Inside the world of a lifelong professional musician.
There is a saying that goes “consistency breeds perfection,” a saying that professional pianist Claudia Hu truly embodies in her work. Starting her piano career at just 6 years of age, Claudia has refined her craft of piano through thousands of hours of practice, which resulted in invitations to play in renowned music halls, such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City, as well as famous performance halls across The United States and Europe. Claudia recently graduated from Manhattan School of Music in May, majoring in Classical Piano Performance, and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Classical Piano Performance at her alma mater with her teacher Nina Svetlanova.
Growing up, Claudia’s passion for piano was more than a hobby. Despite winning competitions and being invited to play at recitals, for Claudia, it was never about winning, it was about doing something that she loved. Interestingly, Claudia always thought that she would become a doctor, like many members of her family, yet she knew that if she went the academic route, she would never be able to play at the same level again. When she decided to apply to the Manhattan School of Music, she had the chance to meet her interviewer, by chance, before her audition and they just so happened to “click”. This allowed Claudia to feel more comfortable in her final audition, which landed her a place at the college among some of the most talented musicians in the country.
Claudia admits that the prospect of attending the Manhattan School of Music seemed a bit daunting to her, however, she was more excited than anything, having the chance to study alongside some wonderful musicians. In college, Claudia viewed herself as a small fish in a big pond, which she saw as a positive, considering she wanted to learn the most that she could around high performing individuals that have the same love as she does for music.
One of Claudia’s favorite classes that she took was a conducting class, explaining that she loves conducting and views conductors as being the most intelligent in terms of both music and music history as well as art and life. Claudia was also eager to understand the theory and technical aspects of what it means to conduct. Another class she found to be particularly interesting was Historical Recordings of Great Pianists, which consisted of listening to old piano recordings. Claudia especially enjoyed listening to piano from the Golden Age or mid 1900s, as those pianists would play pieces that are not part of the typical repertoire and diverged from what we hear today.
Claudia mentioned that some of her most memorable piano experiences came out of her college recitals Sophomore and Senior year. These recitals were the first times that it was just Claudia playing, with everyone coming to watch her perform the music she has been playing for the past two years. Claudia also enjoys these recitals because they act as milestones for how much she has learned in addition to how she can improve for the future.
Her experience playing has not always been smooth sailing, however, having suffered a physical injury two years ago. Claudia mentioned that she wasn’t too familiar with the “right technique” as a pianist and, as a result, her arms and back got so tense that she physically couldn’t play piano because it was too painful. This moment led to Claudia asking herself a lot of existential questions about her life without piano. Luckily, Claudia was able to see a physical therapist to correct the tension in her shoulders and breathing exercises. Now, Claudia is a more relaxed player, which has had a tremendous effect on the sound of her music and what Claudia regards as an overall triumph.
When asked what Claudia finds as the most important quality in a pianist, she responded that being a good pianist is more than just reading music and playing it, it’s about a mental state of mind and your whole characteristic as a person. To be an incredibly proficient musician, you must work on being calm and introspective, getting to know the background of the piece and life of the composer. “A lot of composers were inspired by their political states or the popular literary works of their time, that is reflected in their music. I try to think about that while I am playing. It is a lot of mental work as well as physical,” Claudia points out.
What excites Claudia most about the future is observing the shift taking place within classical music. The big question that is being asked nowadays in the music world is: Why do we keep sticking with the classical repertoire? A question that Claudia is eager to hear the answer to. Claudia is equally as compelled by the fact that modern classical musicians don’t have to follow one route in order to be a recognized pianist. She notes “you can find a career outside of that and with social media it becomes easier to become recognized”. It is my hope that everyone has the chance to hear Claudia’s music, a transportive experience, where sincerity and thoughtfulness can be both heard and felt.
Hugh on answering the call to step into the field of medicine.
