By: Felicia Widjaya
Gillian Geraldine fell in love with the piano’s black and white keys when she was only four years old. Unlike the instrument’s monochrome colors, the tunes it produces open a world of multicolored melody — similar to Gillian’s journey in pursuing a career as a musician.
Her sweet personality emits through her soft giggles in between answers during our phone interview. From participating in international competitions when she was only six to being selected as the undergraduate speaker in her graduation commencement this past May, Gillian is best described as a piano prodigy. When asked about her impressive accomplishments, this San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) graduate laughs in response — attributing her success to her parents’ unconditional support, her piano teacher’s demanding teaching style and her faith as a Christian.
Gillian returned to her hometown, Surabaya, right after graduating with honors from SFCM. She has her heart set on her long-term vision — to share her talent as a pianist by spreading the love of music to the underprivileged areas in Indonesia.
How did you first discover your love of music?
I was introduced to music when I was four because my mom played the piano [as a hobby]. I had a little piano in my room where she would play Mozart’s Turkish March. As a kid, I became really curious and decided “Hey, I want to play this too!” I think [my case is] different because I know a lot of Asian kids were forced to learn the piano by their parents. But I was the one who wanted to learn after I saw my mom play in front of me. That’s how my love of music started – it was like love at first sight.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue music professionally?
When I was four, my mom enrolled me in Yamaha’s (a music school in Indonesia) group lessons. I started having private lessons when I was six. Then, I joined local music competitions in my hometown, Surabaya. When I turned seven years old, my teacher suggested I compete in an international competition called the ASEAN Chopin Piano Competition, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – I placed second in that competition. I became active in more and more competition and realized that I was pretty good at playing the piano.
Music has molded my identity since I was really small. I’ve always been known as “Gillian the Pianist.” I knew then that I couldn’t be separated from it. When I turned seven, I knew I wanted to pursue music as a career.
Practicing the piano often takes hours away from your day, so how did you stay motivated growing up?
Honestly, my mom. You know how musicians are often known as “diligent” or “patient” – I wasn’t that kind of person. I was quite lazy to practice, especially when I was younger. My mom plays a huge part in motivating me to practice. She would often say: “You have to practice! You don’t want to play poorly in front of people right?”
Another way for me to stay focused was by taking breaks. After 15 minutes of playing the piano. I would watch the TV then return to practicing. I also remind myself that if I don’t practice, I would make a huge embarrassment of myself. I think it’s important to have a reason to stay self-motivated.
How did you prepare for music school (college)?
When I was 11, I started performing in more piano recitals. I also got the Rekor MURI (Indonesian Museum of Records) at that age. Because of that achievement, I got close to Jaya Suprana, a well-known politician and musician [who established MURI], and also started studying with him a lot. Since then, he gave me lots of opportunities to perform, which helped my portfolio for college.
Did you face stereotypes from your peers when you chose to pursue music professionally?
I got that a lot. Actually, I was surprised because I thought people from back home [Indonesia] would be more close-minded because Asian parents typically want their kids to be a doctor, architect, engineering, amongst other things. But when I told people back in Surabaya that I was going to the US to study music, they said: “Good for you!” They’re very supportive, but maybe because they knew me since I was little.
But when I’m in the United States, my peers would ask me where I went to school. When I answered San Francisco Conservatory of Music, they would ask, “Oh you study music? What do you actually study?” Some would even say, “That’s so nice, you only need to play the piano every day.” It’s hard to explain, but the stereotype of pursuing music as an “easy” path is not true. [Pursuing music] is a difficult path to take, and I guess a lot of people just aren’t familiar with [the challenges].
So how do you deal with these stereotypes?
Well, it’s hard. I’d usually answer that I’ve been doing this since I was a kid and that music is my passion. Many people would ask why I didn’t take business or accounting since music was perceived as “just a hobby.” But it’s different for me. I think every person has his or her own place in this world, and if everyone chose to pursue business, no one would be able to provide food or music. God gave me this talent, so I have to use it.
How was the workload in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM)?
The workload was very packed. We also had weekly private lessons like History and Literature, just like other schools. So in addition to practicing every day, we also have essays. Balancing the two was difficult. During my four years, I tried so hard to balance the two without sacrificing one or the other.
Have you ever doubted yourself throughout your college journey?
Definitely yes. During my third year, I had an anxiety attack. When I was sleeping, my heart would race. I couldn’t stop thinking about my lessons. My teacher was very demanding. I was tired, and often wonder if I was good enough. But thankfully, I got through it.
How did you get through your tough times in college?
Being a concert-pianist is a lonely passion. You spend hours and hours a day practicing by yourself. When things aren’t right, it becomes harder because you are by yourself. I enrolled at SFCM’s prestigious Chamber music class during the spring semester [of my junior year]. It was an amazing and life-changing experience because I finally got to work with other musicians in the process. The connection I made with my fellow Chamber group (my cellist and violinist) was really key to healing my stress and anxiety. Rehearsing and coaching with [3 equally passionate musicians] were intense, but super fun. That’s like love in the form of sound!
Did you often compare yourselves to your peers?
All the time. The music community in Surabaya was small, so being a musician there was easier. They’d often praise my performance, saying that it was good enough. But when I arrived [in the US], everyone played just the piano just as good, if not better. I felt small. I didn’t feel special anymore. That really prepared me for the real world because if I’m always at the top, I would never learn anything.
But your hard work paid off because you were selected as the undergraduate speaker for your graduating class! Can you tell us more about the process?
That was really unexpected for me. So the selection was first broadcasted through the school email two months before commencement. The email basically asked students to nominate someone, as long as his or her GPA is above 3.5. What helped me a lot in the selection was my teacher, who nominated me. I guess his vote played a huge role in getting me into the nomination list. There were six people on the final list, and I was the only international student. I was so excited, but honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. The students were asked to vote again. Apparently, they chose me! I’m really grateful.
You decided to go back to Indonesia for good. What’s your plan for the future?
Opening a music school is my long-term goal, but I know I need to start small first by having my own studio. I also want to start holding charity concerts, which first started from a school project. I would give up half of the ticket sales for local schools without art or music subjects in their curriculum. I think music in Indonesia is for the privileged, and only those who have money can afford to have lessons. I believe that arts and music play a really important role in the development of children’s cognitive skills and character. Hopefully, from these charity concerts, I can help donate instruments and hold workshops for them. This is my really long-term goal, and I do realize I still have a long way to go. I don’t want to keep [my talent] to myself. I want to share it with others.
A lot of people wanted to pursue their musical career in the States because it has more opportunities, like if they wanted to make it big in Hollywood. What convinced you to go back?
My heart is just not [in the United States]. I’m really thinking about my own vision and mission, to help underprivileged areas at home. Fame to me is just a bonus, but it’s not what I’m looking for when I decided to pursue music.
Advice for people who wanted to pursue music?
Be fearless. Be reckless. If that’s what you wanted to pursue in your life, then don’t settle for what others want you to do. Young people have nothing to lose, and our superpower is our youth. We’re free to pursue our passion without any burden. We shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes because nobody ever has their success written without failure.