My life is that immigrant story we all hear about. My dad was a professor in Taiwan. My mom was a special ed teacher. They were both educators in their country but when the choice was made to settle in Canada, they found themselves as farmers growing shiitake mushrooms in rural British Columbia. A few years later, my mom also started a Chinese restaurant --- she doesn't even cook, but she opened a restaurant because it was part of the hustle . . . you shed your past identity and do what you do to make it in this new country.
I was an only child and very bored most of the time because my parents were always working. Because I had nothing else to do, I
would practice piano. I remember watching this eighties Japanese cartoon version of Little Women and in one scene the character Beth plays Chopin’s Fantaisie- Impromptu. The middle part is very beautiful and I was very moved by the emotions of the music. When I was 12 years old I was finally able to play it.
During my childhood, we moved around a lot, but all the places were within one hour of where I took piano lessons. Now as I look back, I realize how important that community music school was for me, it was such a place of stability when I had so much instability in my home life. That place, the teachers, the families, were like my second home. I really feel one of the most unique aspects of being a music teacher is that bond and relationship you can build, to have the same teacher that you see once a week from kindergarten until you go to college.
When I got to Chicago it was the first time I felt like I found a home and it was this school, this neighborhood, this city. Everywhere else I had lived before was transitional. When I shop or eat in the neighborhood, I see the kids, the families, the kids hanging out and helping out in the stores with their parents . . . this is all so familiar to me and reminds me of my upbringing. I love all the good mom and pop restaurants here; it's authentic, you meet the owners, and you know you are getting a real homecooked-style meal.
I really found my place with teaching here. I love that so many of the students at NEIU are non-traditional, often coming to piano later in life; they have made a conscious choice to study piano and music. Everybody has a unique path that brought them to the piano studio, very often a winding and swerving path . . . I really admire that tenacity. I think it makes them especially strong teachers because they remember the struggle and what it took to overcome, it makes them so much more aware and sensitive to the needs of the students they teach. In many ways, they now give to their students, what they needed for themselves.
Keys to Inclusion started in the summer of 2020. Many of us who studied at elite music conservatories never played music that wasn't written by a white European man. Ever. Even when we studied American music, we never learned about any black composers. It’s terrible that it never occurred to us that something was seriously missing in our education. So it was with this motivation to do something that might move our field forward, that we embarked on a year-long discovery of piano music by Black American composers. Together, with a fellow colleague, we found other like-minded colleagues and created a virtual community with NEIU and 4 other college piano studios in Baltimore, San Diego, New Orleans, and Ohio. During that virtual year, we learned piano music by Black American composers, brought in people that were well known in their field, including Guthrie Ramsey, an NEIU alum, who wrote the book Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip Hop. Our focus at NEIU was on Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and Betty King Jackson; all three are Black women composers who are from Chicago.
I grew up very often as one of the only Asian families in the small towns we lived in. I think this neighborhood is very special. I'll drive through and see the Jewish Orthodox school, right next to so many Korean, Mexican and middle eastern restaurants. It's pretty amazing that everyone is right next to each other, everyone has their own identity and no one's being forced to assimilate in order to blend in. There's a celebration of each culture that I think is wonderful and seems to be very harmonious. I never had that as a child growing up, it is really unique to this neighborhood.
Susan Tang was interviewed by a neighbor in September of 2023. You can learn more about her and her music here.