Entering into the field of medicine is a noble act, which only very few are cut out for. Hugh Thompson, however, is just one of those people that was born to practice medicine. Having grown up visiting and engaging with doctors, Hugh knew that he wanted to impact the world in the same way that medicine had impacted his life- for the better. Hugh’s story is not one without its challenges, but one that is inspiring because of its challenges. If you have ever considered becoming a medical professional, this article is definitely for you. If you are interested in the field of medicine and healthcare in America, this article is also for you. Hmm… if you have ever seen a doctor, this article is just for you.
Hugh, tell us a little bit about yourself!
Hello everyone! First of all, I want to say that I am truly honored and humbled that you would ask me of all people to chat!
In terms of a little bit about me: I graduated from Wake Forest University in 2017. After graduating, I moved back home to central New Jersey for 3 years to build up my resume and save up a little bit of money before going to medical school. During those 3 years, I volunteered as an EMT in my hometown as well as worked as a scribe in the Saint Barnabas Emergency Department, ultimately becoming the ‘lead scribe’ for the final 2 years of my time there. I was offered an acceptance at New York Medical College in Westchester County, New York in the Spring of 2019 with a deferment – meaning that instead of starting in the fall, I would start in the fall of 2020. And here we are!
What made you decide to go to medical school?
I can’t say there was one of those “ah-hah” moments that made me decide to want to pursue a career in medicine. For as long as I can remember, having the opportunity to care for others has been something I have wanted to make my life about. I was born with a genetic condition that meant I was around medicine quite a bit as a child, and what child wants to be in hospitals or at doctors offices? One of the moments that has stuck with me that represented the power that medicine can have on an individual arose from one of those trips to the hospital.
Preface: I am incredibly lucky to have parents who stopped at nothing in their pursuit of ensuring that I received care from world-class practitioners of all sorts, and for this I will forever be grateful. After a variety of hospital trips, tests and the like, my mother ultimately settled on following up with a physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. We had only been there a couple of times and I was probably only in 5th or 6th grade when I was visited by another practitioner during my regular visit. I was- and still am- a huge baseball fan, and I must have had a copy of Sports Illustrated with me, because the practitioner noticed and told me that he couldn’t wait to see me playing third base for the Phillies when I got older.
Now, my condition has never been life threatening or even significantly debilitating, but it does ensure that playing sports at more than a recreational level is not really possible for me- and this is something that that practitioner would have known. Nonetheless, the fact that someone like that took the time to express interest in me and in doing so, communicate a genuine and profound kind of empathy was an incredible confidence boost as well as an eye opener for me. I am sure that the practitioner doesn’t realize the kind of impact such a small statement made, as there was no way for him to have known that the child he engaged in was at the time having self confidence issues. I am less sure whether that practitioner was consciously aware that his positivity and empathy made more of a difference in my care than any medicine could have. Either way, having had the time to reflect on my experiences as a patient including moments like these, I have come to realize that it is positivity, a smile, even just a shared interest with a patient that can change a persons day, week, or life. By definition, for a patient to be a patient, something likely has gone wrong and the patient has made the decision to entrust their vulnerability to said physician. This trust, this faith in the physician’s ability, this hope that is inextricably linked to the patient-provider relationship is a privilege, and personally I can think of no higher honor than having the opportunity to improve the lives of others through medicine. That is all just a long way of saying that being able to possibly impact someone in a similar manner as I was has been a dream of mine for quite a while.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how you view medicine and the healthcare industry at all?
I was able to witness the work that emergency providers put in during the height of the pandemic in our area firsthand and it was truly inspiring. To watch providers of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs band together to fight for our communities made me wish I was through medical school and able to fight with them. From my viewpoint, Saint Barnabas never reached the depths that many hospitals in New York City experienced, but we were pretty overrun and hard hit nonetheless. Single use masks were being rationed and reused several times over. The hospital was out of hospital beds, almost out of ventilators, and short on capable providers. A lot of the providers weren’t allowed to return to their homes while they were in the middle of the pandemic, at the risk of infecting their loved ones. And yet, everyone came to work day in and day out, ready to fight with and for every single patient that came through the doors. I can honestly say that being able to witness the compassion, resilience, and strength of the providers at Saint Barnabas Medical Center was one of the most inspiring ‘moments’ in all of my living memory. So while the pandemic has been saddening on many levels, it has reinforced my faith in and desire to be a part of the medical community.
