At 8 years old, I was a hyperenergetic child that gave my parents a hard time pacifying. A short course of martial arts that was supposed to burn my excessive energy was counterproductive when I started “practicing” on my poor little brother. As a last resort to simmer me down, mom sent me to a guitar class. Unexpectedly, it was the beginning of my passion for music.
In just one month, I improved immensely. I appeared to have a talent for music, as I could practice new pieces with ease and enthusiasm. Music was what I enjoyed learning the most. Guitar had become more than just a hobby – I couldn’t live without it. After zealously performing at local shows and participating in local guitar contests, I accumulated a small collection of prizes. With the care and attention needed to tend a garden, I nourished my love for music. The more I practiced the guitar, the more I realized it had become an inseparable part of myself.
Experiencing outside the box
The freshman year of high school is an important milestone for everyone. With my desire to learn in a nurturing, dynamic and open environment, which is rather scarce in my hometown, Pleiku, I decided to aim for Gia Lai province’s only school for gifted students. I failed to get in the English-specialized class, so I chose chemistry instead even though I didn’t care much for it. This probably explains why I felt incomplete throughout high school, with the mediocre scores to boot. I was always yearning for more, as if something essential was missing from my life.
In the summer of 10th grade, the stuffy environment of Pleiku bored me out. There was no space for me to develop musically. Stuck in a repetitive routine and tedious extra classes, I felt like a bird entrapped in a cage, longing to break free and fly among the clouds in a boundless blue sky. I wanted nothing more than to learn more, experience more outside the classroom.
On one occasion, I hosted a couch surfer from the US. My hospitality and enthusiasm made us good friends and he invited me to come visit him some time in Sai Gon, where he was living and working. I was intrigued, as I had always wanted to explore this city, the cultural hub known for its vibrant music scene.
I asked my parents for permission to travel to Sai Gon, to learn from the best, to familiarize myself with the professional music world and hopefully build a network in this community. Moreover, I wanted to practice my English skills. Worried about my safety going there alone, my mother rejected this idea. Surprisingly, I earned my father’s support, who even provided me a small amount of money for my trip. Without missing a beat, I packed my things and hit the road.
The experience was way beyond my expectations. I visited my old friend in Sai Gon, who serendipitously had a musician friend from Berklee coming over – a prestigious music academy in the US. Despite my limited language proficiency at the time, I learned a lot from them. I could witness what a true musician’s life was like.
In those two weeks, I roamed the streets of Sai Gon with a borrowed guitar. I was introduced to the professionals here, and these encounters revealed a tempting yet challenging path as an artist. I also
reunited with an acquaintance from my guitar class in Gia Lai, who helped me define my goals in regards to music. With my horizon broadened, I felt more refreshed and energized than ever.
I was astonished with how much I was inspired and how much my musical skills improved. I became more serious with music. Normally, at first sight, I could appear somewhat distant and cold, as I am naturally reserved. I usually shy away from being the center of the crowd. Yet the guitar grants me with a “superpower” that allows me to forget about the surroundings whenever I play it. As I start strumming, I become one with the instrument. There is truly no other feeling as mesmerizing as being able to harmonize with a voice and reverberate with the audience.
Upon my return to Gia Lai, I was full of plans and participated more actively in my school’s music club as the vice president. I put my heart into organizing workshops and mini concerts as a way to bring a breath of fresh air to Gia Lai, the highland province where music life was rather underdeveloped.
The path ahead
For most students from a chemistry-specialized class, the seemingly obvious career choice is the healthcare industry. Yet, I wonder if most of us are making career choices of convenience, before actual exploration or inquiry. I believe many of my peers who followed higher education in medical or pharmaceutical majors were unaware of their career prospects, or forging ahead without much excitement.
I found myself standing at a crossroad: To pursue music professionally, or not. Should I apply to a music school, or just keep playing recreationally? Even though I had been trying to establish an initial launchpad for my musical career should I choose to follow one, I was reluctant. The only thing I knew for sure, was that I could never abandon music.
I once reached out to a music class, with the spontaneously audacious intention to apply to the Conservatory. Though it was risky, I put my hopes up for it. Yet the instructor rained on my parade saying there was no way I could improve my skills in time for the audition. The application form was put aside and once again, I chose a safer path. On my list of college choices, the Foreign Trade University and other economic institutions were on top, followed by Social Sciences and Humanities schools. Music did not even make that list. Even though the idea of studying abroad did cross my mind, I did not have the resources and qualifications to follow through.
Sometimes, happenstances come about without any anticipation. From a post on the Facebook page “Tony Buổi sáng”, I came to know Fulbright. Out of curiosity, I came to an admissions event, only to be blown away by the endless possibilities here. Fulbright was displaying with such vibrant colors: compelling, energetic, experiential and most importantly, liberating. The fact that you can pursue music alongside another major here was more than persuasive to me. That was exactly what I was looking for – an opportunity to keep exploring more options without having to leave music behind. The Original Piece of Work I submitted for Fulbright’s admissions application was my performance of “Romance D’ Amour”, the very first piece I had the chance to play on stage at age 8.
The first-year curriculum at Fulbright includes extensive core courses, which range from Natural science to Logic, Rhetoric or Vietnamese Studies. I also took part in various extra-curricular activities, like workshops and an entrepreneurship bootcamp. It helped me realize how none of those subjects seem to be the right track for me. I finally saw I had been beating around the bush and searching for easier routes all along, but I couldn’t dedicate myself thoroughly unless it was to music.
Ever since I was a child, I have always been stubborn and tenacious, doing things my own way without relying on or consulting with anyone. My parents neither forbid nor demand that I follow any particular direction, I have to figure out my own choices. Whenever I have to come to a decision on anything, I always spent a lot of time deliberating and pondering, and this time it was no different.
I was not born into a family of artistic tradition. My parents are under the common impression that art requires tremendous investments without guaranteeing a stable future. The fact that none of my friends who performed with me chose to follow music as a career was not to my advantage, either.
Without such catalyst, my road is undoubtedly more challenging. But I know where to start – by perfecting my technical skills, equipping myself with knowledge and ceaselessly searching for opportunities to study professionally. Although Berklee still seems to be quite out of reach, they do have promising exchange programs. Hopefully, one day I will be able to stand on a big stage and perform music to my heart’s content. One day, my original compositions will see the light of day.
My journey has just begun.
Nguyen Le Tien Cong – Class of 2023