When Joshua Kyan Aalampour was 16, he taught himself to play the piano using a cheap 61-key keyboard and videos on YouTube. Four years later, Joshua is a music student at UC Berkeley. He has performed his work at Lincoln Center, written a symphony and composed a score for a feature-length film. He teaches music to students around the world. He performs a new piece for TikTok every day. All while taking at least 26 credits each semester so that he can graduate this May — two years early.
Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode #90: “From a $16 keyboard to a symphony.”
Narration: Joshua Kyan Aalampour took his first — and last — piano lesson when he was 16. It was 2017. He was in the basement of a building in Jinan, a city in eastern China, where he and his family had moved from New Jersey six years earlier when he was 10.
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: Like, all the other students are waiting behind you while your class is happening. So, there was that element of pressure. And it was also kind of embarrassing because I was 16 and everyone else was like half my age. So, I’m like, “Oh, God, I better not mess up.” But, of course, I did.
Narration: Joshua didn’t even want to learn piano. But his parents really wanted him to, so he went to make them happy. When it was his turn, he walked up, sat down and the teacher asked him to sight-read a piece of music. But he didn’t know how.
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: She brought up this point that I didn’t know how to read sheet music and was saying a bunch of things like, “You’ll never be able to do this and that.” So, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to try and learn the piano without learning sheet music,” which I thought was the best revenge idea ever at the time.
Narration: So, he went home, pulled out a little 61-key keyboard that his father had bought for $16, and set out to learn to play on his own. Joshua was home-schooled, so he had a lot of time during the day to practice.
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: So, I set aside an average of about six hours a day. There are these videos on YouTube called Synthesia videos, or MIDI videos, where it shows this keyboard, and it has these little lasers going down so you see how a piece of music is played, instead of reading traditional music notation.
Narration: After two weeks, Joshua composed his first piece, a three-minute bagatelle called “Reverie.”
[Music: “Reverie” by Joshua Kyan Aalampour]
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: I would just play it for hours on end, and I’d forget that I’m in Jinan, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m in, like, 18th century Paris or something,” as corny as that sounds.
Narration: Four years later, at age 20, Joshua is a second-year music student at UC Berkeley. He has performed his work at Lincoln Center, written a symphony and composed a score for a feature-length film. He teaches music to students around the world. He performs a new piece for TikTok every day. All while taking at least 26 credits each semester so that he can graduate this May — two years early.
This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.
Anne Brice: What do you like to play the most? What do you just automatically sit down and play when you’re not thinking about anything, you’re just going?
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: I like improvising waltzes a lot of times. Waltzes are pretty fun.
Like, when the left hand is doing something like this …
[Music: Joshua plays piano]
… The right hand just, like, does whatever it wants.
[Music: Joshua plays piano]
It’s very like, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s very flowing a lot of the time.
Narration: We’re in a practice room in Morrison Hall on campus. Well, Joshua is. I’m on a computer screen watching.
[Music: Joshua plays an improvisation of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on piano]
He’s playing a Steinway baby grand — a piano he loves.
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: The whole concept of a practice room is so new to me. The first day when I got my card and got access to these practice rooms, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I was like, “Oh, there’s a Yamaha in this one. There’s a Steinway in this one. There’s a Young Chang in this one. I was like, “Oh, my God, there are so many.”
[Music: Joshua plays improvisation of “Happy Birthday” on piano]
Narration: Since Joshua started at Berkeley in 2020, he has taken several classes with Robert Yamasato, a lecturer in music theory and musicianship. The two of them share an unusual musical background.
Robert Yamasato: I, like Joshua, was pretty much self-taught. I started composing before I took formal lessons, and I began relatively late in life. My first formal lesson was at age 15 on piano, and I just loved it so much.
Narration: Yamasato grew up on the Big Island in Hawaii in a town of 8,000, surrounded by cows and the beach. He went to a small private school that didn’t have an extensive music program.
Robert Yamasato: I think I heard maybe classical music earlier on, but I didn’t really kind of gravitate towards that until middle school. And then I asked my mom if we could get a tape — we had tapes back then, of course — a tape of a few Beethoven piano sonatas and then I started to kind of improvise on my own.