Is there a lot of discussion in the classroom about the pandemic and, if so, what is the conversation about?
Honestly, there has not been quite as much discussion in our academic classes regarding the pandemic so far. However, I have no doubt that once I transition into our classes regarding disease processes, the SARS-CoV-2 virus will get plenty of airtime in our lectures.
I will say that beyond the classroom, the pandemic has definitely been a significant talking point. The school itself seems to have made concerted efforts to address how the pandemic and all of its side effects (isolation, Zoom classes, etc.) has affected us as students. Specifically, my school has what is called the “Resiliency Curriculum Committee” which existed even before the pandemic as a means for training the medical students in healthy emotional and psychological choices. I obviously cannot speak to what the topics covered in prior years Resiliency Curriculum were, but the discussions during the small group sessions this year have had a distinct COVID-19 pandemic flavor, which I think is extremely important. The pandemic is the elephant in the room here: a year ago, it would have been absurd to think that students would be attending lectures given by professors sitting in their home offices. To that end, the fact that the school wants to address how this is affecting its students and try to guide students through such a stressful time is something I appreciate.
What is one thing that you wish you knew before you committed to going to medical school?
Hugh along with his co-workers
I can’t say there is a particular piece of advice that would have changed how I did things. The one thing I find myself wishing for was an advisor – none of my family are involved in medicine of any kind, so at times I did feel as if I was flying in the dark in terms of building my resume for medical school. I never knew what types of jobs to apply to, when to take what classes or tests, how to make myself a better applicant, etc. The pre-health advisory system at my undergraduate college was great – they were more than happy to provide specific answers to many of my bigger questions, but because they were dealing with literally hundreds of students, there was really no way to go to them with little questions or concerns. I ended up relying on the two or three of my friends that were also planning to go to medical school for guidance, and I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today without their patience and advice so I am lucky and grateful to have them around (shoutout Ryan and Mike!).
What excites you most about medicine in general?
Hmm, thats a great question. At the risk of sounding like a nerd, I am super excited about a lot of the science behind medicine. It is truly amazing how ‘well designed’ and finely tuned the human body is. And then when things go wrong, the creativity that scientists and physicians have implemented in coming up with solutions and treatments is incredible. Being able to spend the rest of my life learning about all of this and implementing it to help patients is super exciting.
That being said, the reason I wanted to go into medicine is for the people. I love people and their stories, and medicine provides a great way to simultaneously build relationships with a huge range of people, while also having the chance to positively impact the lives of those people. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur when it comes to being able to ‘fix’ everyone’s medical issues. I realize that often, physicians do not have the answers, can’t solve the problem, or have to be the bearer of bad news. But where I feel that physicians make an impact is in how they are able to handle these types of moments. I recently finished reading both Being Mortalby Atul Gawande and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and one of the sentiments that really stuck with me from those books was the importance of physicians in speaking candidly with their patients, no matter how uncomfortable it may be at the time. Being able to help guide patients through these tough moments is just one of the ways that I hope to be able to make an impact down the road, and it is these types of moments that I am excited to play a role in one day. Though admittedly, I could go on and on about everything I am excited about with regards to becoming a physician…
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone interested in going to medical school?
Don’t let anything stop you. If you know that you want to be a physician, you can become a physician.
So many people get discouraged by the amount of work that the application process takes: the pre-requisite classes during undergraduate years, studying/taking the MCAT, school application essays or fees, or any of the other barriers. If you want it bad enough, none of that matters. Hard work and passion for the field of medicine are the single two most important factors in getting into medical school, because they will always help you overcome the barriers that are put in place.
