As a pianist who performs online, without a physical audience to cheer him on, Kha often feels self-doubt and loneliness. But today he perseveres, not only does he learn how to stay strong, but also – through his music – to help others overcome their difficulties. Sherry Lee speaks with Kha to learn more about the sources of his strength.
Last year in July, German-born Vietnamese Kha, 29, made the most difficult decision of his life. He quit his job to pursue his musical dream, performing as an online musician. Away from an audience, and in the absence of reassurance from applause, he has often experienced self-doubt and loneliness.
“My biggest fear is that one day everyone will have outgrown my music,” he says. “Every day I still check the number of views of my music videos on YouTube, Instagram and Spotify, and growth rates of views, streams and subscribers. It’s really stressful but I cannot stop myself from doing this.”
Every time the view count or number of subscribers drop, Kha is disheartened, and struggles with the idea of quitting.
But he decides not to give up.
Today his channel, BigRicePiano, featuring several hundred pieces of his music, is available on different music platforms, from YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and SoundCloud to Amazon Music. On YouTube alone, his channel has 75,000 subscribers, and there are almost 24 million views so far.
Throughout this musical journey, not only has he learned to stay strong, his simplistic and minimalistic music is helping many others confront their hardship.
“Sometimes my music allows people to remember and find comfort in the past. Other times it allows them to move on. Some of them find hope in my music.”
Q&A with Kha
How did your interest in piano begin?
I remember when I was two to three years old, my father was playing in a band as a hobby and would occasionally let me come with him to their practice sessions. Although my father played the guitar, the instrument I felt most fascinated with were the drums. That sparked an interest in music for me.
The first time I touched the keys of a piano keyboard was at my uncle’s house in 1997 when I was four years old. I proceeded to have my first live performance that very day in front of my whole family. It must have been really bad, but everyone was smiling and having a really good time, so it didn’t matter. My uncle gifted me the keyboard afterwards, and that was when my music journey began.
How did you learn to play the piano?
When I was 7, I attended music lessons for one or two years, and the teacher was called ‘Mr Teddy’. He taught us to have fun with music. In class, we told stories with whatever sounds our keyboards were able to produce, and ultimately had a good time. I guess that if Mr Teddy was strict, I might have quit playing the piano.
After that, I started learning to play piano by myself. This was due to the fact that I did not have any teacher to formally teach me, providing me the sheet music and guidance, and so I was able to discover music in a completely different manner opposed to most musicians. I learned that music would be “an endless ocean of possibilities to explore”. I discovered different techniques all by myself. For example, I would incorporate pauses and dynamics in my music to make it sound interesting. While others conveniently have all of these techniques described in their music books, I discovered them, which I thought were very exciting experiences.
What inspired you to start releasing your music on YouTube?
I never thought of myself being really good at the piano until some friends suggested that I upload some of my songs to YouTube. That was 2008 and I was only 15.
YouTube was still in its early days, and so the platform was more known for its comedy videos than for music, but I still gave it a shot as I was curious about what other people thought of my music. I recorded my first music piece and uploaded it on my first YouTube channel. The music was kind of cheesy and poorly produced, but I knew it was the kind of music I would continue to hone and develop. In 2009, I launched my Youtube channel, BigRicePiano, which was actually my nickname that my friends called me when I was a young teen.
Back then I was using a webcam to record my music – it sounded as bad as what you would expect. But since music was something that hasn’t been established on YouTube yet, people were still enjoying it. I guess my first views came from my friends, especially those from the Asian community in Germany who are strongly connected.
Releasing music for the first time on YouTube must be nerve-racking. Were there any interesting stories?
I was very anxious and self-conscious with every upload as I was afraid of receiving mean and harsh comments. I still remember keeping track of all the views, comments, and number of subscribers which hit 100 in a short time that I remember celebrating. It was a huge accomplishment for me back then and I found myself checking in every day in hope of new comments and subscribers!
I did receive several negative comments, which were mostly criticizing the lack of quality in the production itself. I remember feeling the sting of every negative comment, but thankfully I received a lot of support and positive reinforcement from my friends and netizens, which motivated me. The positive feedback from complete strangers made me realize that my music might be better than what I thought of it. My first videos never made past a couple hundred views, but seeing my network grow because of the content I made felt extremely fulfilling.
