Recently, we had the opportunity to catch up with 2009 collegiate gold medalist from the Seattle International Piano Competition, Christopher McKiggan. We spoke last with Dr. McKiggan in 2015 during the planning phase of Resonance of Hope, a collaborative project of original compositions by artists of disparate states, politically, who were asked to write a work based on the folk music of the country that was the focus of conflict. You can read more about that interview and project here. Since then, he has returned to his native Thailand with a very ambitious list of projects and endeavors under his belt.
Today, we get an update from Dr. McKiggan:
Christopher Bowlby: It’s great to see you again! Last we spoke you were preparing Resonance of Hope. A lot has happened since then. Tell us, what have you been up to since?
Christopher McKiggan: After my doctoral studies at Rice University, I returned to Thailand. I did some private teaching and countless videography projects. I was completely overwhelmed with my teaching. It was a totally new experience for me. Frankly, I really didn’t know what I was doing when I first got into it, but I felt compelled to give the younger generation a higher level of opportunities than was available when I grew up.
CB: What did you like about teaching?
CM: It is challenging and an entirely new field. I was applying various methodologies that I had researched and studied, but I really didn’t understand the psychology of my students when I first started.
Ivona Kaminska: Teaching can be quite daunting. Did you teach privately at home?
CM: I did whatever I could. However, a new opportunity opened up. A colleague of mine, Dr. Pornphan Banternghansa — a very successful and known teacher here — and I collaborated by starting a new music school. At first, Dr. Banternghansa asked me to teach one of his very gifted students. I began teaching Ariya Laothitipong. It was a breakthrough moment in my teaching, and I was given a chance to work with a student who had all the elements there. She was gifted and attentive and had the support of great parents. I began to understand what young people were capable of doing. Then I co-taught another student, Chindanai. It was revelatory.
IK: What is the name of the school?
CM: It is Piano Academy of Bangkok. We have over 200 students and thirty teachers.
CB:That is fantastic! How has the reception been, other than in new students? And what makes your academy different than others?
CM: There are many schools. The competition has really grown in the last many years, so we are not unique as a music institution here in terms of numbers. There is a new class of parent wanting a great education for their children — the things I mentioned that were unavailable when I was a young pianist and learner. I would say we are very unique in our approach. It comes down to our co-teaching environment. We are teaching collaborators.
IK: What does that mean?
CM: Essentially, it is not unlike the master class platform, but our school is centered around that idea. Students come to PAB knowing that they will have the opportunity to study with many teachers. Students studying with me get to study with Dr. Banternghansa or any of the other incredible teachers that we have, and vice a versa.
IK: That sounds incredible. It does make me wonder — how do you all get along with each other? How do you not step on one another’s toes, so to speak?
CM: Understandably, all pianists and artists are sensitive. But from the outset, we all understand this is a collaborative effort. We always strive to make it a positive experience for our students. And of course we might have a different idea, say, about fingering. We are all very open. And before I might get into suggesting a new fingering that is quite different, I will go to the other teacher and we discuss the student in question. There is always some insight there that I might not have considered, because of course that teacher has more contact with the student than I might. The end result opens students up to more ideas and they are more open to the collaborative experience, which can be against the grain of most of us as individual artists — based on our own cloistered experience. Most young people’s mindset is different.
IK: Interesting. We are curious of what role competitions fill in music education in Bangkok. Is that something students and parents are seeking?
CM: Any experience can be beneficial when approached correctly. Particularly, competitions have their place within music education. The PAB sends many students to competitive events based on their needs and experience, from the small local festival all the way to the larger international competition. These events have become incredibly beneficial tool during these COVID times!
IK: That is certainly true with fewer opportunities to perform in concert. How do you handle the inevitable disappointment regarding competition results?
CM: Disappointment is impossible to avoid completely. If the mindset of approaching the event is not about winning or losing, but rather that what you send in is your own very best, this is an important step. We try to impress upon these young artists that it’s something you want to do — something you want to say, artistically — rather than for the purpose of pleasing a juror. You may not get a prize. But then you move on. Sometimes it’s just not possible to avoid the disappointment. But then there is the harder lesson to be learned. This way, every experience can be of benefit.
IK: How do you balance being an artist with what you are doing with the school?
CM: I am busy all the time! In addition to the co-teaching and school, I launched the Chris the Pianist Production Company. I scaled up my video production from the times when we last spoke to a higher level. Dealing with sets now, a full crew, controlling that everything works together to create one final product has been a tremendous learning experience for me.
