Not every pianist has the opportunity to play on a piano that belonged to the Gershwin family. Dorothy Chan will, when she performs in the onstage instrumental ensemble for “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou” at Hunter College on Oct. 22.
Dorothy remembers being on an outing with her family at age 3 when something made her stop right in her tracks. For her, the occasion was momentous.
“We were passing by a piano store. There was a lady playing the piano,” Dorothy , who grew up in Hong Kong, recalled in a prior interview. “I remember seeing the lady still in my head. She was playing ‘Für Elise.’ Mom asked if I wanted to play piano. I guess I was staring.”
That was the beginning of Dorothy’s life as a pianist. She first displayed her prodigious talent for “Scenes and Songs from Fannie Lou” as part of the instrumental ensemble accompanying actor-singers for the Carnegie Hall performance in 2014. The Gershwin family-owned piano Dorothy will be playing for the upcoming, Oct. 22 performance is owned by Hunter College and is made available to productions performing in its Ida K. Lang Recital Hall.
Dorothy’s expertise in a number of musical genres makes her a great fit for the eclectic score, which includes blues, folk, gospel, jazz, spoken word, pop and traditional musical theater.
“I started with classical, and around high school I began playing by ear,” said Dorothy, who also studied percussion for a while in grade school.
“I heard someone playing the marimba,” she recalled. “That sound is amazing. I really wanted to try it.”
Jazz improvisation came a bit later.
“I started learning jazz when I got into college,” she said, adding, “I feel I really like doing many different things."
Dorothy's varied interests extend beyond music. Even with her affinity for the piano, a career in the field was not a given. When she came to the United States to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dorothy started out as a business major.
“My mother wanted me to think of something more marketable,” said Dorothy about her career options. She eventually realized that music was what she wanted, and switched her major. “In the end,” said Dorothy, “We compromised. I became a business minor.”
The attraction of music for Dorothy is its ability to underscore personal feelings and emotions, she said.
“I think it’s really special. There is music for every feeling you’re going through. Music also helps you get through the things that you can’t face or understand.”
After graduating from UIUC, Dorothy went on to earn a master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music. She has performed in Asia, Europe and the United States, both in ensembles and as a soloist. She’s happy with her career decision, and her family is happy for her, she noted.
“Now, they’re very supportive,” said Dorothy, who works largely in the classical realm. She also teaches, and for the past three years she’s also been a pianist with Ensemble Mise-En, which focuses on works by contemporary composers. In addition, she’s one-third of a piano-cello-violin trio that performs primarily music by new composers.
“But I like musical theater as well,” said Dorothy. “I like the words,” she said, explaining the difference between orchestral works and musical theater that serves as a major attraction for her. “I like literature, reading. [With musical theater] I like the music and words coming together.”
“Dorothy also is enthused about the teaching aspect of her career. She has a music studio at which she teaches mainly youngsters, but also a few adults.
“Music is so important to me,” she said. “I look back to my childhood. When you see [students] learning something, progressing, it is the best. It’s one of the ways to impact people.”
Dorothy enjoys teaching so much that she prefers it to a career consisting of just concertizing in large halls.
“I don't think it [performing concerts] touches people's lives as much as when I do it personally,” said Dorothy. “When I teach, I can see them learning.”