How Music Shaped A Family, Part 1

Sara Stromseth-Troy

ALLEN, TEXAS — Music has accompanied Ian Bui’s life story, beginning with his childhood in Vietnam, continuing after the fall of Saigon when his family moved to the United States, and onward through the lives and accomplishments of his children. In Part 1, Ian describes how music education has influenced his life and the lives of his children.

  • Ian shares his thoughts on music education

Ian Bui was born in 1961 in Saigon and grew up during the war. He had four older sisters, one younger sister and brother, none of whom studied music. He recalls, “Times were hard, and I was the only one who had the opportunity to get a music education, through a bit of luck and a lot of sacrifices on my parents’ part.”

He remembers, “When I was about 7 years old, someone gave my father a used child’s violin, so he decided to let me take private music lessons. After about a year of music theory lessons, I took the entrance exam to the National Conservatory of Music. I placed first and was the youngest student in my class. It was the first time in my life that I felt a huge sense of self-confidence, and that has never left me.”

Success continued for him: “The next year I took the instrument exam. I placed first in violin also. Between 1970-1975 I studied music and violin at the Conservatory, which was an extremely rare thing at the time for Vietnamese children. These classes were all outside my regular school hours, which meant a lot of commuting back and forth, but I really enjoyed the experience; it allowed me to see a different part of the city that many of my friends could not (remember, I was only 8 years old when I entered the Conservatory). Not only that, I became a bit of a celebrity in my school whenever we had a talent show.”

Ian’s music education continued by way of the music he heard on the family’s record player. “Because my mother and my aunt worked with Americans, I was exposed early on to Western music. My father was able to get a record player, and we had vinyl of artists like Ann Murray, Glen Campbell, Johnny Mathis, Petula Clark etc. I can still remember trying to play along “Downtown” over and over until my sisters screamed. Also, the early 70’s saw an explosion of Vietnamese pop/rock bands modeled after American and British rock bands of the time. These bands had a profound impact on my musical taste that has lasted until this day. I also learned English by singing along to the Bee Gees, Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Carpenters etc. The combination of classical music training and exposure to rock and roll early on helped me develop an eclectic musical taste.”

  • Fall of Saigon

Ian’s life took a dramatic turn in 1975: “On April 29, 1975, hours before the Fall of Saigon, our family was airlifted from the US Embassy and we made it to America safely, though not without some drama. I brought with me one suitcase of clothing, my ping-pong paddle and the violin.”

Once settled in the United States, Ian discovered hard rock music. “After coming to America, I got more exposed to the harder stuff and, not surprisingly, became a huge Queen fan because of their complex vocal arrangements which reminded me a lot of Wagner and Beethoven. I also continued to take violin lessons in the States for a few more years until I graduated from high school in 1979. After that I was a music major for a year at the University of Houston before giving up music as a career because I became disillusioned by it. I ended up studying computer science instead. Nevertheless, I continue to play and write songs for fun. One of my recent compositions has received over 50,000 hits on YouTube.”

  • Passing on the love of music to his children

Ian made sure to provide his own children with music education. “Because of my own positive experience with music education, I made sure all my kids study music early,” he said. “The purpose is not for them to become professional musicians, but to build their confidence and self-esteem, expose them to the arts, and help them appreciate the hard work and sacrifices required. It will be a skill that no one can take away from them if they choose to keep it.” Ian continued, “My oldest daughter, Ariel, went on to pursue a degree in music and is now a piano teacher and singer/songwriter. Three of our four boys study cello.¬†Two of them (twins) played in orchestras throughout their high school years. In addition, we also enrolled them in the Bass & Cello Conservatory of Dallas, and the Collin County Youth Orchestra (now defunct). It was lot of work, for sure, but well worth it. Now in college in New Zealand (not majoring in music) they’re being courted by the university orchestras because there’s such a shortage of cellists.”

Sumo, left, Ian Bui’s youngest son, playing cello at the Allen High School Performing Center.

As for their youngest son, Ian and his wife began his music education before he was born. “Our youngest boy, Sumo, studies cello, piano and has started to sing in a children’s choir. In fact, his musical training began even before he was born. When my wife was about five months pregnant, we started playing music from Bach’s cello suite to him for 15 minutes twice a day, every day until she gave birth. Not surprisingly, he possesses a great ear for pitch and learns music very fast. A non-fretted string instrument such as the cello is a great test for such skills. Currently in fourth grade, he’s already playing material his older brothers played in eighth grade.”

