Kenny Leung, resident pianist of Larkin in Stern Hall, can’t read music. Instead, he can play any song he knows by ear. He’s known for his adaptive medley—listeners shout out a song while he is playing and he transitions into it effortlessly. When I sat down in the Larkin lounge with him and asked for a demonstration, Leung transitioned from Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” to frat party fav “Get Low,” to “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons.
“A big part of it is not really caring if you mess up or not,” Leung said. “I had totally given up on piano actually. I was never going to play the piano again, so I didn’t really care about messing up. I think that was one of the biggest factors in learning to improvise.” He took lessons from first until eighth grade when he stopped because he couldn’t read music. For years, he could only play a song if his teacher played it for him first. In high school, he began playing songs that were on the radio. He would guess-and-check the melody, then layer on bass patterns and chords.
In order to play an adaptive medley, Leung transposes every song into the same key so that he can easily transition between them. “I like the key of G. It’s pretty simple and it’s my default,” said Leung. He considers it his “own personal key.” “I try to abstract the relations between all the chords I hear in the song. I’ve attributed certain emotions to every chord. For example, the C chord is anticipatory. I know what kind of emotions each chord produces and I play off of that.”
Leung prefers to play with groups of people, who give him song recommendations and sing along with him. He is well known in the dorm for singing rather than for piano, and he and his friends often take explicit rap songs and perform them acoustically. “Get Low” is a dorm favorite. “When it’s 3 am and we’re all in the lounge and everyone’s really bored, I’ll sit down at the piano and start narrating all of our lives. But that only happens after 3 am.”
While Leung is taking a more active role in music at Stanford by doing regular performances at the CoHo with a friend, he is conflicted about taking formal lessons and learning to read sheet music. “I don’t want to lose my own personal touch on music. I don’t want to feel like I have to conform to some structure.”