The happiest moments for Molly Gong are when she’s sitting on the steps outside the closed door of the piano room listening to her granddaughter, Emily, practice. Music has always been an important part of Molly’s life since her childhood in Shanghai, and she and her family members have always believed—and still continue to believe—that musicians are a noble class of people, doing important work, some of the most important and highest work, in fact, that a person can do.
“I sit on the steps outside the piano room and I am always so touched,” Molly says on a recent visit to the School of Music, where she and her daughter, Jody Li, a UW staff member and Emily’s mother, are touring the third-floor practice rooms. A recent gift from Molly and her husband, Ying Li, will enable the School of Music to make long-overdue improvements—paint, carpet, acoustic treatment—to four of its thirty-some practice rooms, advancing director Richard Karpen’s implementation of a room-by-room upgrade to School of Music rehearsal and performance spaces.
A resident of Hong Kong who visits Seattle a few times a year, Molly is not often able to listen to Emily’s playing in person, but she has recordings of Emily’s recitals and performances, and anytime she has an unsolved problem, she says, she “puts headphones on and listens to Emily practice.”
Hearing Emily play also helps to relieve some of the regret Molly feels when she looks back over the years of a life of which her memories are divided into the times before the Cultural Revolution, when she and her siblings explored their passion for music freely, attending concerts and directing spare pocket money to records on weekly trips to the music store, and the period after the Red Guard came and took all of the records away.
She especially regrets that Jody didn’t have opportunities Emily has had to excel in music or the arts and that Molly was not able to provide the sort of close guidance she would have liked when Jody was Emily’s age. Jody was born soon before Molly and her husband, having finished graduate medical school, were sent to practice medicine in remote Tsinghai province, while Jody stayed in Shanghai with her grandmother, with better access to nutritious food and quality medical care. The tradeoff was a period of nearly ten years when mother and daughter remained largely apart from one another.
Molly found a joyful way to assuage her regrets when her beloved granddaughter Emily exhibited an early interest in music as well as natural talent, and turned out to have perfect pitch. Taking lessons with Seattle area pianist Alexandra Tsirkel, a School of Music alumna who encouraged her participation in the Seattle Summer Piano Institute at the UW, Emily and her family forged further connections to the institution where Jody Li had made a successful career at UW Medicine. Now, with a gift to improve the rehearsal spaces used by UW musicians as well as young artists like Emily, Molly has found a meaningful way to demonstrate her pride in both her daughter’s and her granddaughter’s hard work and achievements.
“When we were young we considered musicians the highest class of people. Now my granddaughter is a little pianist,” Molly says. “Not everyone gets to do what they are passionate about.” She and her siblings, she says, became successful doctors, business people, and scientists, but never lost their love of music. “As much as we love music, we are so proud of Emily,” she says. “My resources aren’t that great but there is some need here. I feel that the students and professors work hard. They’re not practicing for money, but for something that is so noble, so spiritual. It is my family’s honor to support them.”
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