CB: That is a unique direction as a successful business owner in addition to being an artist. But again, how do you make that all work?
CM: Keeping busy actually helps me to make it all work. Learning how to deal with the many moving parts of the production company and timelines just makes me feel more alive. You would be surprised how these lessons carry into my teaching and how much it allowed me to understand the students’ psychology better. The latter part of the work week is devoted to students, and the weekends and early part of the week to my production company. It really works for me.
IK: So, thinking back to your participation in the 2009 SIPF. How did that help you to get where you are today?
CM: It was like a graduation event to get to the next level for me. The advantage was that the barrier for entry was much smaller than the larger counterparts among competitions out there. There is very little middle ground between the smaller and the well-established large competitions. The SIPC filled that role. Cash prizes are always going to attract talent, but at the same time, the Seattle International does not have as many hurdles imposed on preparation due to the programing requirements. It’s a unique balance point.
IK: The experience itself is a barrier for those without the means and resources to travel and stay in a city. This can be very costly and prohibitive.
CM: That’s exactly right. What happens when you do not advance? You may have a long hotel stay with nothing to do, and ticket out of there far later when you get eliminated early on. It leaves you with lots of time to take a walk and think!
IK: Since your visit, the SIPC has gone to an exclusively blind process. During the final round, jurors are seated behind a screen. We even have a runner carpet to hide the footwear of the participant.
CM: Both experiences have their place. It is so important to hear the subtle nuances of sound, and be pulled in by the depth of the music-making when you’re not distracted by the visual medium. The other side is valid as well — that the visual is part of the experience. Something would be lost without screened competitions, I feel. Without them, it would eliminate opportunities for those without the same sort of flashy on-stage presence many come to expect. Having that opportunity for those with a different sort of voice is a very good thing.
IK: We really enjoy seeing how the judges react when the blinders are removed when we announce the winners at the end of the festival. Of course, they cannot put a name to a performance in their memory unless we announce significant works performed while we read off each name. Their expressions are wondrous.
What other artistic endeavors have consumed your time? Tell us about your production company.
CM: For me, this started with the simplicity of the whole YouTube phenomenon. In 2014 I began to experiment with more advanced camera angles and advanced editing techniques. I was doing everything myself with what I had on hand. I learned Adobe editing. At first I had a basic approach to lighting. I tried to force myself through this huge learning curve. Over the years, I honed my craft until the videos started to use drones and more advanced lighting and multiple cameras.
Then a funny thing happened. I was actually approached and asked to direct a very complicated video. I said to myself, Okay, sure. I guess I can do that. But what do I know about directing a video?
I arrived on the set not knowing what to do or what a director actually does. What’s the scene? What happens next? I was overwhelmed by it all. I just kept my composers and started putting it together. “Okay, actor B, you will stand over there — and… ACTION!”. My first experience was intense. I learned how to manage a crew — everything! We had make-up, camera crews, lighting, ten actors, including four-year olds. This was a real breakthrough and what later allowed me to work with my students on a deeper level. I learned how to speak to the kids to get them to do what I wanted. The more they worked with me, the more they reciprocated. After the shoot and edit of this directorial debut, we had 40 million views.
This eventually led to my production company. To this day, we have done commercials, video products, promotion, and everything you can think of.
The experience working with young kids made me start to appreciate how to approach working with younger students. That really marked the most significant change in my practical teaching skills — to approach things from the kids’ point of view, rather than from the point of view of the score and music, which is something they cannot so easily relate to without a more mature experience.
IK: Sometimes really talented students contemplate college admission into music programs. You have invested so much in them, but they are unsure if they should pursue a career in the music world. It is so competitive and requires so much support on a certain level. What do you advise to those who love music but have their doubts on whether or not they can succeed?
CK: If they are passionate, anyone can find a way to make it work without any issues, and even make a decent living of it. There is actually no problem. However, if they approach it as expecting everything to be presented on a silver platter for their benefit, that’s the wrong approach, because it simply will not happen. They have to make it happen. That’s true in any discipline, whether being a medical doctor, computer science, or whatever. Be certain to love what you do, whatever it happens to be. Or, if it is a career they can enjoy to a point and still have time to make music, then do that. Don’t ever let the pressure of “you must do this or you won’t eat” stand in your way. There are opportunities enough for everyone if you take the time to find your path and make it work.
IK: It has been great to catch up after these years and to see how successful you have become! Congratulations on your recent marriage.
CK: Likewise! It’s been a pleasure.