When Joshua Kyan Aalampour was 16, he taught himself to play the piano using a cheap 61-key keyboard and videos on YouTube. Four years later, Joshua is a music student at UC Berkeley. He has performed his work at Lincoln Center, written a symphony and composed a score for a feature-length film. He teaches music to students around the world. He performs a new piece for TikTok every day. All while taking at least 26 credits each semester so that he can graduate this May — two years early.
Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode #90: “From a $16 keyboard to a symphony.”
Narration: Joshua Kyan Aalampour took his first — and last — piano lesson when he was 16. It was 2017. He was in the basement of a building in Jinan, a city in eastern China, where he and his family had moved from New Jersey six years earlier when he was 10.
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: Like, all the other students are waiting behind you while your class is happening. So, there was that element of pressure. And it was also kind of embarrassing because I was 16 and everyone else was like half my age. So, I’m like, “Oh, God, I better not mess up.” But, of course I did.
Narration: Joshua didn’t even want to learn piano. But his parents really wanted him to, so he went to make them happy. When it was his turn, he walked up, sat down and the teacher asked him to sight-read a piece of music. But he didn’t know how.
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: She brought up this point that I didn’t know how to read sheet music and was saying a bunch of things like, “You’ll never be able to do this and that.” So, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to try and learn the piano without learning sheet music,” which I thought was the best revenge idea ever at the time.
Narration: So, he went home, pulled out a little 61-key keyboard that his father had bought for $16, and set out to learn to play on his own. Joshua was home-schooled, so he had a lot of time during the day to practice.
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: So, I set aside an average of about six hours a day. There are these videos on YouTube called Synthesia videos, or MIDI videos, where it shows this keyboard, and it has these little lasers going down so you see how a piece of music is played, instead of reading traditional music notation.
Narration: After two weeks, Joshua composed his first piece, a three-minute bagatelle called “Reverie.”
[Music: “Reverie” by Joshua Kyan Aalampour]
Joshua Kyan Aalampour: I would just play it for hours on end, and I’d forget that I’m in Jinan, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m in, like, 18th century Paris or something,” as corny as that sounds.
Narration: Four years later, at age 20, Joshua is a second-year music student at UC Berkeley. He has performed his work at Lincoln Center, written a symphony and composed a score for a feature-length film. He teaches music to students around the world. He performs a new piece for TikTok every day. All while taking at least 26 credits each semester so that he can graduate this May — two years early.
This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.