You mentioned that your parents came to Germany to escape from the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and pointed out that this background has created obstacles for you to develop a music career, why is that?
My parents are refugees from South Vietnam. They moved to Germany in the 80s after the war to study and start a new life. After moving to Hamburg in the very early 2000s, they opened a small stationery store which they are still running to this day.
As refugees, my parents tend to feel worried about things in life, fearing poverty and losing their footing. They worried about my future and pushed me to pursue a good education and a stable career choice.
I studied media in the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, and after graduation, I became a media trainee and had a few stable full time jobs afterwards. I had a clear plan laid out in front of me which made my parents feel less worried about me, but music was never a part of that plan. I convinced myself that “music does not get you anywhere”, and this belief was deeply engraved in my mindset. My parents and I never considered that I would turn my passion for music into something that could sustain my living.
In 2021, you decided to become a full time musician, based on social media, did you have any struggles when you made the decision?
I was an ordinary employee in a 9-to-5 job, working in advertising agencies as a social media content manager. My duties were to create social media posts, develop content strategies for brands and marketing campaigns. The job was stable, secure and well paid. It was not until 2021 that I decided to pursue music as a career. I started out doing it in my free time aside from my full-time job, dedicating two or even four hours daily in developing my music. However, with the lack of time, I started to have frequent burnouts and depression because of all the stress that was piling up on me.
I knew that I had to make a decision eventually: Keeping my job meant giving up my music career. Who would I become? I spoke to my parents about this and was surprised that they immediately encouraged me to pursue my music. They said that letting their son give up his happiness and passion was no option for them, saying if I felt confident and ready for it, they would be, too. It was the first true “heart to heart” conversation I had with my parents and I felt so moved and loved.
This was the scariest decision that I made in my life. I thank God that my parents gave me the strength and courage to do so – even though they must have felt really worried.
Could you describe your typical day as an online pianist now?
My day starts with answering comments on my music on social media. Since I make a lot of music for online platforms, I answer business emails, from online platforms, content creators, music distributors, etc. I dedicate the first half of the day to finish compositions in progress and editing videos for my YouTube channel. The second half of the day is dedicated to sketching melodies, looking for new ideas and making music. I engage with my audience every day as well, sometimes in real time.
Has your Asian cultural background influenced your music style? Your music has a Japanese style, why is that?
I grew up listening to soundtracks from Japanese animes, Chinese dramas, and contemporary piano, and this had a great impact on my music style. I would describe the genre of my music as auditory paintings, poetry or emotional vessels. It’s always up to the listener to interpret their own meaning to my music. My music is rather slow in tempo with there is not too much going on. I try to make my pieces simple and quiet to give the listener room for their thoughts and self-reflection.
You said that your music is now transitioning into a minimalistic style, could you explain more about this style?
While classical piano music is often known for fast tempos and sophisticated melodies, a minimalistic style of piano expresses itself in quietness and simplicity. They are often a lot slower and are embracing the silence of long pauses. To me, silence is an equally important part of music as is the sound of the piano.
I am very interested in Japanese Haiku poetry where poets only have limited space to express themselves. I think not having as much space for words leaves more space for interpretation; and I have adopted this art form in my music. I prefer to strip away some of the music, to increase space for the listener to expound what they think of the piece.
I found your music so peaceful and it really calmed my heart when I was in a storm of emotions. The piece, “Far Away”, has accompanied me while I was going through a setback in my career last year, and I listened to this many times a day, and finally managed to have a rebound. Could you explain why your music has this power?
It is really amazing to read messages from my listeners and what my music does for them. Due to the minimalistic nature of my music, listeners will have more time to stop and think and confront their situations. It is slow enough to not distract you and give room for your thoughts. Our lives nowadays are hectic and fast, which is why I think people like to listen to my music. It helps them to slow down and think. Sometimes my music allows people to remember and find comfort in the past. Other times it allows them to move on. Some of them find hope in my music.
