Andrew Hsu, His Parents, 2 Siblings and 3 Pianos: The Millennial Von Trapps
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the same family that drives you bonkers might be your best bet at having a no-fee life coach.
By Melissa Pandika
Edward Hsu was driving his kids home one evening when his 11-year-old, Andrew, piped up to complain: “Dad, we don’t learn anything in school.” Teachers plodded for hours through material they already knew, leaving scant time for music, he said, and his older sister, Ashley, and little brother, Daniel, backed him up. “Can we just do school at home?” Andrew asked.
That fateful car trip began a kind of family odyssey — a decadelong, DIY music residency — and today it looks something like this: Three siblings are done with high school before age 16. All of them are enrolled at one of the top music academies in the world. All of them, along with mom and dad, uprooted from Fremont, California, to Philadelphia and are living under one roof, along with three pianos. “We’re like three parts of the same person,” Daniel says of his siblings.
But all the Hsus agree that Andrew shines especially bright. Now a grad student at the Curtis Institute of Music, which groomed Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber, the 20-year-old phenom has earned a slew of accolades: Rising Star Annual Fellow at Curtis, fellowships at Tanglewood and prizes and awards across the country. Come autumn, he’ll embark on a master’s program in composition at Juilliard. But while Andrew’s talents are undeniable, he’s also keenly aware of his family’s hand in seeding and cultivating them.
If one plunked the wrong note, the others didn’t hesitate to correct: “E-flaaaaaaat!”
Andrew Skypes from the Hsus’ tiny, cluttered townhouse with pumpkin-painted walls. Wiry, with bushy, expressive brows and a shock of black hair, he talks almost breathlessly fast and gesticulates in sweeping, balletic arcs. Those who know him call him “spongelike,” able to write fluently in any music style as effortlessly as he expounds on the rise of the Ottomans, ant colonies and the origin of bananas.
Andrew traces the music gene to his father, who won a national violin title in Taiwan when he was 9. Although Edward Hsu chose a career in consulting, his love for classical music endured, and he made a tradition of letting his kids pick the dinner soundtrack. Andrew naturally became “designated DJ,” says Daniel. “He’s definitely the driver.”
Edward had dreamed of RV trips to national parks instead of orchestra practice; he did not want to push them toward anything. But one day, 9-year-old Ashley pleaded to her mother for piano lessons. She immersed herself in playing, and her younger brothers followed in turn. They offered one another fresh ears, and accompaniment in playing the orchestral parts. If one plunked the wrong note, the others didn’t hesitate to correct: “E-flaaaaaaat!”
He feels chords as textures in his fingertips.
But unlike his siblings, Andrew didn’t just play notes; he arranged them in his head. During his first composition lesson, the instructor asked the 10-year-old to write a song — without touching the keys. That meant lifting the piano lid and plucking or sweeping a hand across the steel strings, or interspersing them with paper and other objects. It “opened a whole new world… of timbre, shape, gesture,” Andrew says. Instead of emulating the masters, he “became an alchemist of sound.”
Andrew begins composing by feeling an emotion that he then unspools into a narrative. He experiences synesthesia — a phenomenon in which stimulating one sense triggers another; he feels chords as textures in his fingertips, helpful for fleshing out a piece. A photo of a truck climbing a narrow mountain pass in Hokkaido, Japan, with colossal snowbanks on either side, inspired “Frostfallen,” a recent piece. “It’s cold, as one can imagine … but it struck another emotion — this idea of reaching nirvana,” he says, sweeping his arms dramatically upward toward his chest. The piece opens with high sharps and shrill trumpets that “feel” pointed and icy, followed by a warm release of strings, the trumpets muted.
Andrew has “all of the tools to be a genius,” says David Ludwig, dean of artistic programs at Curtis. But he warns that “times have changed” since Mozart, who penned his first symphony at 8 and remains a kind of gold standard for musical genius. With many more techniques to learn, now most composers don’t emerge until their 20s. “His repertoire is still rather small so it’s a little hard to tell where he’s going,” says Joseph Church, a composition faculty member at NYU. Still, “he’s remarkably talented.”
He writes best at night, in the bedroom he shares with Daniel. Sometimes he rouses his little brother at 1 am. to ask which arrangement has a better effect. Their parents followed the boys to Curtis, worried because they were so young. (Andrew entered at 14.) Homesick, Ashley transferred from Juilliard to Curtis soon after.
It’s not unusual for musical giftedness to run in families. After all, “they share genes and they share interests,” says Joanne Ruthsatz, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, citing the Osmonds and the Jackson 5. Whether parents or kids find it stifling or stimulating depends on their temperament. Andrew’s mother, Sue, doesn’t feel burdened by chauffeuring her children to and from lessons and rehearsals (they still can’t drive) or moving across the country. “It’s an adventure,” she says.
As for Andrew, he’s so used to growing up surrounded by family that he’s learned to create his own solitude, filtering out Ashley and Daniel even as they all practice at the same time. He expects that starting at Juilliard in the fall will feel “liberating.” Although it’ll mark the first time the family has lived apart, he knows their bond is an unwavering constant.
- Melissa Pandika, OZY AuthorContact Melissa Pandika