Dr. Grace Fong

Dr. Grace Fong

Instead of awakening to the staccato sounds of an alarm clock every morning as a child, Grace Fong emerged from dreamland to the music of world class orchestras.

“My mom woke the entire family up by blasting the great classical works, such as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1,” says the award-winning pianist and Chapman University’s Director of Keyboard Studies at the Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music. “Music is my first language. My mother is a pianist and did her final master’s recital at USC while nine months pregnant with me. I responded by kicking.”

Fong gravitated toward the piano at two years old, so her mother had her piano teacher give her daughter lessons. At two years and nine months, Fong performed in her first recital. Today she dons a variety of musical hats, including instructing and guiding Chapman students and touring the globe as a chamber musician, concerto soloist, contemporary keyboardist and recitalist.

Early Musical Training

Born in Temple City and raised in Bakersfield, Fong went to public school during the week and starting her sophomore year of high school began attending Colburn School in Los Angeles on the weekends. At this small, music preparatory academy, she reveled in finding herself among like-minded individuals.

“When I first arrived at Colburn, I felt like Harry Potter starting at Hogwarts,” says Fong of the school she attended for three years. “I finally fit in and was among students who shared the same passion and zest for creativity.”

After high school, Fong attended USC on a full scholarship, where she did her undergraduate studies, completing a double major in piano and healthcare administration. “Some members of my family are in healthcare, and I had many interests,” says Fong of her double major decision. “I used my undergraduate experience as an exploratory time and even considered being a doctor at one point.”

Music often took center stage for Fong at USC, however. While there she served as the principal cellist for the USC Community Orchestra. She also received the prestigious Renaissance Scholar Prize and was named The USC Thornton School of Music Keyboard Department’s - Most Outstanding Student - B.M. When it came time to attend graduate school, Fong decided to follow her heart.

Pursuing her Passion

“I applied to the Cleveland Institute of Music, because I wanted to study with Sergei Babayan, who is one of the world’s greatest piano teachers and who only takes on one new student a year and instructs just five students at a time,” says Fong. As fate would have it, Babayan accepted Fong, who earned her Masters of Art and Doctor of Music in Performance at the institute.

After graduating with her doctorate, Fong stayed in Cleveland for a year to teach music at Case Western University. The following year in 2007, she spotted an ad for her current position at Chapman and applied.

“I’d heard about the great things being done at Chapman, and I even visited for music competitions when I played the cello during high school,” she says. “The University epitomized everything I wanted in my ideal career position—the ability to teach and do scholarly work amongst a world class faculty. I also wanted to come back home and be near my family.”

Helping Students Find their Way

Chapman’s keyboard studies program, which earns students a Bachelor’s in Piano Performance, features a rigorous application process that includes auditioning. Despite the competition to get in, Fong finds that the program isn’t cutthroat like many music conservatories. “There is a lot of healthy competition, but for the most part the students collaborate,” says Fong, who notes that she greatly enjoys working with this age of students.

“They’ve left home for the first time and are trying to find themselves, and it’s a rewarding experience for me to give them the tools to mold themselves,” she says. “At first they’re like sponges, and I spoon-feed them everything, but by the end of the four years, they become butterflies that have found their wings.”

Professor Karen Knecht is a member of the piano faculty at Chapman (adjunct) and works closely with Fong. “Grace is a consummate artist with an international profile and a dedicated teacher—which is a rare combination,” says Knecht. “Given her own world class training and experience as an active concert pianist, she has the expertise to enhance the artistry of our most brilliant students. At the same time, she has the rare ability to help our somewhat less experienced students by distilling the process into smaller building blocks. She accomplishes all of this with compassion, humor and boundless energy.”

Making Emotional Connections

One aspect of music that Fong strives to teach her students and adhere to herself is tapping into the emotional aspects of music. “As artists we can and should arouse emotional responses,” she says. “In this digital age, such human connection has become even more precious. I remind my students that music is written by people, so they can’t just play the notes. As performers we aren’t the stars, the music is the star. Performers are just the vessels through which the music passes. Our goal is to deliver what the composer wants to convey.”

As Dr. Kevin Kwan Loucks, Artistic Director of Chamber Music | OC, sees it, Fong does an excellent job of ensuring that the music evokes emotion. “There are very few musicians I know of who are as sensitive and nuanced as Grace,” he says. “Her playing is passionate and virtuosic, but also full of life and deeply genuine. She is committed to all that she does and her influence as a performer, educator and administrator is far-reaching.”

Chair of the Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music, Dr. Amy Graziano, agrees. “Dr. Fong is a superb pianist who has greatly contributed to the university. In addition to bringing Chapman national and international attention when she performs, she has worked with our director of strings to build a chamber ensemble program for string and piano students that is of great benefit. Our piano program students win competitions and get into highly competitive graduate programs.”

Exploring Collaboration

Because the life of a pianist tends to be a solo one, Fong greatly enjoys collaborating. In addition to playing with other musicians, for the last several years she’s also worked with artists, filmmakers, dancers, artists and fashion designers. Besides classical, she plays jazz and Latin lounge music and is often a guest with three-time Grammy nominee, Pink Martini.

To date, Fong’s crowning glory occurred in December 2014 when she was asked to perform at China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts under the direction of famed Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. “I only had 21 days to learn, memorize, digest and refine the piece, so it was a little crazy to accept, but it was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

For Fong, there is no more emotionally and spiritually rewarding activity than sharing music. “I believe that art is the way to save humanity,” she says. “After a concert, when people tell me they were able to transcend to another place during the performance and that the music helped them heal or gave them joy, I’ve accomplished what I intended.”

Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Julie Bawden-Davis, Photograph provided by Chapman University

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