It’s not every day that the New York Times titles an article about you: “A Promising Star, Rising Above the Horizon,” or that New York Magazine runs a feature on your life before you turn 18. But then again, Conrad Tao is not just any Columbia College student. For one, he is one of the select few enrolled in the Columbia-Juilliard joint program. For another, he’s already travelled the world as a concert pianist. Alison Herman caught up with him to ask what it’s like.
Bwog: When and how did you start playing?
CT: So we had this old, slightly worn but serviceable Baldwin upright in our living room – and one day I climbed up on the bench (still not sure how that happened) and plunked “Mary Had A Little Lamb” out on the keyboard. I had been listening to these old cassettes of children’s tunes and began to reconstruct the melody by ear – that was when I discovered that I had perfect pitch. That was how it initially started.
Bwog: What’s a typical week for you?
CT: A typical week for me is pretty atypical. Last fall I found myself running between John Jay, class, and my apartment across the street constantly—I’d return home at around 8, try to get close to three hours of practice, and then head up to JJ10 to do work. Or, more accurately, get JJ’s, put off my reading, and only start really working on my papers at 12 or so. I eat and sleep in between! Sometimes I’m traveling so I have to miss half of the week’s classes, but I was fortunate to be in David Yerkes’ Lit Hum section and he was the best and most understanding professor I could ever ask for. . . It’s hectic and I love it to death. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bwog: What are the craziest places you’ve been on tour?
CT: I’ve had the opportunity to perform in Paris—which was as spectacular as I expected and then some, Singapore—which is a beguiling place to say the least, a gorgeous tiny lake town in southern Chile called Frutillar, Mexico City—one of my favorite places ever, Moscow—I walked by Lenin’s mausoleum several times, Hong Kong, small towns in Italy with ridiculously decadent food and gorgeous architecture…
I know I’m forgetting things. . . To be perfectly honest, though, if a place has shopping and many food options (a McDonald’s for post-show McFlurry runs doesn’t hurt) I’m happy.
Bwog: How much did you practice as a kid? How much did you practice now?
CT: Heh, “as a kid.” I practiced about one hour on both piano and violin until I was about 8 or 9. Now I usually practice three or four hours every day.
Bwog: Have you ever felt like classical music is unappreciated—especially in America/among college-age kids?
CT: Definitely. But I’ve also seen encouraging signs – at Columbia I’ve met a lot of music lovers and people who play casually, and when I do outreach I find that kids often have genuine interest that simply goes untapped. In addition, I feel like we’re entering an era where we are finally letting go of the prescriptive didacticism that has defined so many “community arts” initiatives—the whole “here’s classical music, something that’s really good for you and something that you are obliged to like” mentality—which is tremendously exciting. I think the future will be bright for the arts in America if we continue to widen our perspectives and encourage kids to really get their cultural hands dirty.
Bwog: Favorite guilty pleasure song?
CT: Recently? “Call Me Maybe.” “PONPONPON” is a close second. Of all time? “Got To Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn. But I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If I crave it, who cares?
Snappy suits via Conrad’s website