Arcadia Performing Arts Center’s Maki Hsieh wants to bring arts education to all area kids, regardless of income.

When Maki Hsieh introduced New Moon at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center (APAC) last month, the audience was able to thrill to her clear, classically trained soprano tones and her virtuoso violin playing. Hsieh’s new album includes a piece inspired by life in the Pasadena area, and she also hopes to inspire Arcadians toward greater immersion in the arts.
Hsieh says she gave her new album a lunar title because “a new moon is rare and the album presents a new artist, new ideas, new awakenings.” You might already be familiar with Hsieh’s work — her dubstep violin and vocal remix of the Skrillex song “Kyoto” was No. 1 on Los Angeles, U.S. and global electronic music charts for five weeks; she followed that up with her remix of Seven Lions’ “Isis.”
While Hsieh performed her entire album, she also noted in an interview that some of her older fans come to hear her rendition of “Ave Maria” as well as crowd favorites such as “Phantom of the Opera” and The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” Hsieh also planned something for young people: a segment with a rock band and dance crew. There will even be a bit of San Gabriel Valley color in her original composition, “Shabu Shabu Love Song,” inspired by so-called “parachute kids” — Asian minors, predominantly Taiwanese, whose parents park them in the U.S. to be educated.
Hsieh has come to know many of them in her first year as executive director of the Arcadia Performing Arts Center, the five-year-old addition to Arcadia High School that presents drama, dance and music performances. As executive director of the center, she knows Arcadia’s got talent, but talent still needs to be nurtured. Each year, about 1,350 students train there in various aspects of entertainment, from performance to administration. Most other similar organizations, like the Broad Stage at Santa Monica College, are in collegiate settings. But Arcadia High School’s arts programs stand out — it has a nationally recognized marching band, three concert bands, three symphony orchestras, three percussion ensembles, six performing and competition choral groups plus dance and theater productions.
The Arcadia center provides what amounts to “a daily classroom,” in addition to their regular schooling, for performing arts students, Hsieh says. She’s familiar with the program from a parental perspective as well. Her older daughter, Camilla, made full use of her arts education at Arcadia High, although she was “never really serious with entertainment” as a career. Camilla spent 40 hours a week at the center in rehearsals and with various musical groups on top of a full load of AP classes, Hsieh says. Where did Camilla’s strong arts foundation lead? To a full academic scholarship at UC Berkeley — in environmental sciences.
“Our problems are so complex that there is no simple solution anymore. Multifaceted issues can only be solved by multifaceted and creative thinkers,” she says, adding that Camilla is “my poster child” for making a great arts education more attractive, even for students planning careers outside the arts. Her younger daughter, Aubrey, is only in the third grade, but she loves to sing and plays a pink violin. She was cast as one of four Chips in Arcadia High School’s March production of Beauty and the Beast. Their father, Michael E. Leonard (Hsieh divorced in 2010), is also artistic — he’s a prominent medical illustrator.
As both a parent and an educator, Hsieh is concerned about “a huge disparity in arts education” according to neighborhood income levels. From interviews with teachers, she found “so many potholes in the system” because “we can tell which child came from which middle school just on their arts education.” Athletics are often in the same situation. In less affluent areas, many parents aren’t available to teach after-school classes or can’t afford music or dance lessons for their children. In high schools, arts programs mostly benefit from tenured teachers. “There’s investment at the high school level, but a huge problem at K through 8” where “arts education is not integrated into the curriculum.” Often Title 1 schools have nothing. “Three Title 1 schools didn’t even have a choir,” Hsieh says.
The Arcadia Performing Arts Foundation, which operates APAC, “is in the business of developing talent at a young age,” because without that background, “children will lose their competitive advantage,” Hsieh says. “We’re a cultural destination, a youth incubator. We make great art accessible. We believe all children ought to receive the same quality of arts education regardless of your family zip code.”
But she acknowledges that challenges persist. For one thing, she’s working against certain cultural traditions in Arcadia, which is 59 percent Asian. “Asians do not want their children to go into the arts as a career unless that is the only thing you can do,” Hsieh says. In the past, “if your family was very, very poor, you would sell your child to a theater troupe. A lot of Americans are surprised at the Chinese Olympic teams where a child has been training since 12 years old.” But, Hsieh says, sports are enshrined in Chinese culture, while the Chinese language has a telling derogatory term for arts students — “theater child.”
Still, Hsieh is optimistic about changing minds here. “Arcadia is very passionate about arts education, but we don’t have the funding right now,” she says. “The foundation’s vision is No. 1: engagement with our community, building loyalty and excitement. That means the second goal is fundraising for equipment.” Third is creating a regional Arcadia choir where, for $25 per month, children can have their “first entry into music” and “an opportunity to perform with a professional orchestra each year.” That means launching an arts education campaign and even an endowment. The plans are ambitious but, Hsieh says, “We hope that the community will come along with us.”
Hsieh understands cross-cultural communication because she’s a product of it — her name reveals that her mother was Japanese and her father was Taiwanese Chinese, and she was raised as a U.S. citizen in both countries. Her mother taught Japanese language and culture, and her father was a businessman, but they also appreciated the arts. Her father was “an amazing tenor” and her mother was a master teacher of ikebana. “The feeling of art in my family is that it’s a part of the everyday. There is not this huge dichotomy” separating art from daily life. “I was encouraged at a very young age to explore the arts.”
Her mother once scolded her for mechanically playing her musical scales because “it needs to have emotion” — her mother told her to “play the scale like a human being.”
Born in Taiwan and educated at the Taipei American School, she later attended Phillips Academy Andover, a top boarding school in Massachusetts. There she was “really able to explore what Taiwan wasn’t able to offer,” including such American art forms as musical theater and jazz. But she also came to understand that she was partially deaf — something that in Taiwan her mother had confronted with angry denials. When a school nurse noted Hsieh’s deafness, her mother insisted “she’s normal” because she was “afraid of losing face.” Hsieh’s mother “never talked to me about it,” she says, but she learned the truth at age of 15, at boarding school. By then, she was already compensating.
“You sense things in a different way when you’re semi-deaf,” she says. For her, “everything has a vibration; everything has a frequency.” And these are two different things. “Vibration is movement of energy; frequency is how high or low. I hear the vibration of the lightbulb. That’s why I practice in the dark. I turn off the refrigerator. Otherwise, I can’t focus on my voice and my violin.”
At boarding school, she says, she learned that “the American spirit is robust and very brave. It attacks classical conventions with new ideas.” In Chinese culture the “fear of failure drives everything.” But in America, “if you fail, you get up and try again.”
Hsieh tried everything from sports to music. At boarding school, she was concertmaster of two orchestras and received the Andover Music Prize. Although she trained with violinist Berl Senofsky at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory, she graduated from Johns Hopkins as a sociology major in pre-med, winning the Hopkins Prize for inner-city research. She explained, “The more things you did, the more friends you make.” Hsieh went on to compete at the prestigious Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Belgium; sing the national anthem for Major League Baseball; appear in A Song for Manzanar (2015), a short film about a Japanese internment camp in California that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival; and perform in more than 300 festivals, venues and arenas, including Special Olympics World Games, StubHub Center and Las Vegas Motor Speedway for 100,000 Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) fans. Not to mention a contestant stint on NBC’s America’s Got Talent.
Being artistic is “a way of life,” Hsieh says. “It’s in the way you talk, the way you walk, the way you engage your friends. Everything you do should be infused with an artistic elegance.”