You mentioned the album “The Silent City” is a collection of music dedicated to the loneliness and melancholy of today’s cities. What made you think that today’s cities are characterized by loneliness?
I think we are busier than ever. Because of this we are also lonelier than ever. We’re relying a lot on social media but this is superficial. A lot of people told me that they actually have no real friends anymore. The older they grow, the less meaningful connections they have in life.
Especially in large cities where we had to interact with a lot of people, we have all these people around us during the day, yet we have no one to actually talk to. Oftentimes we’re too tired to talk to people after work. I feel lonely as well, which makes this an important topic for me too.
Then, how did you heal their loneliness with your music?
What my album “The Silent City” does isn’t to present a solution to this social issue. It is not meant to give you strength and hope to seek for new connections. The music helps people to confront their loneliness.
“The Silent City” also presents some joyful pieces based on happy memories that I have. A melody about a warm noodle soup on a winter evening or a deep conversation in a coffee shop. Since I haven’t learned any music theory, I don’t quite know how to explain what makes a piano song joyful. To me what counts the most is that it is genuine.
You said that you like creating music on the spot, is there a special reason for that?
To me, improvisation is the rawest kind of music because it relies so heavily on intuition and coincidence. A lot of my music gets created by chance, it is unpredictable. This allows me to express myself in the very moment as I am translating my thoughts and my feelings into melodies. It always gives me a wonderful sensation to discover new music at the very moment rather than planning an entire piece over several months.
Could you name some of your music pieces that are your favorites? Why do you like them the most?
I don’t think I have very clear favorites, but there are three songs that left a big mark on me during and after composing them.
The first one is “The Sound of Rain” which is probably my most popular composition to date. I had received a message from one of my listeners who told me their little brother just passed away due to an incurable illness and asked me if I could dedicate one of my songs to him. I was moved and started to compose “The Sound of Rain”. It was a very heartfelt composition process. A lot of my music is not about me and my own experiences since I live a pretty ordinary life, but I am trying to create music to comfort people in pain and help them grieve.
Truereport.hk used “The Sound of Rain” at the end of our documentary on Chinese comfort women, to convey a message of hope and peace. When you watched our video, how did you feel your music is applied in such a way?
It felt really great to see my music being extended to other art forms and media with the same mission as me: To give people solace and a safe space to face their own circumstances of life and to work through them.
Another piece that I remember vividly is “Heaven’s Lullaby”, also one of my most popular songs. I was on a Skype call with some friends, and suddenly the idea came to my mind.I told them I would be right back, and jumped straight on my piano and composed large parts of “Heaven’s Lullaby” within 10 minutes. It was the most inspiring moment I have ever had to this day!
“To You” is one of my most personal songs I have ever released. During the time I composed that song, I was coming out of a break up. I transformed my pain into music. I realized that if “To You” helped me work through the lowest points of my life, it would be able to do the same for others too.
Could you share whether you encountered any setbacks as a musician, and how you overcame them?
Many musicians or artists struggle with how their work is perceived and whether or not they are recognized, and this is the same for me. My biggest fear is that one day everyone will have outgrown my music. Since I am not performing to a physical audience, it was never easy to really see the impact I have as an artist.
Every day I still check the number of views of my music videos on YouTube, Instagram and Spotify, and growth rates of views, streams and subscribers. It is really stressful but I cannot stop myself from doing this. There is much to learn from these numbers: Seasons and days people like to listen to my music more often, songs they like the most, events and shoutouts that might have brought new people to my music.
Unlike those who can go on tour and perform in front of live crowds, I cannot really see how many people show up without checking the numbers. Every time the numbers dropped, it was increasing my self-doubts. It was so disheartening sometimes, and I was fighting the thought of quitting being an online musician.
Then I remember in fall 2021, right before deciding to turn my music into a full time job, I had a really deep conversation with an established media composer. I told him about my insecurities of not being good enough for the job and he simply said: “No matter what happens in the future, people are already willing to listen to your music. They are already there. You don’t need another proof, it is already proven.”
Gradually, I learned how to focus on all the people that are still listening and are visibly showing their support. They make this whole thing worth it, no matter how the numbers rise or fall. Numbers are not the measurement of my talent. This is probably the most important lesson I have learned in my life.
