Pianist Gwhyneth Chen in Benefit Concert for Japan Sunday

Gwhyneth Chen will give a free benefit concert for Japan relief Sunday in Berkeley. Donations will be accepted.

01 Apr 2011

I learned about Gwhyneth Chen from my acupuncturist when she sent me a flyer about Chen's disaster relief concert Sunday at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery.

Born in Taiwan, Chen moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was nine years old. While she was attending Julliard, Chen won the Ivo Pogorelich International Solo Piano Competition at age 23, competing against contestants who had judged her in other competitions. Later, Pogorelich declared Chen to be "too good to be true."

You can find all this information and more online, but what you won't find out, at least not easily, is what she did with the biggest prize in piano competition that she won. "I gave it all away to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas," said Chen. The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is an international Buddhist community in Ukiah founded by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua.

Chen is a practicing Buddhist who follows a very strict vegan Buddhist diet and has practiced qigong for the past six years. This is where El Cerrito comes in. Through the Berkeley Monastery, which is closely affiliated with the City of Thousand Buddhas, she found Master Hui Liu who teaches Dayan Qigong (Wild Goose Qigong) at the Wen Wu School of Martial Arts. Now she resides part of the year in El Cerrito, refining her Qigong practice.

"There are many parallels in piano playing and qigong," Chen told me. She became very animated as she explained how the two disciplines work hand-in-hand with many of their movements and principles exactly alike.

For example, the shape of the hand when playing the piano is the very same shape in qigong that holds qi, or the life force. When playing the piano, not only is she moving her fingers from key to key but also is moving the energy. The concept of control is the same in qigong as it is for playing the piano, Chen said. The control in qigong comes from the dantian, the belly, which is the seat of one's internal energy. In piano playing, too, one's energy comes from the belly, and arms and shoulders should be relaxed, not tense. As in qigong, when playing the piano, the body should move effortlessly.

Chen mentioned a Chinese proverb that goes something like, "Gentle on the outside; firm on the inside," which she follows when practicing both qigong and piano. Her goal is to write a book that explains the integration of qigong and piano playing.

Having interviewed Amy Chua recently, I Chen how many hours she practiced per day and what she thought of Tiger Mom's methods. (Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, wrote about the long hours of piano practice she demanded of her daughters.)

Chen said she agreed with Chua. She believes that praising mediocrity breeds mediocrity. "To become a concert pianist, you have to have all the techniques down by age 14 or 15," she explained. One has to practice on average four hours per day, and the so-called prodigies practice eight hours a day. "All concert pianists work very, very hard," continued Chen. "If you want to have fun, you can't be a concert pianist," she added.

"You can't have any excuses for not being ready to play when you're on stage. You have to have the right amount of tension, not too little, not too much. It doesn't matter if you're feeling good or bad, or if the seat's too high or low. You can't have any excuse for not doing your best."

I asked her if she had a favorite composer. After giving it much thought, she told me her favorite was Scriabin, a Russian composer who is a contemporary of Maurice Ravel. She described Scriabin's work as strange and "out of this world."

"He is not human," she said. "There's a place for everyone in the world. Most people find pleasure in the ordinary, logic and rationality, and then there are the eccentric artists that create genius."

Gwhyneth Chen will be performing in a disaster relief concert, "Light from the Darkness," at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, 2304 McKinley Ave., Berkeley, (510) 848-3440, Sunday, April 3, 2:30 p.m. The event also will feature talks by the directors of the Buddhist Monastery and United Religions Institute in addition to prayers. Admission is free, and donations for Japan relief are welcome. The concert is being presented by the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery and the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation of Northern California.