George Ko finds solace as a professional pianist
By Luke Netzley
At a time when the entire world seemed to come to a halt, the pandemic inspired people everywhere to rearrange the hierarchy of needs used to assess what truly matters to them.
Pasadena resident George Ko is no different. He found himself standing at the crossroads of his future.
Ko grew up in Orange County as a first generation American in his family. His parents were Taiwanese immigrants who moved to the United States in the ’70s and ’80s, and always stressed the importance of creating and taking the opportunities that life can present.
“My mom wanted to be a concert pianist growing up. They were so poor she borrowed chalk and then drew all 88 keys on the floor and just imagined what piano would sound like.”
Ko began playing the piano as a child, performing in competitions, and attending weekly piano lessons in Pasadena. He hated it at the time and would even run away from his piano bench. As he continued to play, however, he steadily reached prodigy status. By high school, he had been mentored by pianist pedagogue Cosmo Buono, performed in famous venues like Carnegie Hall, playing in the footsteps of the masters, and had finally begun to feel happy playing the piano.
“Cosmo Buono was the first piano mentor I’d ever met who talked about mental health in the piano world,” Ko says. “He was an advocate not just for me as a piano player, but me as a person. His business partner Barry Alexander is another one of those kinds of people and I’m indebted to both of them.”
After enjoying early success as a young pianist, Ko went on to study economics at Harvard and entered the world of venture capital, taking after his entrepreneurial father. He and two fellow co-founders worked on one of the first Harvard-backed startups and were even featured in the Boston Globe, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“It failed spectacularly, and I was depressed. There was a lot riding on us and a lot of pressure to succeed,” Ko says of the experience, “Then I went to listen to a concert, and they were playing my favorite symphony. A light bulb went off in my head and I said, ‘I want to be a musician.’”
Ko decided to drop out of school to study music for a year, returning to Los Angeles and conducting privately at the Colburn School and with former music director of the Pasadena Symphony, Jorge Mester. He eventually returned to Harvard and majored in music. After graduation, Ko toured as a classical concert pianist for a year and a half.
“I found myself in the classical world, and I was super alone. As a classical pianist, you don’t really have an entourage. When you’re backstage, it’s just you, and the pressure to perform is so high that sometimes you don’t even want people next to you. It just becomes very isolationist, and it’s incredibly competitive.”
This pressure and competitiveness became so unbearable that at one point, Ko recounts, there had been several attempts to try and take his concerts away from him and someone even tried to break his hand so that he could not perform.
“I wasn’t happy, and I couldn’t make music anymore. It just felt dead, so I left that world.”
Ko found solace in the world of media and technology, co-founding a company in Sawtelle with Eric Nakamura, founder of Giant Robot magazine, that supported creatives and artists as well as helped uplift members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. He then went on to work at a robotics startup and took a job at Caltech.
The COVID-19 outbreak changed his life and the lives of so many others around the world. During the pandemic, Ko took an introspective look at himself and what he wanted from his life.
“I did miss playing the piano, but I knew I didn’t want to play classical anymore. I believe classical musicians are the best cover artists of all time, like people today can play Beethoven better than Beethoven played his own music. That’s the level music has gotten to. You can go to a concert hall and listen to someone play Brahms with the most perfect high-fidelity technique. When you can appreciate it at that level, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m witnessing magic.’ But then as a creative, I think, ‘It’s not my music. I’m still telling Beethoven or Chopin’s story.’ I wanted to tell my story my way.”
Though he was playing the piano once more, something felt different. It was this change in mindset that began to mold Ko into a classical improvisation pianist.
“I always wanted to improvise like a jazz player, to play what was in my head. People forget that until Mahler, so until the late 1800s, almost every classical composer improvised, and no concert was the same. No concert had repeat pieces and if you heard Chopin, Beethoven, or Brahms play at a salon, they always improvised. I desperately wanted that skill.”
During the pandemic, Ko’s past colleague Nakamura reached out to him and asked if he would play weekly meditative music on his Instagram profile for the Giant Robot community. Ko agreed, and while he was performing the audience was able to send him song requests. In order to accommodate the requests of the audience, Ko began to improvise his music on the spot.
“That training triggered something in my brain. After about two months of doing that, I started noticing that I could begin to auditorily visualize the entire instrumental arrangement to a song in my head and make sense of where it was on the piano.”
As this new form of performance gradually became instinct, Ko decided that he was going to record a 12-track album and share the process online. He began performing his music on social media platforms like Instagram and Clubhouse and gradually grew his fan base.
“All of these artists I’ve admired my entire life would reach out to me over Instagram, and one even said, ‘We haven’t been able to go to live concerts in so long, so we just put your phone next to a bowl and I had dinner with my husband while watching you play the piano.’”
Ko gained a large online following with fans listening from across several continents through his social media accounts, and as parts of the world began to reopen following the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, he started a live, in-person tour.
“I want to bring accessibility and show that classic music is meaningful, it’s deep, and it’s fun. And I think one of the most fun things to do is take requests from the audience, like a story or mood, or a song from their favorite Spotify playlist, movie, TV show, or video game, and then improvise it live.”
At the age of 29, Ko has toured the west coast of the United States to the east and all the way back across the country again, with a Holiday Residency at Row DTLA planned for December. On February 1, he will travel across the Atlantic for a week-long residency at the Arctic Hideaway in Fleinvær, Norway, where he will also host workshops with guests and composing a new album.
While the road to get to this point in his career was not always clearly laid out before him, Ko was brave enough to believe in his passion and purpose, to leave his steady career path and focus instead on the pursuit of what he truly loved. Though the decision at the time was difficult and there were many moments of hardship along the way, Ko can now look back upon what he has achieved so far and smile. He has become a Young Steinway Artist, performed at Carnegie Hall almost a dozen times, given inaugural concerts for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Bowers Museum, and the Fogg Museum, has performed for the Obama family, been awarded the David McCord Prize from Harvard University in recognition of his musical ability, and is a five-time laureate of the Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition.
“Life is beautiful, even if it’s unpredictable. I don’t know what’s going to happen today, but what I do know is that I can live today and strive to get better every day.”