Nicholas King and The Art of Giving Back

If I had to feature one young person who represents what living a dynamic life in classical music is all about in the 21st Century, it would be Nicholas King. Daring in his entrepreneurial vision and bold in his unusual pathways, he is quickly finding success and recognition both as a pianist and as a mentor to others in the organization he founded, The Art of Giving Back. From a childhood set of charity concerts in the meat department of a local grocery store, to an early appearance on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, to paying his tuition for summer study abroad by selling donuts in high school, Nicholas King is a man and musician who gets his way. Focused, articulate, and passionate, he was a pleasure to join in in conversation this spring at the Slow Train Cafe in Oberlin.

Nicholas King

Where were you born?

I was born and raised in California—I moved around a bit but mainly between Culver City and Marina Del Ray.

How did you come to music? Did you come from a musical family?

Not at all! My musical development was a complete accident. Sometimes I think that I wasn’t supposed to be a musician. I was extremely talented at the Super Nintendo at the age of three – something of a prodigy. My father was on his way to purchase a console when he got lost and passed by a used piano shop. On a whim he decided to buy a yellow upright piano instead of the Super Nintendo. My parents found my first piano teacher in the classifieds of our local newspaper.

Weren’t you disappointed that you got a piano instead of a Super Nintendo system?

I still am—I never got a Super Nintendo! …And those things are worth quite a bit now!

At what point did you realize that piano would become a major part of your life?

I have been hooked for as long as I can remember. According to my mother, I started to get excited about practicing after learning a small and simple tune at the keyboard. I knew that music would become a central theme in my life when I performed the Grieg piano concerto in A minor at the age of 14. I had always loved the piece and remember the feeling of having an orchestra behind me when I started the first note. Something magical happened in that performance – everything came together. It felt like I was flying above the notes, not actually playing them. Every phrase and turn sounded better than I had ever imagined. I was completely immersed in the piece and managed to play the cadenza with more bravura and confidence than ever before. After that performance, I experienced a high that I never knew to be possible. I still think of that as one of the most intense experiences of my life. The idea of feeling that again and being able to share it with others inspires me to practice every day.

Who were your early musical influences in shaping who you became?

It all started with Dawn Emerson – a teacher that I studied with during the first 7 years. Dawn is one of the most kindest and most patient people in the world. She instilled a deep love of music within me. I was such a difficult student! If I grew bored during a lesson I would hop off of the bench and walk into her kitchen to see what food she had. I am deeply indebted to her warm support over the years.

At the age of ten I began studying with Dr. Wojciech Koyan – a fantastic musician and teacher. I will never forget my first lesson with him – I was playing Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca. I was under the impression that I was greatest thing since sliced bread (I received quite a bit of praise as a child) and played the piece at a neck break speed. Dr. Wojciech stood looking out of a window with his hands clasped behind his back when he uttered, “I admire your courage for playing so quickly.” The next seven years of my musical development were crucial. I became much more disciplined.

During my undergraduate studies I was under the tutelage of Marc Durand at The Royal Conservatory of Music – Glenn Gould School. He solidified my foundational understanding of the instrument and the musical building blocks. Marc never compromised on integrity while performing. This is a lesson that has embedded itself deeply into my psyche.

I recently graduated from Oberlin having studied with both Alvin Chow and Angela Cheng. It was a privilege to work at such a high level with two fantastic musicians. I was given a large amount of autonomy and freedom during the program. I will remember my time at Oberlin fondly.

Nicholas King

How did your nonprofit get started? There was a story early on in your childhood that got the idea started for giving back to people?

