Podcast: For aspiring triple major, classical piano is a way of life

This is an episode of Fiat Vox, a podcast that brings you news from, for and about UC Berkeley. Following is a written version of the audio piece. 


christopher richardson playing piano

Christopher Richardson, a sophomore triple major at UC Berkeley, has been competing on classical piano since he was 9 years old. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

Christopher Richardson has been playing the piano since he was 8 years old. He’s a sophomore at UC Berkeley, and intends to triple major in music, economics and molecular and cell biology. He’s on the pre-med track and is considering going into oncology.

His family loves piano — they have six, three of them are in their living room alone. So naturally they encouraged him to take up the instrument.

Like anything, learning piano was tough at first. One of the first songs he learned was the “Star Wars” theme.

But after he won his first performance competition at 9, he was hooked. Since then, he’s competed more than 50 times.

“And I keep entering more competitions, and it gets more fun, and I get better at performing in front of crowds, and I think I’m definitely going to keep doing this no matter what happens.”

In November, he won first place in California in the Music Teachers National Association young artists piano competition. He played a Beethoven and a Chopin sonata. In 2016, he won nationals in the high school division for the best performance of a piece by Chopin.

“When I’m performing, I feel like that’s the time I can really speak out. From the heart. Even more than when I’m practicing, I feel like I’m actually conveying what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking.”

And it really shows when he’s playing. The way he closes his eyes and moves with the music, it looks like he’s being transported to another place.

“For me, especially in romantic-era pieces, that really kind of make you sad, but in a good way sad, and it’s kind of cathartic after a while…  It can invoke some pretty strong emotions sometimes.”

Christopher Richardson playing piano

Christopher Richardson has competed in at least 50 classical competitions. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Richardson)

Richardson applied to a dozen prestigious universities and got into almost all of them. The decision came down to Berkeley, Julliard and the Peabody Conservatory of the John’s Hopkins University, where he received the rare invitation to study under renowned pianist Leon Fleisher.

But he chose Berkeley, he says, because it offered a well-rounded experience — he could study music, complete his pre-med requirements and major in economics, a subject he adores. And he’s from the Bay Area — he grew up in Danville — and wanted to stick close to home and his family.

He says playing the piano has helped him succeed academically. “I’ve done a lot of research about how music has benefits — cognitive and social — to the human brain, and to a person in general. It correlates to having higher SAT scores, higher GPAs.”

In January, he’ll compete in regionals in the young artists piano competition, and nationals will be held in Florida in the spring. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that piano is here to stay.