert in the decommissioned Boeing 747 in Black Rock Desert, the plane was lighting up, reacting to what I was playing. I found out that system derived from another system which was lighting up the tree of Tenere, some of the code which was apparently inspired by my old synesthesia visualizer project.
So, I wound up playing the piano in an audio-reactive venue related to code stuff I’d done a long time ago. Pretty fun!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made a lot of funny mistakes. But what does it mean, first starting? We are always, first starting, each day.
One of them was almost accepting being CTO for a music technology company that really wanted my help… but didn’t want to pay anybody. And when I didn’t want to work for free, they were not happy.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m currently wrapping up my current 2021 fall tour. In the last month and a half, I’ve given about 25 concerts, in various cities coast to coast. I’m now getting ready for exciting new projects for 2022 and beyond. One of them builds on what I’ve already developed so far with my synesthesia machine — with a biofeedback aspect. Another project is composition-related. There is another project for Scriabin, and another project for Ravel. There is another project in the intersection of code and music, to build a new way to give back to and connect audiences with concerts.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
It’s very important to have diversity represented in the industry. To understand how this relates to culture, we have to understand how culture forms the substrate for civilization, and we must examine the concept of diversity.
Diversity, to me, doesn’t mean merely different backgrounds and identities.
Diversity also means that anyone, from any origin, can BE and DO many things. All at the same time. Even all in one person. Anyone can shape their life, beyond expectation, beyond existing narratives.
This is far more interesting to me than things like: which nation-state boundary one happened to be born in, which parents one was born to, which current age, gender, sexual orientation and so on.
Many institutions are now aware the Overton window has shifted such that addressing diversity is important to maintain credibility, yet they do not fully understand diversity. They are merely role-playing, while institutional racism, sexism, and other -isms all remain.
I know that since this distinction has not yet been understood or fully explored in our current cultural production until it is, we have yet to solve the problem. Film and television, and of course music — create powerful cultural artifacts which leave imprints on society. This has long-term ramifications on people’s perspectives, psychology, social structures, and the direction of our societies. It affects how people relate to each other, to themselves, and to the world. We must absolutely solve institutional racism and sexism (that’s like, Step 1). We must also be able to take the next steps too. It’s a long road.
If we can take the conversation about diversity to the next level, it will shift the focus away from fixating on the “noun” aspect, like how people were born (none of us have a choice in that!) But rather, to how we all shape our lives after we’re born. And how the way we shape our lives unavoidably affects everyone else. Which affects how we all can make the world work better for each other.
Which celebrates everyone as fully agentic beings, able to make choices.
I think we’ve covered at least three reasons above, right? :)
In any case, currently, we are all carbon-based lifeforms… together on this rock spinning through space.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Even knowing how being an artist is being a business — and knowing that you have to hire and outsource many things all the time — you always have to be the CEO of your own act. You are profoundly responsible for everything.
2. Always keep playing music. Even if you already know this, and even if logistical challenges arise which prevent having a place, or even a piano… the reality is, whenever you play music, things get better. No matter how bad.
3. Make sure to always have a space where you can have an uninterrupted focus to work on music, not contingent or reliant on anything. This enables the above.
4. Being kind, compassionate, and giving the benefit of the doubt is great. Keep doing that. We’re all human and you and others will make mistakes or have misunderstandings. But! Have a much lower tolerance for questionable behavior. Don’t let people MITM (man-in-the-middle, a term from security engineering). Sometimes people will want something from you or want you. And when they can’t have it, sometimes they will try to attack you. Always be higher than that.
5. It’s all going to be way harder than expected, and also way more rewarding than expected.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
First of all — it’s important to actually love it. Whatever it is you are doing. Having fun is amazingly helpful.
This will be more impactful than anything else.
Now, given that, it may be so fun that you’ll end up being a workaholic, as I am.
In this case, have scheduled rest days. Enforce them.
Manage your time and energy and health.
Work with people you’re excited to wake up in the morning to collaborate with. People who authentically care about what you’re building, and not merely as a means to their own ends. Work only with the most excellent folks.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Honestly, I’m just a pianist :) We live in entangled systems, spanning the globe, across many layers of the stack. It is a giant amount of context. When things go awry, we will (and already have) encounter cascading failures.
The movement(s) that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people fall into two categories:
- Things which prevent the world from becoming worse.
- Things which can help the world get better.
It’s not up to me to inspire — the choice is always with any person, anywhere, deciding to better themselves, and their context. To take responsibility to question everything, explore, and discover the scope of action which best fits who they are at the moment. Usually, this is at the intersection of what one loves to do, what one is really good at and can “make a living at”, and what the world needs.
To do those things requires strong minds and wills. But unfortunately, other pieces that have fallen by the wayside are the education and cultural institutions we have, amongst many other institutions. It’s become more and more mainstream that schools are a nightmare that do nothing but traumatizes the spirits out of our kids. We have known that healthcare is largely a farce and definitely a nightmare. That our global supply chains are based on fragile feedback loops with unsustainable assumptions that have already resulted in disastrous consequences.
It is a complex system, which requires refactoring in many spots, not just one movement.
Which requires refactoring how we think, and our epistemics.
And I know music is a critical piece of that refactoring.
And I’m just one musician.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes, there are many amazing friends and supporters I’m so grateful for. One of them is Scott Asen, who I happened to end up quarantined with during early COVID, and whilst everything was very difficult for musicians as all concerts were canceled. We were able to put on some live stream concerts, one of which reached 140,000+ audience.
Another person who I’m particularly grateful for is my girlfriend, Danielle Fong. We were able to be there for each other even from afar, throughout the pandemic, to help each other be the best version of ourselves.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”
— Randy Pausch, a professor from CMU (My alma mater) — the Last Lecture — before he passed away from cancer.
By necessity, I’ve always been surpassing walls. From the very beginning.
I wouldn’t even still be here without doing so.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Sure — do they have to be alive?
There are plenty of historical figures I’d love to get a meal with, but we may need time machines first.
Otherwise, there’s a handful, usually from older generations. So much wisdom and incredible experience. Like Martha Argerich, the legendary pianist who is still with us, whose recording of Gaspard de la Nuit was one of my early inspirations (upon which I taught myself the piece in between all-nighters of coding as a teenager), and whose approach to the instrument I studied from her video recordings in order to achieve a relaxation/fluidity at the piano. Which enabled me to play anything with ease, even the “Mount Everest’s of piano, and not get tired. I know she does something special, being able to play like a demonic sorceress even into her 80s, and I’m sure forever. A breakfast or lunch would be amazing. :)
How can our readers follow you online?
Website, platforms, and various other places:
I occasionally do things in other places.
Some of these places are yet to exist publicly. I also have a Github and some other shenanigans…
Looking forward to sharing all these adventures with all of you.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you so much!