Mountain Sky Conference: Where You Belong More
Classical pianist Wei Pai, a native of Taiwan, moved to Glendive this past November. Wei Pai and his wife, DCC music professor Tsai-Ying Li, are in the process of planning a series of local concerts. Wai Pai has also recently begun serving as the pianist for Glendive United Methodist Church.
For classical pianist Wei Pai, the road from Taiwan to Glendive led through Russia with stops in Illinois and Minnesota.
Wei Pai, who is married to Dawson Community College music instructor Tsai-Ying Li, said he started playing the piano when he was 6 years old. His father, also a musician, was his first teacher. That combination worked well. His father was a tenor so he would sing and Pai would play.
While still in Taiwan, Pai went to a concert by a Russian pianist and was fascinated by the way he played. He knew he wanted to learn more about Russian methods so applied for a two week summer music festival. His plan was to go, make friends and listen to concerts, he said.
Instead he found himself immersed in an intense musical experience where he practiced for three hours in the morning, ate lunch, practiced another three hours after lunch, had a lesson and then another two hours of practice, he said.
After the camp, he returned home and told his mother he wanted to go to Russia to study. His parents were hesitant but very supportive. They told him they would travel to Russia with him, look at the school, meet his instructors and see how it went. After two weeks in Russia, they returned home and he stayed, he said.
Pai studied in Russia for seven years, completing his high school and college studies while also studying piano. Once a year during the summer, he would take the night train to Moscow, fly to Hong Kong and then to Taiwan to see his parents. There was no internet in the dorms so he could only communicate with his parents once a week when he went to a communication service center, he said.
Learning Russian while taking classes in arts, history, geology, computer and math was very hard, but he was lucky. His music professor was a “big guy at the school” and helped pave the way for him to continue his piano studies even though his grades in other subjects were not all that great, he said.
The Russian culture was very different but he found the Russian people very interesting. They were not always friendly at first, but once he got to know them he found them very kind. There were not many foreigners there, but there were five other Taiwanese students at the school.
“I was so glad I wasn’t there alone,” he said.
During his seven years in Russia, he not only studied the piano, but also learned the language and began to understand the Russian culture. “I know the way they think. I became one of them,” he said.
When he finished his studies in Russia, he wanted to travel and learn from other pianists. He debated between Germany and the United States, feeling a pull to Germany because his first music professor was a Russian who had taught in a German university for many years, he said.
In the end he opted to continue his studies in the United States, deciding he wanted to discover a new music culture and feeling that the German and Russian music cultures had more similarity than the United States and Russian, he explained.
He studied for two years at Northern Illinois University where he earned his master’s degree and then went on to study in Minnesota and earn a doctoral degree in music performance. While in Illinois, he met Li. She is also from Taiwan, but they had to come to Illinois to learn to know each other, he said.
“Those experiences (in Illinois and Minnesota) prepared me for the future and gave me time to foster my skills,” he said, explaining he knew he needed a doctoral degree to teach in a college or university and that was his goal. “I want to teach and perform,” he said.
After graduating with his doctoral degree, he found a teaching job in Minnesota where he was the music director and had a big music studio with around 50 students. He was also teaching at another school, but in November 2017, he and Li were married, and he decided to move to Glendive, he said.
It was a difficult decision to give up his job there and come to Glendive, but he is enjoying life here and he and Li are hoping to create more musical experiences for young people in Glendive. Students in larger cities have opportunities to attend a concert almost every day, and they can get inspiration from that, just as he did from the Russian pianist whose concert he attended and who inspired him to go to Russia to study, he said.
He and Li are planning a series of concerts locally, hoping to put on one at least every two months. The first will be Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at DCC with a very special guest, a flutist from New York. They will also do a master class before the concert for DCC and Dawson County High School students, he said.
Also in October, he and Li will be presenting a concert at the DCHS auditorium as part of the Eastern Montana Concert Association 2018-2019 concert series. He will play the piano and she will play the French horn, he said.
Through the college, they have started a community lesson program where they offer instruction in various instruments including French horn, flute, piano and guitar. They encourage anyone who is interested in learning to play a musical instrument to contact them through DCC, he said.
Along with his teaching, Pai has also recently started serving as the pianist for the United Methodist Church. He grew up in a Christian family and used to play hymns at their church every Sunday so he welcomed the opportunity to play for the church here, he said, adding that he sometimes “sneaks in some classical bits.”
While Eastern Montana does not have the musical opportunities available in larger cities, he and Li have been lucky to receive invitations to perform during the summer and enjoyed that. They also appreciate the friendliness of people in Glendive, finding it easy to feel connected, he said, noting that the first time he went to a coffee shop the owner started talking to them as if they were old friends.
“I like to make friends, to open up horizons, and I want to share music as much as I can,” he said.
“I like to make friends, to open up horizons, and I want to share music as much as I can,”
Wei Pai, pianist