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88 Keys: A celebration of community and music

From the first poignant notes of Kiyoshi Yoshida’s “Big Fish and Begonia” on opening night, to a final stirring performance of Frédéric Chopin’s “Fantaisie-Impromptu op.66 C-sharp minor” two weeks later, the second annual 88 Keys Piano Festival delivered on its promise to celebrate the “emperor of instruments: the piano.”

Named for the 88 black and white keys of the piano, the festival provided 93 King’s students — up from 50 students last year — with the opportunity to perform for their family, friends and teachers. On nine different February nights, the festival’s performers — who also included 10 faculty and two guest pianists — demonstrated a range of experience from just two months to an impressive 25 years.

According to history and Chinese teacher Wen Yu Ho, an accomplished musician who came up with the idea of 88 Keys, the festival showcases King’s pianists while allowing the community to learn from one another.

One of the remarkable things about 88 Keys was the number of performers who had never played a note on the piano before learning to take part in the festival; this year they numbered 35. Also remarkable is that these students received tutelage not from music teachers, but from piano-playing students.

“Students teaching students is the most powerful part of the program,” said Ho, who was seconded by Ghadeer Abeidoh and Rania Ejeilat, Jordanian pianists who gave instruction to students at two master classes.  

“Students teaching other students encourages them to communicate better and explore the differences and variety in music, especially when it’s with someone the same age that they resonate with,” said Abeidoh.   

The student-teachers found the experience of instructing their peers enjoyable, but it also challenged them in ways they hadn’t expected.

A student of piano for the past seven years, Kareem Fanous ’20 didn’t hesitate when asked to teach three other students, but admitted he had forgotten what it was like to be a beginner. “I forgot what I was like when I first started. It’s hard to press the keys, I didn’t expect their hands to be that weak,” he laughed.

Letong Qian ’20 has been playing the piano for 11 years and instructed no fewer than four of his fellow students for the festival. His pride in his pupils’ progress warred with nerves about their performance.

“They are impressive and amazing as beginners, they are such hard workers,” Qian said.

At the end of the day, however, he just wants them to play for “fun and joy.”  

Teaching proved to be a valuable lesson in itself, as the student-teachers found themselves learning new skills such as how to read different people and give instruction targeted to their individual needs.

Teaching “takes you out of your comfort zone but is really fun,” said Dina Kuttab ’17 who has been studying piano for seven years, but says she was always too shy to perform herself until 88 Keys.

Kuttab had also never taught anyone before. The experience of teaching two friends, she said, proved to be an interesting one. “My students were maybe a bit too excited because they kept picking pieces that were too difficult,” she said. “They know what the music is supposed to sound like, so when they played it and it didn’t sound the same they got frustrated. We had to work on simplifying it and making it fun.”

Meanwhile, for students learning how to play and perform for the first time, 88 Keys was a unique opportunity to do something they had either never considered before, or had always wanted to try. Some students used the opportunity to challenge themselves, while others just wanted to have a little fun.

Kexin Huang ’18 has been playing the violin for three years, but when she was young it was really the piano that she wanted to learn. 88 Keys gave her a chance to do that. 

“It was good having a student teach me because we could talk and communicate easier as friends,” said Huang who performed a four-handed piece with a fellow beginner.

Rafé Zoubi ’18 has also always wanted to play the piano. “What I like about 88 Keys is that I don’t need to worry about meeting certain expectations, I learn because I want to,” he said. “We learn quickly because students know better how students learn.”

“It’s a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be,” said Abigail Smith ’17 who began to learn how to play the piano after signing up for 88 Keys this year. “My friend taught me so it was this interesting dynamic because we’re not on equal playing fields like we usually are, but she is so supportive.”

With over 100 performers, six concerts, two master classes and a recital, this year’s 88 Keys Festival was not only a triumphant celebration of the piano and the diversity of music spanning genres from Bach inventions to film music numbers, it was also a celebration of community, of learning and a shared passion for the joy of making music.

“I went to five different concerts during last year’s 88 Keys and I loved that it was such a community event,” said Smith. “There were so many people you would never think would learn piano. I wanted to be a part of this big musical experience and give it my best effort.”