One last thing on this question: one of the best physicians I have had the pleasure of working with applied to medical school 3 times and had started podiatry school before he was ultimately accepted to medical school.
Joe Conforti originally dreamt of being an art teacher, initially majoring in art and education at the University of Richmond in Virginia. However, Joe changed his major to marketing and public relations, when he saw others becoming interested in the exciting world of business in the early 1980s. After graduating, Joe worked in advertising, one of his projects being designing toys for fast food restaurants. Life turned upside down for Joe in 1992, when he was diagnosed with the AIDS virus and was told that he only had 18 months to live. Quitting the corporate world, Joe knew that he needed to return to what he loves: art. After his partner gifted him a class at a local ceramic studio, Joe realized this was the push that he needed in order to start creating his own art again.
Joe’s ceramic wall art
Joe frequently gave his art as gifts to friends, which even caught the eye of designer Donna Karan, who reached out to Joe to create pieces for her new home collection. Joe’s pieces were soon seen all over Barneys and Bendels in New York City- an artist’s dream I think! Keeping up with demand, Joe quickly got an art studio in SoHo and even began experimenting with wall mounted ceramics. Joe used the traditional Japanese Raku style in his ceramics, showcasing organic textures and colorful tones. Joe mentions that much of his art is inspired by the hectic pace and colorful landscape of New York City, a city he loves to call home. At the same time he was pursuing his art, Joe became heavily involved in the ACT UP movement, an AIDs activist group, as a street activist and cites the rapid improvement in the effectiveness of AIDs medications in helping him to continue to live and focus on his art.
Joe’s art practice has changed dramatically over the course of his art career, the most significant change being in his medium, as he transitioned from ceramic to painting. Joe notes that he was gentrified out of his ceramic studio, as it was made into office spaces, and, shortly after, took a hiatus from his art to take a screenwriting class. Despite writing two screen plays, Joe missed the fine arts too much and enrolled in painting classes at the New School. Joe hadn’t turned from paints since, until this summer.
My favorite paintings from Joe’s Color, Order, and Choas collection
In the earlier part of the year, Joe had planned on having a show called Color, Order, and Chaos and found a gallery that was going to show his latest collection in May. This collection of 14 paintings was inspired by today’s political climate in The United States, the textures and bright colors captured in his ceramics carrying over into these paintings. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in Joe’s husband losing his job, the pair packed up their New York City apartment and moved to Fire Island, a small island just off the coast of Long Island. In Fire Island, Joe and his partner sought some much needed space from crowded New York, but, unfortunately, Joe couldn’t fit his paints and canvases into the packing. Nevertheless, Joe found a new creative outlet- sculpture. Joe spent his quarantine building a 40 foot long beach sculpture out of driftwood he calls Serenity, which helped to bring Joe an incredible amount of peace during such a challenging time. On the island, Joe also held a gallery opening for his loyal followers, during which he sold almost all of his pieces from his Color, Order, and Chaos collection.
When asked about the best piece of professional advice someone has given to him, Joe recalled the comment of a fellow marketer, who told him early on in his career to bring something physical for his audience to touch and see when giving a pitch. Joe credits much of his experience in marketing and sales to helping him tremendously in his art career, especially when it comes to selling his art. Joe mentions that the most important thing an emerging artist can do is just get their art out into the world in any way possible. When Joe worked out of his studio, among a community of artists, he sold significantly more than all of the art students in the lofts. Joe says that the difference between himself and them was that he was not afraid to go to the local coffee shop and give them pieces on consignment or even give his art away as gifts. Exposure for Joe was key to building a reputation in the New York art community and what he suggests other artists do in order to stand out.
What about the future excites Joe? “Young people like you,” he says “the energy of young people to be able to change the world for the better excites me.” What excites me? The boldness and fearlessness of artists like Joe, who have chosen to pursue an unconventional path to paint the world a brighter place.