  • Learning life skills

Ian feels that being involved in orchestra has helped his sons learn discipline and listening skills. “From my point of view, I can say that being in an orchestra has been very good for the boys in terms of being surrounded by well-behaved kids who also do well academically. It teaches them discipline and trains them to listen to others, not just themselves. Not least, their taste in popular music is also very different from most kids their age; more sophisticated and selective, I believe.”

Ian also credits their hometown for providing many opportunities in music education. “We are lucky to live in Allen, Texas, where there is only one high school, which means resources are not spread out over several campuses. The music program here is top notch, and the new auditorium is state-of-the-art. All three of our cellist sons have played on this stage, and I’m sure it’s something they won’t easily forget. My wife was also president of the Orchestra Booster Club for three years. We became intimately familiar of the school district’s music program and its teachers. Consequently, our kids also got active in all the functions the club did. As a result, they were well known by their peers and teachers, and did not disappear in the sea of 4,700 students. This really, really helped with their teenager self-esteem.”

  • Advice for parents

Ian offers the following advice for parents who would like to get their children involved in music:

  1. Take it easy. Make it fun. Spend time with them in their lessons and if possible while they practice. Children appreciate praise and support.
  2. Take children to live music performances as much and as often as possible. It should be age-appropriate, of course, but should not be limited to any particular type, style or setting. Local libraries and churches often have free musical performances that they can take their kids to see. The holiday season is a wonderful time to experience live music, and they will be supporting their local musicians as well.
  3. Teach kids to give money to street musicians (unless you live in New York City, then you’d go broke!) But seriously, that will teach them to appreciate someone else’s hard work.
  4. Stay away from the violin, unless your child is very good at it. Violinists are a dime three dozens nowadays. If your child would like to play a stringed instrument that is not too stressful, the viola is great. Cellos are harder, while basses are always in shortage. Studying the piano is good for learning music theory, but does not teach the child ensemble skills. Many Asian kids in our kids’ orchestra actually study both a stringed instrument and the piano.

He also suggests parents get involved in their children’s schools. “As far as school budgets are concerned, I think it’s important to get involved in your kids’ schools so that your voice can be heard. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out of it. Therefore, it’s crucial to get neighbors and friends to understand the importance of music education, and get them to join your crusade. All schools have Facebook pages now, so it should be easier than ever to publicize articles and studies on the benefits of music education.”

  • ¬†Music and home life
Ian and his three younger sons prepare to play Schubert’s Serenade which Ian rearranged for three cellos. Ian conducted and sang from the piano.

Apart from music education in schools, Ian extends his children’s music education to their home life. “I like to arrange cello accompaniments for the kids to play with me. One time, I wrote a song based on a poem by a famous Vietnamese poet/songwriter – Nguyen Dinh Toan, as a gift for him on the occasion of his visiting Dallas. He was very famous during the war years with a radio show about contemporary music. I was very excited to meet him. A group of us got together and held a large event to honor him, which happened to be on our twins’ 16th birthday. On that day we “premiered” my song in front of hundreds of guests. After we finished, a visibly moved Nguyen Dinh Toan came up to shake hands with the boys, he thanked them and helped me sing Happy Birthday to them. That was really cool.”

A fan of musician Todd Rundgren, Ian and family also attended the singer’s 60th birthday party, held at Rundgren’s home in Hawaii. “Another cool thing is our trip to Kauai together to attend Todd Rundgren’s 60th birthday celebration (Toddstock) in 2008, followed by many road trips from Dallas to Akron to attend Rundgren Radio (an online talk radio show that often produces Rundgren concerts) Birthday Bashes. Then on his 65th birthday, we again made a special music video for him which I was able to play for him backstage after the State show in Dallas.”

  • Lifelong impact

Ian is confident that his children’s exposure to music education will have lifelong impact. “I have no doubt that the music education my kids have received will serve them well in the future, no matter which career path they choose. Already, I can see that they are very confident on stage or speaking in public. As for lifelong benefits of musical education, I think music in general, and classical music in particular, nurtures in children an outlook on life that is more gentle, sensible, and empathetic. They will be better listeners and less likely to resort to violence to settle conflicts.”

Next: In Part Two of How Music Shaped A Family’s Lives,” we will hear from Ian’s musically successful daughter, Ariel.

SarainpurpleSara Stromseth-Troy is a freelance newspaper feature writer for The Cresco Times Plain Dealer, and serves as Young Adult Librarian and manages the social media accounts for The Cresco Public Library. Fortunate to grow up surrounded by an extended family of music educators, she is honored to volunteer in blog writing and social media for The Spirit of Harmony Foundation, on whose advisory board she sits. She lives in Cresco, Iowa.