Fitting Serious Practice Time into a Busy Life

Amateur Pianist Ricker Choi on Preparing for His Upcoming Concert

In this video, Ricker Choi is performing an excerpt of Liszt’s Totentanz during the final round at the 2010 Berlin International Piano Amateur Competition.
How does amateur pianist Ricker Choi manage it all? He is preparing to perform a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, accompanied by a full orchestra, for an audience of hundreds. He has won multiple first, second, and third prizes in amateur piano competitions over the past decade; has performed at the 2,500-seat Berlin Philharmonie; and has played live on Toronto’s 96.3 FM classical radio. Ricker is also a full-time business consultant.

Leading up to his next concert, in which he will play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor with the Ontario Cross-Cultural Music Society Philharmonic Orchestra, we spoke with him about how he balances his business career with maintaining such a high level of piano study and performance. His approach is illuminating for adult piano students at any level who lead busy lives.

What is your piano practice routine and how does it fit in with your work schedule?

When I’m preparing for a concert or learning new repertoire, I try to practice 16 to 20 hours a week. I live very close to my office so I can start practicing piano shortly when work finishes: on weeknights, I will go home after work, eat a very quick snack, then immediately practice for one and a half or two hours (with a seven-minute break every 30 minutes). I put piano practicing as my top priority nightly when I reach home after work.

Then I will eat a proper dinner. If it’s not too late and if I still have the energy, I will practice for another hour or so after dinner.

Are there days or weeks when you are just too tired to practice?

If work is too crazy and I have to do too much overtime, then I may not get to practice much daily. But I will try to practice a little, even if just 30 minutes, because I find it best to practice a little daily than to wait for a day when I am not busy and cram long hours of practice in one go.

How do you make the most of each practice session?

I set goals that I want to achieve in each session, and structure my practice time. If I’m learning a new piece, my structure might be: for the first half hour, review yesterday’s newly learned material; for the next hour, learn new pages; for the next half hour, try to play through everything I have learned of the new piece in one go to test my memory; and then for the last hour, review an old piece.

Amateur_pianist_Ricker_ChoiI find that practicing for 30 minutes at a time is optimal for me. Longer periods with no breaks always mean I will not concentrate properly. Plus I have had back and neck pain since I was young, so taking a break every half hour allows me to do some yoga stretching before continuing.

When did you start learning the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2?

I started learning the concerto in December 2015. I feel truly comfortable performing it after repeating this cycle several times: several months of working on it, dropping it for a month, then going back and reviewing it again. I scheduled a few run-throughs at a friend’s home with my piano teacher Michael Berkovsky, who played the orchestral reduction.

What have been the biggest challenges with this concerto?

There are three big challenges. The first is technical in that the third movement is simply very tricky with lots of fast notes that require clarity and transparency. The second challenge is figuring out the tempo and expressions I want. The whole concerto has many tempo changes, and pianists vary greatly in their tempo choices for this piece. Finding the tempo that works for me took a lot of experimentation and recording myself and listening back. Third, I also think it will require quite a few rehearsals for the piano solo part to be completely one with the orchestra because of all the tempo changes.

How did you get this impressive opportunity to perform with an orchestra at this venue?

It was pure luck! A friend of mine, who is a good violinist, asked me to run through the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 at the music school where he taught, which I had never been to before. And he introduced me to the owner of the music school, Ken Zheng. The owner and I chatted for a while and we clicked very well. I sent him my website and my YouTube videos of the Rachmaninoff concerto accompanied by Michael Berkovsky. I didn’t expect anything at all.

OCMS Philharmonic with Soloist Ricker Choi

Saturday, December 3, 2016, 7:30pm

Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto, 5183 Sheppard Avenue East, Scarborough, Ontario

Click here for more information.

But after a few months, Zheng called to ask me to play the concerto with his orchestra on December 3. This was a pleasant surprise. It turns out he is a conductor, composer, arranger, and truly multi-talented musician. He runs three orchestras (a youth orchestra, a Chinese instrument orchestra, and an expanded orchestra comprising of youth, adult amateurs and a few professional musicians). It is the expanded orchestra that I will be performing with.

I’m excited because the venue, the P.C. Ho Theatre at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto, holds almost 700 people. I always prefer performing in front of large audiences rather than in smaller settings. Somehow, psychologically, I feel I have more space to work with. I can be freer.

What exactly is your job and how many hours do you work per week?

I am a business consultant specializing in financial risk management. I work in financial services to provide consultation on software requirements. I myself do not code software, but I write documentations on the functionalities of the software. I then pass the documentations to developers who write the actual code.

It depends on the project I am working on. Last year I worked at times 80 hours a week, which left very little time and energy for piano, so that’s why I have not performed much recently. This year the project load is stabilized and I have more time for piano.

Do you still consider yourself an amateur pianist even though you are performing in professional venues?

Yes, I consider myself an amateur pianist for a few reasons: First, I don’t use music to make a living. Second, my repertoire is way smaller than a professional pianist’s. I only practice and perform when I have extra time after work. And third, I usually only perform publicly twice or three times a year at most. I don’t see myself as capable mentally to perform full time as a professional would. I may be able to do it, but just thinking about it is too stressful. I have a lot of other interests too such as reading, films, and painting. I do need that balance, and that’s why I don’t do music full time.

What do you love about being an amateur pianist?

There is less pressure. I will strive to play as well as I can, but I’m not subjected to music critics, and audiences are probably more forgiving to amateurs. Also, in the amateur pianists circle, there are a lot of competitions and festivals that only amateurs can participate in, and these opportunities can offer performances at professional venues internationally. That was how I got to play at Berlin Philharmonie and Paris’s Salle Gaveau.

Ricker Choi is a full-time financial risk consultant. He won second prize at the 2010 Berlin International Amateur Piano Competition, where he performed with the Berlin Sibelius Orchestra in the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2,500-seat Großer Saal. In 2006, Ricker founded Music Heals!, a series of fundraising concerts for charity organizations such as SickKids Foundation.
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