Narration: Yamasato received his Ph.D. in music composition from Berkeley in 2012. He has been teaching in the music department for 17 years, first as a graduate student and then as a lecturer.
He has taught Joshua in four classes: composition, counterpoint, harmony and musicianship. He says Joshua, like many composers, is a free spirit.
Robert Yamasato: He’s moving to the beat of his own drum, which is great. And which ultimately… I think, in some respects, composition and academia … it’s not the perfect marriage because academia requires a certain degree of rigor and order and sequence. Sometimes for composition, you have to be more whimsical and you have to follow new avenues wherever they take you.
Anne Brice: When you’re teaching students, and you say that people draw inspiration from all different things and they’re creative in all different ways, what is your kind of guiding philosophy when you’re teaching composition?
Robert Yamasato: Yeah. So, when it’s composition, specifically composition, I’m really trying to make them understand how to achieve what they want to achieve. It’s really about them and not about any other external material that I may be imposing on them. I want to clarify that not all composition teachers think about composition this way.
But for me, we have students composing in all different types of styles and genres. They have to find what they want to write. That may seem like the easiest thing in the world, but it’s actually the most difficult thing in the world: to find out who you are as a composer. That’s a lifelong process, just finding who you are. What makes you you? What makes the music that you’re producing Joshua? And that’s very difficult. And that’s something that we try to strive for.
Narration: Yamasato says that there’s this romantic idea of an individual artist isolating in a cabin in the woods and producing work. But, he says, it’s not necessarily how the most creative music is made.
Robert Yamasato: I think most people would now feel that collaboration is very important, not only to exchange ideas, but actually to work on a project together — especially now that I think the definition of a composer is becoming extremely fluid.
One reason for this is there are many composers with interests in film, theater, visual arts, computer science, psychology, politics, among many other fields. And sometimes they get into composition through that particular avenue.
To what degree is somebody a composer or not? That’s kind of a hard question to answer and it’s probably not a very important question to answer, in a sense. I think our modern-day thinking about composition is probably more collaborative than it was in the past, which I think is a great thing. It breaks down barriers between different fields and also between different genres of music and between different cultures.
Narration: Joshua and his family moved back to New Jersey in 2018 when Joshua was 17. It was about six months after he started composing his own music. His parents had originally moved their family to Jinan to open an Italian restaurant, but it hadn’t done well, so they had to close it and figure something else out.
For a few months in New Jersey, they didn’t have a place to live. But Joshua couldn’t stop composing. Music filled his mind. In motel rooms, Joshua would sit, hunched over his phone, using music apps to compose.
One time, Joshua was on a high school field trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. When his classmates broke off into little groups to explore the museum, Joshua headed straight for The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.
[Music: Joshua plays The Starry Night improvisation]
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: I just stared at it for, like, 40 minutes. I just saw everyone come and go, kind of like in a time lapse. People would get closer and farther and everything. And the entire time, I was hearing different pieces of music play in my head. I was like, “This is the coolest thing ever.”
I’m a huge Van Gogh fan boy. My entire family is. We named our dog Vincent. But I just love his story and I was like, “This is amazing. This is so, so cool.”
Narration: Last semester, Joshua wrote his first symphony — Symphony No. 1. in G Minor. In October, the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra performed a reading of the first movement.
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: I had never heard an actual orchestra play anything I’ve written before, so it was just a surreal experience. I’m forever grateful for that night.
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: I think something that’s a little bit misunderstood about composing is that you have to be some sort of genius to do it. You don’t. There are a lot of dirty tricks, but even the more serious stuff, it’s definitely very learnable. It’s a really beautiful thing and I think the more people who do it, the better.
Narration: Joshua just finished up a score for a full-length feature film. The director found Joshua on TikTok, where Joshua has been posting videos of himself playing a new work nearly every day since February.
And he recently applied to graduate programs for film composition — to Juilliard, UCLA, among others. But he says he’ll be happy to go to any school where he can do what he loves. He just can’t imagine doing anything else.
Outro: This is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice. This is the last episode of this season of Berkeley Voices. We’ll be back with Season 2 in January. Follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you listen. Episodes come out every other Friday. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.
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