Like many things in my life, it was a complete accident. I have always been plagued by a terrible case of asthma. From an early age I have been in and out of more hospitals than I can recall because of my silly lungs and their reluctance to work. At the age of seven I learned about Children’s Hospital. I was under the impression that the kids were locked in the hospital until their parents could pay the medical bills. I was outraged! A few weeks (5 days before Christmas) later I was doing some grocery shopping with my family when we passed by a white baby grand piano in the meat department. To this day I still don’t know why anyone would decided to place a piano in between a wall of baloney and a Panda Express, but I digress. I sat and played while my parents finished shopping. Various shoppers gave me tips to play Jingle Bells and Fur Elise – I made $6.25 at the end of the evening. I then told my father that I wanted to donate the money to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. The idea of kids trapped inside of a hospital through Christmas broke my little heart – I thought that the money could help them get home to their families. My father informed me that cash is often stolen from envelopes (great advice) and recommended that I make a larger donation. I took him up on the challenge and returned to the grocery for the next five days and performed from morning to evening. By the arrival of Christmas I had raised $1,500.  I was amazed by the experience – I got to perform (which I LOVE) and was able to inspire people to give to a wonderful cause. I played in a mall for the next two holiday seasons and had raised over $35,000 by the age of nine. I was featured on the Rosie O’Donnell show and in numerous national newspapers. While I enjoyed the attention, the seeing the spark of inspiration in the eyes of others moved me.

I should note that Children’s Hospital is a wonderful organization!

How did you go from there to forming your nonprofit?

After graduating from The Glenn Gould School I took a year out of school to figure out how I wanted my career to develop. After a bit of introspection I realized that the most meaningful venue I had performed in was the meat department of a local grocery store. It had a more profound impact on me than any of my performances in the Walt Disney Concert Hall or Carnegie.

I simply created a list of things that I want to do. It was a short list – perform the music that I love and to help others. The organization was a natural development.

What is Art of Giving Back, and how does it work?

Art of Giving Back is 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that aims to support young classical musicians and give back to the community. We assist young students interested in pursing classical music as a profession and help recent graduates find valuable performance and networking opportunities. Through a nation-wide rotating roster of Volunteer Artists, we hold workshops for K-12 classical musicians, arrange concerts in various community centers and create performance opportunities between our Volunteer Artists and Mentors. Our Volunteer Artists are young musicians between the ages of 20-35 who have graduated from top conservatories around the world. Our Mentors are internationally renowned musicians who volunteer their time and expertise to coach and perform alongside our Artists.

Many of my peers have graduated from top institutions with crippling debt and few perceived professional options. It is my hope that Art of Giving Back will have the ability to help young classical musicians make the transition from a talented conservatory graduate to self-sustaining, established and socially conscious musician. Many of my professors developed their careers in a very different environment and are unable to helpfully advise their students on various career options. Gone are the days where a few competition prizes and an impressive resume will ensure a sustainable career. The combination of skyrocketing tuition prices coupled with the rapidly changing performance market leaves many students unsure of how to proceed once they leave the doors of their prestigious institutions. Many have been told that 8 hours of practicing is the only important thing in their world, and for the 0.001 percent of conservatory graduates this way of thinking is acceptable. For the remaining musicians, the future can seem incredibly bleak. Without a change in thought and action, the future of many of my peers will be hard and difficult. However, I do believe that it is possible for many young musicians to have a successful and thriving career; it simply requires the ability to think and act in a non-conventional way.

Nicholas King

Art of Giving Back is organized around a tiered mentorship model. Our Volunteer Artists assist young K-12 musicians by providing workshops important to their development and growth. A 20-year-old cellist from Colburn is usually able to offer much more relevant career advice to a budding musician enrolled in a Los Angeles arts high school than their 75-year-old private teacher. Additionally, our Mentors may be able to able to advise recent conservatory graduates on how to develop a career better than their private teachers. We are currently planning two concerts with Jeremy Denk and Jennifer Koh who will be playing alongside our Volunteer Artists in New York during the 2015-2016 season.

Conservatories are slowly embracing the fact that their method of preparing graduates for life after school is not entirely effective. However, due to their large size and stubborn embrace of tradition their efforts often help a very small portion of their student body. Every major conservatory now has a career development officer and requires their students to develop biographies and websites. What they fail to do is firmly impress upon their students the importance of thinking in new and creative ways about how to fund their projects, present their music or interact with the community. Networking skills are either overlooked or explained in an overly simplified way that does not always capture the imagination of students. While it is of the upmost importance to refine one’s craft, the years of practicing will be rendered meaningless if there is no one who knows or cares about the art that is being produced.

Musical development will always be a strong passion of mine. Helping young musicians thrive once they leave the comfort of their institution is another. Art of Giving Back embodies the very idea of entrepreneurship and helps to empower musicians with the ability to become self-sufficient and help those around them.

InterviewZsolt Bognar