The ingredients in the making of Emily Lau, circa. 2015
I was born into a musical family. My parents met at an orchestra gig. My mother started and ran a successful music teaching studio in Hong Kong since she was 24. My first long-distance trip was taken with 50+ other exciting and quirky touring musicians when I was only 2.5 years old. Without any special agenda or hopes for my future, my non-tiger-mother gave me piano lessons at age 5; I was the my mother’s worst student. HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSE TO SIT DOWN FOR AN HOUR LISTENING TO YOUR MOM CORRECT YOUR POSTURE EVERY WEEK? :) I pretended to have stomach ache every day when it came time to practice.
Despite my complete disinterest in making piano my instrument, I adored and excelled in music. What followed were years of private instructions in voice, violin, choir, percussion, orchestra, and even a melodica band. I was also active in dance, sports, debate, and social activism. I had enormous pink plastic glasses and was interested in pushing the envelope just a tiny bit in most situations. I found it irresistible to ask questions and shake the equations a bit. Not surprisingly, I was an odd bird in a school full of meek and obedient students.
A lot of my understanding of the world came from being a fly on the wall at my mother’s music school, watching her skillfully inspiring creativity and joy, all while maintaining loyalty and integrity as a friend and an entrepreneur. She also gave me all of the trust and freedom to be what I needed to be in this world.
Being mostly a valedictorian, I had lots of hopes and dreams for my future, none of which were “professional musician”. Music had always been a constant backdrop of my life, but I longed to be a psychologist, a lawyer, a world-travelling writer, a politician…….
And music? It was the most wonderful, natural, easy, exciting, never-boring thing that I do day after day after day. There was music in the air 24/7. It is in my blood. The idea was that I would eventually be a “real person with a real job” AND a musician. That’s why I chose to go to an academically-challenging specialist music high school in the U.K., where I could continue to choose both............ or choose neither.
When the University of Miami told me that I can start college a year earlier than everyone else, I jumped at the chance. I applied to the musical theater program, but was told that I am basically “uncastable” as an Asian female, so I majored in vocal performance instead. I was enthusiastic and smart but not particularly ambitious or insightful. Without any major fanfare, I progressed logically through undergrad like everyone else, learning to sing with the right diction and vowels and consonants and learn the history and feel the emotions and…… you get the point. In my “spare time”, I even earned myself another degree in Sociology. I developed a love for new music, polyphony, medieval music, and social advocacy through my undergraduate years.
The next couple of years was a mixture of working as a professional classical singer in some small-scale projects in South Florida, teaching as a full-time music teacher at a National School of Excellence, directing some multi-media shows, and doing a lot of outreach for homeless youth, and....... being married for the first time. My first taste as a real adult gave me some vague ideas about the kind of musician that I would like to eventually be… someone who makes music that can make a tangible difference in the world; someone who is creative and hardworking; someone who is flexible and insightful. After a few years these vague ideas blossomed into a course of action that took me up north to Boston.
Boston is one of the epicenter of classical music and particularly, early music (written before 1750, an interest of mine), in the USA.
I told myself this: If I can make a living in Boston as a performing musician, I would keep going. If I cannot, I’d just return to a smaller town and live a simpler life. I started my masters program at a boutique graduate music program in Harvard Square, learning the art and craft of performing music. My teacher and mentor, Laurie Monahan, was a force of nature. She expected the best for me. he demanded that I not be just a “line-cook”, but develop my vision as a “chef”. She was the first person who showed me that while I have to work as hard as I can possibly be, I do not need permission to be the master of my own art.
The next few years were everything I could have dreamed of: I finished my masters degree with distinctions, started writing my own new music, launched a professional chamber ensemble, performed with numerous successful ensembles and festivals around the world. This was what I had dreamt of. Life was mostly really, really good. I even met my soulmate in the process.
Then why do I say “mostly”? In the process of being a professional musician, I also picked up a bucket of doubts and fears. It came with the training. We were taught to expect failure and criticism and disappointment. I had a rock in my stomach most of time. A rock that says “you are replaceable”, “your voice is not beautiful enough”, “someone hates you”. In the process of searching for the perfect voice that other people demanded, little time was left for me to consider my own authentic voice and my role as a creative artist.
When my honeymoon ship hits the rock, it was like the universe is sending me a profound message. This message demanded me to give up my fears. It tells me that I shouldn’t be afraid of the work I am put on this world to do: to make music for people, to tell stories, to be authentic and passionate and kind.
I had a hard time processing this profound message. My love for people was put to the test after witnessing so many injustice and selfishness and pain during the disaster. Left to my own device, I could have just roll up in a ball and never got up from my couch and never sing a note again.
Months of PTSD therapy helped. Benji (my husband) and I have decided for ourselves that while justice is elusive, meaning is possible. And how lucky are we that we are artists? We already have the training and the skills and the experience, now we just need to allow the muse to come in.
Suddenly my entire being was filled with lyrics and melodies and harmonies that demanded to express themselves constantly. They demanded to be materialized through me. ME!!!? How wild and unexpected and beautiful and stressful is that? :) These melodies were always there before, but I always asked them to wait. I wanted them to wait until I get a doctoral degree in composition from Princeton, or by the permission of some really prominent musical figures. So when I finally give myself permission, I wrote an entire album in less than 3 months. I processed my fears and doubts and sadness of the shipwreck with the music.
Without guidelines or a rulebook, I found a deep courage to create things that truly mean something to me. I allowed the muse in, and now it is staying. That is what I called my creative epiphany.
Benji and I have pledge our lives to showing that we care. We care about people, we care about the state of the world. We do it in the way that we know how: through creating art and telling stories. We accept our triumphs and struggles as equals, and look for materials in them that will resonant with others.
Now my muse is no longer Mozart or Rachmaninoff, but people like you and me.