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Alumnus Creates Music Even After He Stops Hearing It

Yew Choong Cheong at piano.
WRITTEN BY MIKENNA PIEROTTI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOSHUA PAUL

Yew Choong Cheong’s love affair with the piano began before he could even reach the pedals. 

“My eldest sister learned to play the piano and as a child I often watched,” he said.

The slender keys, the sheen of the wood — and the sound — captivated him. At just 7 years old, growing up in a middle-class family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Yew Choong, BM ’02, MM ’05, DMA ’09, would climb onto the bench and bang out a few chords, trying to imitate what he heard. His parents took notice and sent him to piano lessons with high hopes.

But the affair was not to be, at least not yet. Not long after he began learning piano, Yew Choong caught a viral infection in his left ear that damaged his hearing. Although he was able to continue lessons with a hearing
aid, he no longer had the same passion for the instrument. And the musical culture in Malaysia, where students often take piano lessons solely for the sake of exams, did not allow him the creative freedom he craved.

So he quit. At age 15, Yew Choong abandoned the lessons. But the music never left him. 

“I was obsessed with classical music,” he said. “I was especially fond of listening to Beethoven’s Bagatelle in E-Flat. To me, Beethoven is my hero — his music is declamatory yet profound.” 

He started collecting music magazines and CDs, researching classical composers and feeding the flame that refused to die. 

Yew Choong Cheong with student at piano.

“I was fascinated by Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Schubert — not to mention reading their biographies that inspired me
so much,” he said. 

He found he couldn’t stay away and took up his piano lessons again. Yet even with his obvious talent and passion, his parents discouraged him from pursuing a college degree in music. 

“They were concerned about my hearing condition,” he said. “I succumbed to their demand by pursuing an IT degree in software programming and started working as a software engineer. It was one of the most dreadful periods in my life.” 

Unhappy, stagnant and separated from his calling, at 20 years old Yew Choong went against his parents’ wishes and returned for a third time to piano. 

“I decided to quit the job and pursue a music degree despite strong protest from my father. It was a turning point
in my life,” he said.

Yew Choong eventually entered a collaborative degree program between Sedaya College — now called UCSI University — and WVU. There, he was introduced to WVU professor of piano and coordinator of keyboard studies Peter Amstutz, who visited Sedaya for a recital performance and master class. The two clicked, and Amstutz became a mentor to the budding pianist. Yew Choong soon made plans to come to WVU to continue his education. Until another setback hit.

“The musical journey was at first a joyful experience, but something unexpected happened to me. I suffered from sudden hearing loss at the moment when I was preparing for a graduation recital, a few months before I went to WVU,” he said. Yew Choong regained most of his hearing, but not all of it. “Somehow I couldn't hear higher frequencies. It is still challenging to hear higher registers from the piano at any pitch. It was a very difficult time.”

In defiance of the odds, Yew Choong left Malaysia and made a new home in Morgantown, where he continued his studies alongside Amstutz even as he suffered two more episodes of sudden sensorineural hearing loss. Yew Choong said Amstutz never gave up on him — and that confidence bolstered his determination to overcome the unexpected.

Yew Choong Cheong's hands playing piano. 

“His generosity is infectious,” Yew Choong said. “There is always an exchange of ideas and thoughts in his teaching. ‘Teacher commands, student obeys’ is never his motto. But he could be quite demanding — he would expect me to listen to my playing carefully. He never treated me as a hearing-disabled person.”

Through acupuncture and sheer force of will, Yew Choong regained some of his hearing, though he remains unable to hear over the telephone and uses lip reading to communicate in person. He’s won an impressive array of awards and played solo performances and recitals in the U.S., Europe and Asia — from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to the International Piano Festival by People with Disabilities in Japan and Vienna. And he graduated from WVU with his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in musical arts. 

Today he is walking in the footsteps of his mentors and professors, teaching the next generation of pianists at UCSI University as an assistant professor. And he has a lot of wisdom to pass on, about perseverance and determination and about following your heart. 

“There is an excellent quotation from pianist Rosalyn Tureck,” he said. “‘Art and a career are like oil and water — they don’t mix. A career comes because you give yourself to art, not the other way around.’” 

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