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Clara Yang pictured smiling in a dress in the woods, surrounded by trees and leafs on the ground

Pianist and UNC music department faculty member Clara Yang elevates the voices of underrepresented Black and female composers on stage and in the classroom.

When Clara Yang sits down at the piano, she sees an opportunity to help people expand their world views.

A classically trained pianist, the associate professor of music and head of keyboard studies at Carolina has performed in venues worldwide, including Beijing, Shanghai, Moscow, London, Sydney, New York, Chicago, Madrid and Barcelona. She is equally at home performing classical standards and interpreting contemporary and new music. Her 2015 solo album, “Folding Time,” won a Global Music Awards Gold Medal.

“Classical music isn’t an art form that only preserves the past; it is still evolving. Within classical music there is so much diversity — in style and in the ethnicities of the composers — with tons of cross-genre collaboration,” she explained.

The newer composers, particularly in America, tend to break down barriers and create music that reflects contemporary society, Yang said, so collaborating with these composers helps redefine what classical music means.

It’s one reason she believes in elevating the voices of underrepresented composers — on stage and in the classroom.

This past spring, for example, all the UNC piano students performed a concert, via Zoom, that celebrated Black composers. As a continuation of a project begun in fall 2020, the students each chose a Black composer to research and performed a piece by that composer. Yang then edited the performances into a composite video.

Now her focus is on women, who are underrepresented as composers. As part of the UNC Process Series, Yang will perform with award-winning Korean-American violinist Sunmi Chang this spring in “Her Story: Journey into the Musical Worlds of Women Composers.”

As they researched female composers, Yang and Chang (who had met as graduate students at the Yale School of Music) discovered several inspiring pieces by Florence Price, a Black 20th-century composer from Arkansas. In the spring concert, they are pairing her work with that of Amy Beach, a late 19th century composer whose sonata for violin and piano reflects the romanticism and passion of the period.

To bridge these works and present a modern perspective, they are commissioning a piece by pianist and composer Liliya Ugay, another Yale alumna. The women hope to repeat the performance at other venues and eventually to create a CD.

They have been rehearsing remotely during the pandemic by creating videos. Playing together remotely is challenging because one person records and the other person plays while listening to the recording, Yang said. “Playing this way forced us to try different things and to know the music really, really well so we could listen to each other more sensitively.”

Helping sometimes-reluctant students try different things is also fundamental to her teaching. Yang encourages her students to incorporate various viewpoints and develop their own ideas.

“I tell my students it isn’t about being perfect on stage; ultimately, it’s about opening up and sharing with the audience. As an artist, you are creating a sound story with something that’s abstract,” she said.

Yang came to UNC in January 2011 after completing her doctorate at the Eastman School of Music. Through the years, she has taught students from all backgrounds and with a variety of interests and majors.

“I love our students here and learn a lot from them,” she said. “I tailor my teaching to my students’ needs, to help them be their best, however they see themselves as musicians. Music isn’t just a craft you practice for hours; it’s also about contributing to society in a meaningful way.”

Teaching and performing nourish each other, she said. “I would love to do this all my life — teaching, performing and designing exciting projects for my students and myself.”

By Patty Courtright (B.A. ’75, M.A. ’83) 

Published in the Fall 2021 issue | Tar Heels Up Close

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