“I still practice three hours a day.” While that may seem like a jaw-dropping comment coming from your average med school student, it makes sense when spoken by pianist Kevin Sun.
Sun, an SFCM alumnus who graduated with a master’s degree in 2017, is of a special caliber. Inquisitive, inspired, and seeking to be informed at every turn, he relishes in conversation and debate, honing his attitudes and notions about music and other subjects. Now a student at Stanford Medical School—Sun received his undergraduate degree in Biology and Classics at Stanford, as well—he aims to take what he’s learned at SFCM and apply it to his future endeavors in medicine.
It’s safe to say, however, that it was unclear what role music would serve for Sun early on in his life. His grandfather and father, both from China, were passionate about music, but unable to seek it out in a larger capacity. Sun, a first-generation US citizen, was the first in his family to study music professionally, and his father was given the opportunity to experience music vicariously through his lessons.
“It was an everyday fixture of my life to practice with my dad sitting next to me, coaching me, and going to my lessons, too,” says Sun. “He went to my piano lessons and learned how to read music and feel it.”
From an early age, Sun was immersed in music. He started the piano at age five, gave his first public recital at eight, and competed every year since that time—locally, and then at state levels. In high school, his thirst for music and knowledge knew no bounds.
“In high school, I loved learning about everything. I loved piano, but just as equally as I loved piano, I loved science. I loved history, I loved English. I didn’t have any idea about my career path.
“By seventeen, I had gotten pretty good at piano and got second place at the Virginia Waring International Piano Competition. This was my senior year of high school and I thought I had reached my peak. I figured that I could then downscale from piano and explore other interests in undergrad. That’s what happened for my first two years.”
At Stanford, Sun took up many subjects, letting his intellectual curiosity lead him from the sciences to ancient Greek. But during his junior year, there was a turning point. In performing and talking with other musicians, it became clear music could be more.
“Music was something I loved and something I felt selfless within. It’s such a vast body of knowledge and emotional power—I am someone very small within music. This feeling of being small is not self-deprecating, it’s actually a sense of wonder. There’s still so much to hear and learn in music.”
He also notes, “Through music, one can have such seriously passionate conversations and debates about what music can possibly be. I hadn’t had those really fervent conversations about music until I met people in college who loved music just as much as I did, and felt just as small as I did in the face of it.”
Sun’s love of music, combined with his meticulousness, led him and his musically minded friends to go so far as to create shared documents detailing chamber music repertoire, the durations of pieces, program notes, and other catalogue information—enough music to last a lifetime.
After experiencing this epiphany, it was only a matter of time before he started to give strong consideration to getting a degree in music. After graduating from Stanford, Sun had planned to go to medical school, but after living for a time with a host family in Mexico, he was urged to also seek out music as an area of study. He learned the repertoire he needed and applied for entry into both Stanford Medical School and SFCM’s piano program. He was accepted to both, and Stanford allowed him to defer his enrollment until after he completed his master’s degree in piano performance.
Free to fully explore music in a collegiate curricular setting, Sun was given the opportunity to let his intellectual drive come face-to-face with the art form he so loved. It became clear that this was something he had to do.
“I was making amends for assumptions I had made before in my youth about how good I could possibly get and also how there wasn’t as much repertoire left that I was interested in playing. I had realized that those two assumptions were totally wrong.”
While at SFCM, Sun looked for every opportunity to flex his intellectual rigor. His studies with faculty member Luciano Chessa were some of the most gripping classroom experiences he had, leading to realizations he never expected.
“We were asked to read a piece that Frederic Rzewski wrote about the intersection of recording and improvising and the discordance between those two things. Chessa asked the class their opinions and if they improvised ... I, at that moment, felt like music could have so many opinions, not just about music itself, but also about where music should be headed and how we can change as musicians to redefine the field.”
This sort of experience was what Sun was looking for in his education: a place to discuss and debate music in the abstract and its applications to the field in general, as well as its historical context.
Now, after graduating SFCM and taking on a new life as a med student, music remains a large part of his life. In addition to keeping up his practice routine, he teaches, too. He aims to enter psychiatry, working with children to manage their behavioral health.
“This emotional expressivity, this clarity around ‘why I feel this way around certain things,’ and ‘how to put words to these emotions that are causing me suffering’ ... all of those things are related to music. All of those things are exactly what I learned to do through studying how composers wrote about their music, why they wrote the music they did and what they were trying to accomplish, and in music theory, how to analyze the very elements the composers have given us on the page, and finally, to perform it and to make it reality and to be probed by it … All of those skills are going to come in handy for me.”
This effort to bridge the domains of knowledge with respect to music and medicine is at the heart of Sun’s interests. Keeping his mind fresh and existing in an always-learning environment seems to be his preferred way of living. It’s clearly done him well.
“Don’t be afraid to ask the dumb questions because oftentimes the dumb questions that are asked are the burning questions that pop into your heart. Never be ashamed you wish to learn more.”