Yew Choong Cheong, a West Virginia University student who plays and studies classical piano despite a loss of hearing, recently won the 2007 International Young Soloists Award given by VSA arts.
The international, nonprofit organization was founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith to create a society where all people with disabilities learn through, participate in and enjoy the arts.
As one of four award recipients from around the world to receive this honor, Cheong will play at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on March 21. He will also receive a $5,000 scholarship to assist with his career and studies in music.
Cheong, who is pursuing a doctorate in musical arts in the WVU Division of Music in the College of Creative Arts, studies under the tutelage of Professor Peter Amstutz. He considers the selection — the first for a WVU student — a great honor.
“This award is by far the biggest achievement I’ve ever had in my life,” Cheong said. “Receiving this recognition certainly motivates me to keep doing the one thing I love the most, playing piano. I really wish to dedicate this award to everyone with disabilities. Nothing is impossible if they have the necessary passion and perseverance in pursuing their goals.”
Cheong is also a graduate assistant and teaches applied piano to others while assisting with tuning and maintaining the University’s piano inventory. At the Kennedy Center, Cheong will perform “Piano Variations” by Aaron Copland and Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6.”
“It’s a joy to see Yew Choong do so well,” Professor Amstutz said.
“This is quite an accomplishment, and it’s especially amazing with his specific circumstances and the challenges he’s overcome. He’s a brilliant student — both academically and at the piano, and I’m very happy for him.”
Cheong has a form of nerve deafness. He can read lips and carry on a spirited conversation, but his hearing impairment is so severe that he cannot use a telephone. He rents a room from Ed Keller, a professor emeritus in the University’s Department of Biology.
“The magnitude of Yew Choong winning this award is incredible,” said Keller, who is well known for his life-long work to obtain funding and support for students with disabilities.
Cheong was born in 1978 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He started playing piano at the age of six at the urging of his mother. When he was about eight years old, a viral infection damaged his left ear. Ever since, he has worn hearing aids.
Despite his severe hearing loss, Cheong continued to study piano, working with P’ng Tean Hwa, a professor at University College Sedaya International. P’ng also earned his doctorate of musical arts degree at WVU as a student of Amstutz.
Although he admits initially disliking piano lessons as a child, Cheong remembers a special day when he was about 14 when he listened to Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Bagatelle in E-flat.”
“I suddenly fell in love with the music for the first time,” Cheong said of that day. “Since then, I became very curious and obsessed with classical music.”
Beethoven, who also suffered from hearing loss, is Cheong’s favorite composer.
“I always feel a sense of kinship with Beethoven,” Cheong said. “I admire his perseverance in doing what he really wanted. His music is not always about struggle, but it often speaks about a strong will to overcome any circumstance. Yet there is an inexplicable calmness and depth in his music. I always feel Beethoven telling me himself, ‘Accept your flaw. Know who you are.'”
In 2001 Cheong was awarded a full scholarship to WVU, followed by graduate assistantships, to continue his musical studies. Playing piano doesn’t come easy, says
Cheong, who in recent years has experienced bouts of sudden hearing loss in both ears. He admits he has difficulty recognizing pitches of high frequency.
“I’m still able to hear physically with the help of hearing aids, and play whatever I feel, right from my heart,” he said.
Cheong said understanding speech is more difficult for him than listening to instrumental music because of different intonations among people. He uses computer software to assist him in tuning pianos.
“I’ll try to hear the ‘vibration’ of the pitch,” he said. “If the piano sounds ‘calm,’ then it’s in tune. That’s how I work with tuning.”
Cheong has won numerous prizes, including the 2002 Music Teachers National Association Collegiate Artist Piano Competition in West Virginia. He was one of the selected soloists in WVU’s annual Young Artists Auditions in 2003, playing Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto No. 1” with the WVU Symphony Orchestra.
He has been selected to perform in master classes at the University, and he has also participated in the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes
College of Music in 2004 and the Forum Internacional de Musica Barcelona
Ciutat in Barcelona, Spain in 2005.
Cheong has completed all of his doctoral course work at WVU and plans to graduate in spring 2008. One of his dreams is to organize a piano festival in his hometown where professors and pianists are invited to perform and give master classes to promote the appreciation of classical music and piano among the public.
“I wish to extend my deepest gratitude to my parents for their love and support,” Cheong said. “I also want to thank Dr. P’ng Tean Hwa, my former teacher in Malaysia – without whose encouragement I could never have made it to the United States to study; Dr. Peter Amstutz, for his invaluable teaching and support; Dr. Edward Keller; and Tim Richards, the piano technician at the Creative Arts Center, for teaching me how to tune and regulate pianos.”