Like all COVID-era students, Katherine Liu missed out on a certain number of experiences during her high school years. Collecting her degree alongside her peers during a traditional, mask-free, in-person graduation-day ceremony is not something the 2023 Wellesley High School graduate has taken for granted. “Magic,” is a word she uses to describe that feeling of connectedness to a live audience, whether between graduates and their proud families or musicians and their listeners. A veteran of Zoom classrooms and virtual musical performances Liu, an accomplished, award-winning concert pianist, knows all about embracing flexibility. She cites the learned skill as the most important take-away of both her academic education at WHS and her musical education at New England Conservatory.
“Flexibility is something that’s really needed in society right now,” Liu said in a Zoom interview. “We all like to emphasize consistency and resilience, and sticking with something, but our world is evolving, and we need to change with it, too”
It’s a lesson that helped earn her a Davidson Institute Fellow Laureate Scholarship in 2022. The title of the project she submitted in her application for the prestigious $50,000 award was, “Innovation and Worldviews: A Challenge to Consistency and a Call for Change.” As a pianist since early childhood, Liu is well accustomed to the everyday repetition that high-level proficiency demands. But over the years she made an important observation. “When we practice something, we practice for hours on end. We may repeat it 100 times. But sometimes the method in which we’re practicing is wrong.”
That observation led her to realize that there were times when no matter how hard she worked, she wasn’t getting to where she wanted to be. Once Liu acknowledged that constant repetition (consistency) with little introspection (a call within herself to consider change) might not be the best way to practice, worlds of understanding opened up for her. She started asking herself how she could honor the techniques and methods her instructors had armed her with while asking new questions of herself like, “How can I develop a better way for myself to practice? How can I tailor these techniques and these methods to my own use?”
Liu then took the idea of challenging consistency to a broader level, rejecting the comforting call of nostalgia. “When the world is not the world that was 50 years ago, you don’t have to go back to the good old days, you have to look forward to a new era, to a new sparkling world we can create…flexibility is something we can even apply to systemic prejudice, to things that have gone on way too long, like marginalization and oppression.”
This ability to advance her thinking from personal experiences and radiate it outward to potential societal good impressed not only the Davidson Institute, but her WHS teachers. “I have never had a student quite like Katherine Liu. Her academic and extracurricular accomplishments are extensive and impressive—but what I’ve appreciated most about her over these past two years as her teacher is her capacity for wonder,” English teacher David Charlesworth said in an email. “Whether it’s staying after class to continue the conversation or using her writing assignments to discover a profound truth about herself or her world, Katherine’s curiosity is boundless.”
Harvard University agreed, and Liu is looking forward to matriculating there next fall. After years of traveling the world for piano competitions, she’s happy about sticking close to home for her undergraduate years. She and her mom, Fumei Huang, the person Liu credits as her first contact with music; her dad Jason Liu, who she describes as an “avid listener”; and her younger brother Jonathan Liu, a junior at WHS and a cellist; will be close by, ready to share homemade bao buns around the kitchen table. “My mom will bribe me to come home on weekends with yummy food,” Liu says confidently.
As for music, Liu will continue to study under her most influential mentor HaeSun Paik at New England Conservatory in Boston. “She’s absolutely wonderful, and inspirational, and one of the strongest people I know,” Liu says.
Whether becoming a professional concert pianist is a part of her future, Liu considers an unknown. There are many doors at Harvard she’s already excited about opening—the intersection where the arts and science meet; the humanities; neuroscience and computer science—”I would definitely be interested in researching what kind of science goes on behind music,” she says.
Suddenly Liu sounds like a teenager unable to make up her mind. And why should she? Summer’s here, the fall’s a lock. A bit of dream time seems in order.
“I would love to travel around the world and bring music to a lot of people, and at the same time if that doesn’t happen I’m sure that I will find some other purpose somewhere else. And music is a lifestyle. I don’t think that I will ever stop playing music or enjoying music,” Liu says.
Congratulations to Liu and the entire Class of 2023 as they move on to great things.
More on Katherine Liu (2023 Presidential Scholar in the Arts; 2022 winner of the Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition; the Bellagrande International Piano Competition; and the Harvard Musical Association High School Competition).
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