Your Story: Neil Nguyen

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I’m a piano tutor, living in an overcrowded city with over 8 million people: Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, a developing country in Southeast Asia.

Piano learning is a kind of luxury thing in Vietnam. You will discover why as you read my story …

Slow beginnings in the local children’s center

I was born in Ha Giang, a poor town in Vietnam. My father was a guitarist and the musical director in his university. He just wanted me to play the piano. However, buying a piano or hiring a piano teacher was unaffordable for us.

Moreover, there was no piano (neither acoustic nor digital) in Ha Giang at that time, since it was a poor town. To learn the piano, using a keyboard was the only option. So, when I was 10 years old, my father let me learn keyboard at the Ha Giang Children Centre in the summer. And I learnt here, in the group lesson format, with a keyboard teacher for 3 summers (6 months in total).

In many developing countries, music is treated like a minor subject which could be learned for fun in the summer. Most parents knew very little about music and had no idea about its benefits. They just sent their kids to the Children Center to keep them enjoying social activities in the summer.

Fortunately, my father had a solid musical foundation. He asked my teacher to let me learn the basics of piano playing. As a result, I was the only child in the group who was taught to play scales, read notes in both bass and treble clef, practice etudes and classical pieces – but all of that was on a keyboard!

After 3 summers learning at the local children center, it seemed that my teacher had taught me all the things she knew about the piano. It was time for the next stage in my piano learning journey …

Lonely time at the keyboard

For the next four years, I learnt techniques, theories, and pieces by myself. But all of them were still on a keyboard: a Yamaha PRS-550.

I called this four-year period a lonely time, since all I did was by myself, without any consultation from other musical friends or professionals. I played and listened to myself. I didn’t know if my techniques were right or wrong, or if there were any problems with my performances.

To sum up, I didn’t know what I don’t know. Even if I got feedback, it all came from non-professionals like me. It was an uncertain time.

Normally, if you do something that nobody else around you does, you will be seen as an eccentric and eventually quit. However, because of the basics I had learned, I was eventually able to play the songs that I love.

Since then, my love for music exploded. It was the primary driving force that keeps me practicing without a musical environment. I just played by heart and didn’t worry about others’ opinions.

My music journey would just be on the keyboard until I left my hometown to go to the university in Hanoi…

My first piano, and the struggles…

Here in Hanoi, to have enough money for university tuition and to sustain my living standard, I had to go out, seeking for a job. I began as a maths tutor. And with the small surplus each month, I was finally able to afford a second-hand digital piano. It was a Korg SP-170S costing 500 bucks (please note that the income average of an adult in Hanoi is $400).

Needless to say, I was super excited and spent days and nights on it. However, since I had played the keyboard for seven years, the muscle memory I got from the keyboard went deep in my hands and arms. It was tough for me to get familiar with this new digital piano.

My performances were effortful. My fingers couldn’t move as fast as on the keyboard. I used so much strength of my hands, arms, and fingers. I got tired after playing in just 10 minutes. However, I still believed that with time and patience, I would get hang of the piano soon.

Everyone told me that I should play calmly and be stress-free. Yes, I knew I was too tense, but I just ignored the feedback since it all came from non-professionals, and my ego was too big to accept it! So, I just blindly practiced without any consultation. As a result, my performance was still the same: Too much stress, costing a lot of energy.


A breakthrough – and becoming a piano tutor

At that time, I often went to a coffee shop which has an upright piano. Whenever I came to that shop, I ordered a black coffee and went to the piano immediately.

Although practicing on an acoustic piano is much better than a digital one, I still used a lot of effort in playing.

There was a short girl who always felt uncomfortable while I was practicing. She often came to me and said: “Could turn the volume down or stop playing for a while?”

It hurt me a lot. I got many compliments when I was playing the keyboard.

“Why is this girl so mean?” I asked myself. “Perhaps she just has no knowledge and appreciation of music. So, I will just ignore her and continue my practice session”.

So, I kept practicing and after a while, that girl went out of the coffee shop. Perhaps she couldn’t bear the sound of my playing.

“Ah, finally, I can practice in peace,” I said to myself.

Another day, I encountered her in that coffee shop again. Just like every time, I came to the piano right off the bat. And just about 3 minutes later, she scowled at me: “Could you stop playing right now? Everyone here doesn’t like your sounds!”

I was petrified for a moment. And with all the modesty I could muster, I asked: “You don’t like the piano sounds, do you?”

“Well, not because of the piano sounds but the noises you made from the pedals are giving me a headache,” said the woman in the corner.

“It seems that she’s a professional and could give me some advice,” I thought.

“So, could you teach me how to do it right?” I asked.

“Sure,” said the woman.

Then, she taught me how to press the pedal, how to use fingers smoothly, how to reduce tension, and so on. Later, I know that she was a piano teacher, graduated from the Vietnam National Academy of Music. Needless to say, my musical world was expanded.

From that breakthrough point, my piano techniques and knowledge improved so quickly. And I first became a piano tutor with her help: I got the first student via her referral.

And Now…

After 3 years teaching the piano, I decided to open my own blog to store and share the teaching materials I use to teach my students. Having a blog is also a great way to make connections with other pianists. Networking with other professionals around the world helps me expand my knowledge, become a better piano teacher, and give more to the world.

Since I didn’t get the best education at musical academy, I now spend all of my efforts to help more and more people get access to the piano more easily, and generate interest in them.

It’s the current meaning of my life.

Neil Nguyen

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.

2 thoughts on “Your Story: Neil Nguyen”

  1. Wonderful story. I am a pretty mediocre pianist but it remains one of the great pleasures in my life. I can always play and there is a place I go in my mind and heart that speaks without words.

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