Video games inspired award-winning teen pianist

Aaron Chan. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)Aaron Chan. (Rebecca Isenhart/Gazette Reporter)

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Few things could be more serious than competitively interpreting the work of classical Russian composers on piano. Few things could be more playful than picking out the Mario theme song on that exact same keyboard.

For Niskayuna High School senior Aaron Chan, the silly and the somber often intertwine, complementing one another with the easy harmony of bass and treble clefs in Chopin’s Quatrieme Ballade in F minor.

Or, at least, he makes it look easy.

Seventeen-year-old Chan first sat down and placed his hands on the glossy keys of his family’s baby grand piano when he was a kid because he wanted to imitate the simple melodies from role-playing video games like Final Fantasy. At first, it was easy. Simple melodies could be plunked out by ear, one key at a time. But then he tried to replicate the Mario theme song.

“That was the one that put me far enough that I could start learning,” Chan said of the overlapping phrases of the iconic, catchy theme. It surprised him by presenting such a challenge, but he kept at it.

When Chan won the 2013 Capital District Chopin Masters competition, few would suspect he had his childhood affection for video games to thank. The connection was even less obvious when he won the 2014 Albany Tchaikovsky Competition, where he performed Tchaikovsky’s intimidating Tempest.

Another area of Chan’s expertise began much the same way: as a playful curiosity that morphed into excellence. On this front, too, he was inspired by video games. It was a similar impulse: he wanted to create.

“I started off making games,” he said. One of his older brothers — he has four older siblings, two brothers and two sisters — was interested in computer science and coding, which added to the intrigue.

Coding skills

In time, Chan grew to love the way that coding software can solve problems, from handling large numbers to quickly automating large algorithms and directing the behavior of hand-built robots. He has worked with other Niskayuna High School students in robotics competitions, and even co-founded the school’s Robotics Club.

But the greatest validation — and the greatest test — of his software coding skills came in the form of a very cool summer job. GE Global Research, not far from his Red Oak Drive home, needed software engineers, and hired Chan to do the job.

“I’m really nervous because everyone has a Ph.D. and I’m just a high school kid,” Chan recalled. He was tasked with translating a complex flight simulation program, which can be used for everything from fuel efficiency planning to staff scheduling for airlines, from an outdated, slow programming language into JavaScript, which is more nimble.

Being young and willing to take on a tedious project made Chan valuable at GE.

“No one else really wanted to work on it,” he said of his summer work. As a result, when it was time for Chan to go back to Niskayuna High School for his senior year, the engineers at GE realized he was the only one who knew how to finish the project he had started. They asked him to stay on part time.

Staying focused

Meeting Chan, a high school student who works alongside Ph.D.’s and wins classical music competitions in his spare time, it’s hard not to marvel at his achievements. Is he just naturally good at everything he tries?

But instead of feeling flattered, Chan shakes his head shyly at the suggestion. In fact, he says, he’s had to give up a lot to focus on the things he succeeds in. Though he has been able to keep up with playing the cello alongside classes, piano and his part-time job, for example, he had to give up learning to play percussion.

At times, his left-brained and right-brained interests conflict, too. He had to choose between taking A.P. physics and playing in the Niskayuna High School orchestra, for instance. He chose the orchestra.

“A lot of people would have picked physics,” he concedes. But he doesn’t plan to play cello in college, and he wanted to savor his last year as part of the group.

It’s a give and take he’s had to face his whole life.

“I like grabbing on to new things,” Chan said.

But sometimes, he has to step back and decide how to allocate his time. Otherwise, “I become mediocre at everything,” he said.

So, in the everyday rush of school, work, music and family, what does he do for fun?

Nothing.

Really.

“Timelessness, I think, is the most enjoyable thing,” Chan said. He sets aside time every week to deliberately put his cellphone away, take off his watch, and let his mind wander, alone or in conversation with friends. He especially likes to meet up with people at Panera and sit near the fire until they know their parents are starting to worry.

“We’ll see the sun set and not really care,” he said.

Like a well-placed rest in a charging piece of Tchaikovsky, the high school senior whose passions began with childish games knows the value of strategic stillness.

“I used to think I had to be doing something,” he said.

“The fun really happens when I’m not doing anything.”

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.