We had the good fortune of connecting with You Zhao and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi You, what do you attribute your success to?
Attitude, no hesitation. I wouldn’t say that I am a martinet; however, when it comes to my studies and work, I take what I do very seriously. Whenever I felt lost, anxious or unsure about what I was doing in the past, I would stop to examine my attitude towards the whole thing. Instead of muddling through it, I would rather take the opportunity to gain some valuable experience and learn something. I always remind myself to focus on what I can do at that moment and make sure that I do it well. “Always trying my best” seems to have become a byproduct of maintaining this mindset. When I have confidence in handling something, I do my best to reach the highest level. For tasks with which I feel less comfortable, I will also try my best to see how far I can go and will learn as much as I can from there. To me, having a good attitude sets the tone for how well one manages to do something. Thanks to maintaining a serious and positive attitude, I took advantage of learning at every given opportunity. And that’s how a good attitude goes a long way in one’s life development.
Let’s talk shop. Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I love my work as a collaborative pianist and an educator. I feel lucky that I get to do what I love for a living, and I don’t take that for granted. Ten years ago, if you told me that I would be studying with world-renowned artists, I would take it as a fairy tale. The bravest decision I have made so far is to apply for graduate schools, which felt way out of my league. I studied piano mostly as a hobby before attending college. I enjoyed my own educational journey; however, I do feel there is a huge gulf in front of me when trying to find a space in exclusive music schools for graduate studies. The competition is fierce. I gathered myself and did the preparation work as well as I could. I even told my mom that I would continuo trying for another year if I couldn’t make it to any schools. Outside my exceptions, I was accepted by all of the schools to which I applied. I was over the moon and feeling hopeful and confident for the future. I moved to the States in 2013 and the first few years of my professional training was inevitably challenging, but also very rewarding. As my very first mentor, Dr. Jean Barr, from the Eastman School of Music, set me up with a solid foundation. She guided me on understanding what this profession entails, what the expectations are of people who work professionally, and how to get that level. The experience made me feel like I was living my life all over again. After graduating from Eastman, I moved to Boston and started studying at the New England Conservatory with Dr. Cameron Stowe and Prof. Jonathan Feldman. The time I spent with these two marvelous artists truly raised my understanding of this profession even further. With the amount of experience I gained from performing a lot, I gradually established confidence in myself. The year 2017 meant a lot to me. I experienced a lot of “first times” and handled with expertise tasks that originally felt impossible to do. It was my first time traveling to Europe to participate in the Franz-Schubert-Institut and my first time competing in an international competition, believe it or not. I and my friend, Josh Quinn, the best “partner in crime”, accepted the challenge to compete in the prestigious Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition and won the third-place prize. That was a breakthrough for me. I was afforded the opportunity to experience what it feels like to present myself on a real world stage and to be surrounded with colleagues who share the same passion and love for music and art as I do. All of these experience made me realize that learning never stops. To continue chasing my dream, I moved to Los Angeles in 2018 and started a new journey at the University of Southern California under the guidance of Dr. Alan Smith, one of my favorite artists and people in this world. My studies in LA enriched my life experience greatly. The flourish of new music here opened a new door for my music making. In addition to playing regularly with other musicians, I started teaching as a piano instructor. I always experience great satisfaction when making music with my friends, and my heart is full whenever I see my students making progress or simply just see the smiles on their faces. With COVID restrictions lifted, I was able to travel more this year and to engage with programs in different places. I was in Nashville working with talented singers from the Nashville Opera and taking music making to different communities. It is quite amazing to see how much joy music brings to people. That makes me proud of what I am doing and strengthens my determination to move forward. This past summer, I was a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center. It was so encouraging to see all of the good work from my peers and to realize that music has hope and never dies.
It certainly has not been an easy journey for me, but a lot of great lessons have been learned along the way, many of which I am still processing. Never stop trying, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Never stop learning, and cherish every opportunity to learn. Continue to express curiosity, and believe that sometimes a little can make a mickle. Never underestimate yourself and be patient, good thing does take time.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I will use the mornings to take my friend to several of my favorite coffee/brunch spots in town. I am a coffee lover, so I have a list of go-to places whenever I want to enjoy a good cup of coffee, some delicious pastries and get charged before starting the day. Or having a late morning dim sum at one of the Lunasia DimSum houses! And then maybe visiting museums – LACMA and the Broad are two of my favorites here in LA, or go check out some flea markets, Rose Bowl or Artists & Fleas if possible. Personally, I enjoy shopping with local businesses and getting motivated and inspired by all their creativty or maybe do some treasure hunting at antique stores! I love learning history through antiques. Night time is sushi time! I also have a list of Japanese restaurants that offer high quality sushi dishes! If we feel tired from all the tourism and shopping during the day, we might just find a good bar, enjoy some nice cocktails, and chat!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I can think of so many people to whom I owe so much. I will definitely dedicate my shoutout to all of my teachers with whom I had the privilege to work at different periods of my life, and that includes all of the teachers I have studied with back in China. I can’t imagine trying to navigate my life or study without their help. In addition, there is another teacher to whom I am deeply grateful. Her name is Lydia Qiu, a professional coach and collaborative artist based in Michigan. She visited my school in China when I was a sophomore in college and gave a series of master classes for singers and pianists. I participated in one of classes, and she approached me afterwards, suggesting that I study abroad and chase my dream of becoming a professional collaborative pianist. I remember having a long conversation with my parents on that topic that night back home. Now that I have been living in the States for almost ten years and getting closer and closer to touch my dream, I am still very thankful for her opening a door for me and offering me the chance to realize my potential.
And, of course, there’s my family. One of the things I still don’t feel confident is to become a mom who can be as good as my own mother. And I simply can’t imagine that there’s a better father in this world, possibly because I am the daughter of the best papa on this planet. They are always my strongest supporters. My believe in maintaining a positive attitude can bring success comes directly from my parents. That’s the attitude they display when handling all of their jobs and duties. Naturally and gratefully, I was influenced by what I constantly saw and heard from them.
Juchia Lee Anthony Popolo