George Ko finds solace as a professional pianist
By Luke Netzley
Deputy Editor of the Pasadena Weekly
AAt a time when the whole world seemed to come to a standstill, the pandemic prompted people around the world to revamp the hierarchy of needs used to assess what really matters to them.
Pasadena resident George Ko is no different. He found himself at the crossroads of his future.
Ko grew up in Orange County as a first generation American in his family. His parents were Taiwanese immigrants who moved to the United States in the 70s and 80s and always emphasized the importance of creating and seizing the opportunities that life can present.
“My mom wanted to be a concert pianist growing up. They were so poor she borrowed some chalk, then drew the 88 keys on the floor and just imagined what the piano would look like.
Ko started playing the piano as a child, participating in competitions and taking weekly piano lessons in Pasadena. He hated it at the time and even shunned his piano bench. However, as he continued to perform, he gradually attained prodigy status. In high school, he had been tutored by pianist pedagogue Cosmo Buono, performed in famous venues like Carnegie Hall, playing in the footsteps of the masters, and finally began to feel happy playing the piano.
“Cosmo Buono was the first piano mentor I met who spoke about mental health in the piano world,” Ko said. “He was an advocate not just for me as a pianist, but for me as a person. His business partner Barry Alexander is another such type of person, and I am indebted to them both.
After enjoying early success as a young pianist, Ko went on to study economics at Harvard and entered the world of venture capital, taking over from his entrepreneur father. He and two co-founders worked on one of the first Harvard-backed startups and were even featured in the Boston Globe, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“It failed spectacularly and I was depressed. There was a lot of pressure on us and a lot of pressure to succeed,” Ko said of the experience. “Then I went to listen to a concert, and they were playing my favorite symphony. A light bulb went on in my head and I said, ‘I want to be a musician.’ “
Ko decided to drop out of school to study music for a year, returning to Los Angeles and conducting privately at the Colburn School and with former Pasadena Symphony music director Jorge Mester. He eventually returned to Harvard and majored in music. After graduating, Ko toured as a classical concert pianist for a year and a half.
“I found myself in the classical world, and I was super lonely. As a classical pianist, you don’t really have an entourage. When you’re backstage, it’s just you, and the performance pressure is so high that sometimes you don’t even want people next to you, it just gets very isolationist and it’s incredibly competitive.
This pressure and competitiveness became so unbearable that at one point, Ko says, there were several attempts to try to take his gigs away from him and someone even tried to break his hand so he couldn’t. not play.
“I wasn’t happy and I couldn’t make music anymore. I just felt dead, so I left this world.
Ko found solace in the world of media and technology, co-founding a company in Sawtelle with Eric Nakamura, founder of Giant Robot magazine, which supported creatives and artists and helped uplift community members. Asian American and Pacific Islander. He then worked at a robotics start-up and took a job at Caltech.
The COVID-19 outbreak has changed his life and that of so many others around the world. During the pandemic, Ko took an introspective look at himself and what he wanted from his life.
“I missed the piano, but I knew I didn’t want to play classical anymore. I believe that classical musicians are the best cover artists of all time, as people today can play Beethoven better than Beethoven played his own music. This is the level reached by the music. You can go to a concert hall and listen to someone playing Brahms with the most perfect high fidelity technique. When you can appreciate it on that level, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m witnessing magic.’ But then, as a creative, I think, ‘This is not my music. I always tell the story of Beethoven or Chopin. I wanted to tell my story in my own way.
Although he was playing the piano once more, something seemed different. It was this change in mindset that began to make Ko a classical improv pianist.
“I always wanted to improvise like a jazzman, to play what I had in mind. People forget that until Mahler, so until the late 1800s, almost every classical composer improvised, and no concert was the same. None of the concerts had covers, and if you heard Chopin, Beethoven or Brahms playing in a salon, they were always improvising. I desperately wanted this skill.
During the pandemic, Ko’s former colleague Nakamura contacted him and asked if he would play weekly meditative music on his Instagram profile for the Giant Robot community. Ko agreed, and while he performed, the audience was able to send him song requests. In order to meet the demands of the public, Ko began to improvise his music on the spot.
“This training triggered something in my brain. After about two months of work, I began to notice that I could begin to aurally visualize the entire instrumental arrangement of a song in my head and figure out where he was at the piano.
As this new form of performance became instinctive, Ko decided to record a 12-track album and share the process online. He started performing his music on social media platforms like Instagram and Clubhouse and gradually expanded his fan base.
“All these artists I’ve looked up to all my life reached out to me on Instagram, and one of them even said, ‘We haven’t been able to go to live shows for so long, so we just put your phone next to a bowl and i had dinner with my husband watching you play the piano.
Ko gained a large following online, with fans listening in across multiple continents via his social media accounts, and as parts of the world began to reopen after the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, he began a live tour and in person.
“I want to bring accessibility and show that classical music is meaningful, deep and fun. And I think one of the most fun things to do is respond to audience requests, like a story or a mood, or a song from their favorite Spotify playlist, movie, TV show, or video game, and then to improvise it live.
At the age of 29, Ko has traveled east from the west coast of the United States and all the way back across the country, with a vacation home at Row DTLA scheduled for December. On February 1, he will cross the Atlantic for a week-long residency at the Arctic Hideaway in Fleinvær, Norway, where he will also lead workshops with guests and compose a new album.
While the road to get to this point in his career was not always clearly laid out in front of him, Ko had the courage to believe in his passion and his purpose, to leave his stable career path and focus instead on the pursuit of what he truly loved. Although the decision back then was tough and there were many tough moments along the way, Ko can now look back on what he has achieved so far and smile. He became a young Steinway artist; performed at Carnegie Hall nearly a dozen times; gave inaugural concerts for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Bowers Museum and the Fogg Museum; performed for the Obama family; received the David McCord Prize from Harvard University in recognition of his musical abilities; and become a five-time laureate of the Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition.
“Life is beautiful, even if it is unpredictable. I don’t know what will happen today, but what I do know is that I can live today and strive to get better every day.