By Marine Elia
In the oak-paneled Graham Memorial study lounge, the room resonates with the heavy, melancholic notes evocative of a Chopin piece. The scene is akin to that of a 19th century drawing room, with dim lighting from the chandeliers illuminating students reclining on gleaming leather sofas. Emotion effortlessly flows from the piano into the ears of the people in the room. Tucked away in the corner, the varnished baby grand shines. The pianist, a girl in neon yellow overalls, is consumed by the music.
The pianist is Tianzhen Nie, a classically trained pianist and Hawaii native. During her brief spurts of spare time as a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she brings the pianos of Graham Memorial and Hill Hall to life.
“Pure bliss,” she said in response to how music makes her feel.
Nie may have trained classically from the ages of 6-17, but she hasn’t stopped improving her musical skills. When playing in spaces on campus, she frequently makes her impromptu performances interactive by calling on her audience to give an emotion for her to recreate on the piano.
“The thing about music, though, is that it’s really like acting. In that moment, when you’re playing, you can step into whatever mood or realm of feeling you want, even if it’s not the headspace you’re currently in,” Nie said. “It’s really like a kind of escape.”
Nie refers to improvising as her preferred form of playing. The inexorable connection she has with the piano allows her to play flawlessly without even glancing at the keyboard.
“I’ll ‘Bird Box’ it and look away or just close my eyes,” Nie said, alluding to the recent Netflix original psychological thriller.
A unique talent discovered and a special bond formed
Although she knows music is an innate characteristic of her mind and soul, Nie accredits her training to her piano teacher in Honolulu. Earning the endearing title of “Auntie Alice,” Nie’s teacher, Alice Hsu, continues to be her motivator and biggest fan.
Hsu aspired to become a professional pianist after graduating from music school in Vietnam, but switched routes to teach the next generation of young musicians. Hsu taught at Nie’s elementary school and first encountered her when she was a talented third-grade piano player—with awful technique. Hsu took her in as a student for private lessons.
“After the foundations were built by having the discipline to practice every day, that’s when her creativity and passionate [playing] started to show,” Hsu said.
Nie recalls Hsu’s piano studio where she spent endless hours rehearsing the standardized piano tests to advance to new levels of piano mastery.
Lessons would always begin with a conversation on how Nie was feeling, a demonstration of the warm, familial relationship between the teacher and student.
“She cared about not just how I developed as a musician, but as a student and person,” Nie said.
Like many tales of success, Nie’s did not come without its trials and tribulations. When she was in fourth grade, Nie rebelled against her parents and rejected the five hours a week spent practicing. It didn’t take much to quell an 11-year-old’s uprising as her parents stressed the importance of piano as an outlet and creative pursuit.
During the recession in 2008, Nie’s father lost his job, and her piano lessons had to be placed on a hiatus until he found employment. Nie’s piano career could have been canceled indefinitely if not for Hsu, who saw her potential and offered to give her pro bono lessons due to the magnitude of her talent.
“I was compelled to help,” Hsu said. “She was too unique for me to let her go.”
Early on, Nie’s independence and creativity were in the nascent stages of development as she chose the pieces she wanted to play under Hsu’s “democratic teaching.” It would be this sense of musical autonomy that led Nie to compose her first piece at 12 years old. As part of a project in middle school to create a video in iMovie, she used her talents to compose the background music. The impressive feat earned her the attention of her principal who wrote her a letter describing how proud she was of her.
“When I received the letter, that’s when I stopped and said, ‘Okay, yeah. I might just be good at this,’” Nie reminisced. To further her talents, she sought new spaces where she could grow, such as her church where she practiced improvising and accompanying the choir.
A creativity that can’t be bound
Last summer during a study abroad program in the Galapagos with her environmental studies program, Nie was inspired to once again unearth her composer persona. With a team of friends, including an aspiring documentary filmmaker, the group of students produced a short four-minute documentary for which Nie wrote the score.
Nie intends to start composing again, but with multiple art forms clouding her vision of a future as a soloist, the task of composing is an arduous one. As a cellist and having a background in Chinese zither as a nod to her Chinese heritage, Nie does not suffer from a lack of instruments to absorb her creative fluids.
At the intersection of creativity where talent runs in multiple veins of expression, music lends itself to poetry. Nie is a member of the UNC Wordsmiths, the spoken word team on campus. She represented the Wordsmiths at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational, the national competition for college spoken word teams, for the past two years.
Her repertoire ranges from pieces parodying Donald Trump to statement-making feminist commentaries intent on changing the stigma around periods.
Mistyre Bonds met Nie in a poetry class her freshman year and is also a member of UNC Wordsmiths. She describes Nie’s writing style as “beautiful and powerful at the same time.”
Bonds envisions Nie “conquering the world” after graduation with her ability to connect to others.
Nie’s future abounds with possibilities. If she chooses to continue her education, she will pursue a master’s in environmental studies with a focus on environmental disasters and how they affect minority communities.
Earlier this semester, Nie began to flirt with the idea that her art could flourish into a successful career. Terence Oliver, who teaches motion graphics in the School of Media and Journalism, came across one of Nie’s spoken word performances on YouTube entitled “Person of Color” in 2017 and offered her $250 to participate in a video showcasing UNC’s talent and diversity.
Still waiting to discover if an artistic path will overtake an academic one, Nie said she will navigate her future with the mantra she applies to her musical improvisations, “When I make a mistake and hit the wrong note, I turn that mistake into a new melody.”
Edited by Mitra Norowzi and Natasha Townsend