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Graduating senior plans musical interlude

Graduate Christine Chiu plans to spend the next two years working full time on the piano, thanks to an American Dream Fellowship.
Graduate Christine Chiu plans to spend the next two years working full time on the piano, thanks to an American Dream Fellowship.
Photo / Donna Coveney

It was love at first sight when graduating senior Christine Chiu saw her first piano 20 years ago at her older sister's lesson.

Though her sister has long since abandoned the instrument, Chiu's love has only grown. Now, thanks to a two-year, $20,000 American Dream Fellowship from the Merage Foundation, she will be able to pursue her musical dreams full time.

The fellowship, which is only available to recent immigrants, will give Chiu the opportunity to nurture her musical passion full time before heading off to medical school.

"I would like to learn to play Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto," said Chiu. The piece is especially challenging for the smaller-boned Chiu, who mentioned the piece in her application for the fellowship. "You need large hands to play the piece," she explained.

Chiu does not shy away from challenges -- musically or academically. When she was 12, she moved to the United States from Taiwan. Her family settled in Hacienda Heights, Calif.

"My parents wanted us to grow up in a more balanced environment where it was not just about the academics," Chiu said. Though she excelled academically, Chiu felt free to pursue her other interests, she said. She picked up the flute and also played tennis.

Still, the piano remained her first love, she said. Chiu pursued piano through much of high school, even competing, until her parents asked that she stop and focus on other activities. "I did miss piano," Chiu said.

For Chiu, who had excelled all her life, arriving at MIT four years ago was a shock. Surrounded by so many intelligent people, Chiu wanted a way to stand out. It was her talent for playing that helped. "Piano helps me feel OK about myself. It makes me feel like I can do something special," Chiu said.

She decided to audition for an Emerson Music Scholarship through MIT that paid for her private piano instruction. "That is how I have been keeping my piano up ever since," said Chiu, who practices at least one hour a day during noncompetition times, but she can spend upwards of four hours a day perfecting her technique before a performance.

For the next two years, Chiu plans to use the fellowship money to focus all of her energy on her art. She will offer piano lessons to recent immigrants so they can have the kind of experience she has had in the United States.

"I think music can really help people express themselves," Chiu said. "I know it is something that has always helped me."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 2006 (download PDF).

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