Being an online musician, how do you generate income? Has it been difficult?
A lot of my income comes from clients commissioning new music from me for their commercial projects. People also commission me to compose music for their personal purposes, like for birthday presents or music for their short stories, visual novels or webtoons. I am also getting paid for every stream on my streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music, there is also advertising revenue from ads on my YouTube videos.
With streaming platforms and online advertising, there are a lot more opportunities to get paid as a musician. However, we are still getting massively underpaid by the most relevant platforms and the amounts of monthly streams and views needed in order to make a living with our creative work is still unachievable for many. I am very lucky to receive so much support from my listeners and trust from my clients to allow me to continue chasing my dream.
Is being a musician a road of loneliness? How did you overcome the loneliness and keep on going?
Sometimes I indeed feel lonely, since my music genre is a really small niche here in Germany. Most of my audience is based in the USA or South East Asia. It is quite disheartening to think that my concert halls would not be filled here in Germany. Therefore I always try to connect with my audience as much as possible, with some of my listeners even becoming my good friends to this day.
I always check new comments and messages listeners leave, be it on Instagram or YouTube or other platforms, because this is what motivates me most. If nothing else helps: my girlfriend is always there to catch me whenever I stumble. She has supported me since day 1 and is one of the biggest reasons why I still keep going despite all the doubts I had over the years.
What do you want to achieve as a musician? Do you have a mission?
Since a lot of my music is about human emotions, I hope that someday I can do more for people with mental health issues. This is one of the most dangerous social issues that are still overlooked by society. It is hard for mental patients to find genuine help. I have experienced this first hand. I had received counseling as I always felt burnt out and emotionally burdened before, and I have also supported friends who had depression and mental stress in the past, so I am able to help the audience.
Now with my music receiving a wider audience, I feel enabled to bring more awareness to this issue.
I hope that someday I can worry less about sustaining my living as a musician and start using my music to help the society. My kind of music may not lead me to worldwide fame, but what’s most important to me is that my music is there for anyone who needs it.
By Sherry Lee
I discovered BigRicePiano music by chance. One day I was searching for music for one of our documentaries. I wanted to find a piece that would bring out the themes of peace and hope for the documentary’s ending.
“The Sound of Rain” was among the list of music that appeared in the searchbar of an online music platform. I clicked on it and the first sounds immediately struck me. The music combined with the soft sounds of rain felt so tranquil, having an extremely powerful calming effect on my heart. Without a doubt, I selected this song to be the closing end of the documentary.
This marked the beginning of my love for this channel’s music.
The reason for why I enjoy Kha’s music is not only because of its calming effect, but each of his pieces holds an ability to tell a story of mine. It creates room in my mind for a piece of memory, be it sad or sweet. When I play his music, memories that were supposedly long forgotten flash back.
To exemplify the amazing correspondence of Kha’s music aligning with my story, I recall the day last year I was listening to “Far Away”, during which I struggled with loneliness and immense disappointment. Hearing the simplistic melody of the piano while seeing the weeds along the village path, I was inspired to be tough like them. On that same day I wrote a story about this inspiration, namely 《野草》“Weeds”，making this song a core memory during the confusing times of my life.
Whereas “A Place for Us” recalls my encounter with a dried autumn leaf that motivated me to devote myself to society. The leaf reflected its recurring motif that encourages me to stand strong in tough situations. I listened to this song while I wrote an analogy, titled《與葉子的偶遇》“My Encounter with a Leaf“, about the leaf’s implications and how it connected to me.
Not only was the music effective in building the needed sentiment to guide me to commit to the emotive component of my writings, but it had strongly aligned with my experiences in life – achieving exactly Kha’s desire of his audience having the creative freedom to reinterpret his music into their lives.
His music served me the opportunities to indulge in comfort, acceptance and finally being able to find healing.
Overtime, his music becomes mine, as I feel something personal between me and the music.
Thank you Kha for creating the music that will always have a place in my heart.
Sherry Lee, the Editor-in-Chief of Truereport.hk, is a multiple award-winning Hong Kong journalist who has dedicated her life to telling other people’s stories.