Q&A: Sean Chen, Concert Pianist

We tickled the ivories with acclaimed pianist Sean Chen, who was named the 2015 fellow by the prestigious Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund for the Performing Arts, before the first of two Indianapolis performances in the coming months.

Ahead of the 2013 American Pianist Awards winner’s November 19 performance at the Indiana Landmarks Center, we pulled a few strings to score a chat with Chen.

How many pianos do you own?
I just have one—they’re too expensive to own multiple ones.

So are different types of pianos good for different types of music?
For performances, generally you want to have a grand piano because of the way it’s constructed, the way it resonates—the hammers use gravity, as opposed to upright pianos, which use springs.

Any memorization hacks for long pieces?
People memorize way longer things, like operas, and it’s because there’s a story. Once music makes sense to you, and you can follow the story, then you don’t memorize—I mean you can; you eventually do—but it’s not really about note by note. Working from the big picture is a lot easier than thinking, “Oh, this is a long piece, and there are so many notes.”

Do you have any pet peeves while performing?
I have two younger brothers, and when I was practicing growing up, they’d be running around and screaming, so I’m generally OK with audience distractions—although it’s pretty annoying when cell phones go off. It’s even worse because the ringtone is usually music.

You’re a classical concert veteran. Do you still get stage fright?
It’s not stage fright; it’s more your heart rate goes up. It’s a little bit like being anxious. If I’m nervous, I play a little faster. Different people respond differently—some people get cold hands; some people slow down—but once you know your habits and learn how to manage them, it’s not a big problem.

How many hours a day do you practice?
Zero to six, because sometimes I don’t have the chance to get to the piano, especially if I’m traveling or life gets in the way. But I’m a big advocate of practicing away from the piano, whether it’s just thinking about what you’re going to do when you get back to the piano, or whether it’s actually going through a passage in your head, making sure you know all the notes, or just having the music cycle in your ear, like when you get a melody stuck in your head.

What’s the biggest challenge right now in your career?
It’s hard—and even harder for people who play hundreds of concerts a year—to always bring your A game, no matter what circumstances you’re in. Let’s say the piano is sub-optimal, or you didn’t get enough time to practice. Teachers always tell their students, “No excuses; you’ve got to always play well,” but it’s difficult, especially if you’re playing the same program five different places, not to get a little complacent.

What’s your goal for the next five years?
Just continuing to play with bigger and bigger orchestras and trying to get my foot in the door in some of the higher-tier performance venues. I play some less standard pieces, and it’d be nice to play them with orchestras. But the problem for someone who’s still up-and-coming is that they want to program something that’s going to sell a lot of tickets regardless of who’s playing it, so it’s hard to convince orchestras to do something a little off the beaten path.

Dream orchestra you’d like to perform with?
I think any soloist would want to play with the Berlin Phil, the LA Phil, the New York Phil … I’m sure it’s not quite as amazing as I think it is right now, but it would still be an amazing experience.


Sean Chen performs at the Indiana Landmarks Center (1201 Central Ave., 317-639-4534) November 19 at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the American Pianists Association.