Spotlight on Emma Li (’22)

Piano plays from inside the chapel. It’s not a performance. It’s not regularly scheduled. Just one person sits at the bench, playing as if it were a concert, with only passersby to listen. Emma Li (‘22), a dedicated student in math, music, and computer science, somehow finds the time for it all. Outside of the chapel, Emma is often found in the library with her friends, or the symphony orchestra, playing on a stage in front of thousands.

Q: How did you start playing music?

A: I was inspired to start piano after attending a concert that my mom’s old boss invited her to. The performers were his two daughters–one played piano and flute and the other played piano and violin; they ended up accompanying each other for several pieces–and hearing their music made me determined to be able to play as well as they did. I added flute as my second instrument about two years after I started piano because the flute was shiny and I liked the warm sound of the instrument.


Q: What kind of instruments do you play?

A: I play the piano and the flute (though I’m probably more well-known around campus for playing piano).


Q: What musical organisations are you involved in?

A: Until this year, I was a flutist at the San Diego Youth Symphony. I served as first chair and assistant principal in SDYS’s showcase program for several years before moving into the ovation program. Last year, I was an assistant principal in the Chamber Orchestra, SDYS’s most advanced group for the principals and assistant principals of Ovation. I’m also on the leadership team of Melodies for Remedies, a music performance service club at the Bishop’s School and tutor students in flute with an organization called AYLUS. 


Q: Why do you choose to practice in the chapel?

A: Piano is the more accessible instrument on campus, and I take advantage of the fact that the piano in the chapel is free to use for all students. I enjoy practicing in the chapel because it’s a quiet space where I can reflect on the events of the day undisturbed. Not many people use that piano (or know that they can use it), so unlike the library during X-periods, I’m almost always guaranteed the piano bench. The acoustics of the chapel are very nice for fast pieces—I’ve definitely played a loud Chopin or Rachmaninoff piece just to hear the echoing sounds—but the atmosphere is also perfect for a slow, reflective Brahms lullaby.


Q: What’s your favourite part of playing music?

A: Many of the classical pieces I play were written at least 50 years ago, and Bach’s compositions were written over 250 years ago. It’s become a little game that I play with myself to guess the intentions of the composer in each dynamic, tempo, or theme change, and feels like a way to connect with people long dead. At the same time, music is interpretative; no one person plays a piece the same, and my interpretation is my own. I like adding my own images to accompany the music of the piece. It makes the melodies more personal.


Q: What do you do outside of your musical ambitions?

A: I’m pretty active in the STEM scene here at Bishops, as one of the co-captains of Science Olympiad and a member of the Robotics, Math, and Knights Code4Good clubs. I like quantum computing and programming (despite the many, many annoyances that come with the never ending bugs in my programs), so I do a bit of both outside of school. I was also on the Varsity tennis team this year.


Q: How do you make time for all the extracurricular activities?

A: I’ve learned to prioritize my activities on top of my schoolwork and college apps this year. There are days where I’m not able to practice flute because of a tennis game, or when I have to pass off some homework to practice for a piano competition. I’ve also found that creating mental checklists helps, though I don’t always stick to them, and that it’s important to forgive myself if I’m not able to finish everything.


Q: Are you able to hang out with friends as frequently with so much going on?

A: Despite being busy, I make time to hang out with friends during X or after school. I love going to Brick & Bell and Warwicks, and I try to get at least one or two friends to come down to the beach with me at least once a week to explore the tidepools (at least, when they were still there). I find that some time away from the computer screen or the piano is helpful in clearing my head and makes me more productive when I head back to crunch through whatever needs to be done for the day.


Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: I’m still debating between taking on a music double major/minor or simply participating in the symphonies/music clubs of whatever college I end up attending. Playing the piano is one of things I’ll still be able to do when I’m old and gray, so I hope to keep the skill with me through college and beyond. Academically, I hope to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science before taking on a master’s degree in either computation and cognition or something computer science in relation to space exploration.