Firsts: Helen Sung

FIRSTS is Michael Gallant's ongoing mini-column about formative first moments in keyboard artists' lives--whether an instrument, composition, mentor, or gig. This installment: Helen Sung on the first song she composed for live performance. -Ed.

Helen Sung's First Gig-Ready Composition

The first piece that New York pianist and composer Helen Sung wrote — and considered strong enough to be performed in public — came to her soon after she graduated from the Monk Institute program, then at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

While Sung was still a student, the program’s Artistic Director, Ron Carter, “had us each compose a new piece for whenever he’d be in town to work with us, which was about every two weeks,” she says. Once on her own, Sung decided to channel such discipline and lessons learned from composing for the master into an assignment of her own: Creating a piece of music that would both challenge her as a composer and help her grow as a pianist.

“I was working on the ‘half-diminished ii to dominant V’ progression, which had been giving me fits,” she says, laughing, “so I thought, why not write a piece that used that progression so I could practice it in a musical way?” The result was “The Waiting Game,” a tune Sung says was also inspired by how Dizzy Gillespie used the same progression in his piece “Woody ’n’ You.”

Sung’s newest album, Anthem for a New Day, is now available from Concord. Get the latest at