People in the News

New Artist of the Month: Tiffany Poon

May 1, 2021 | By Brian Wise, Musical America

Pianist Tiffany Poon may not be well known to a certain generation of classical music fans, but to followers of YouTube, she’s a star. The 24-year-old pianist has a YouTube channel that’s drawn 42 million views and some 290,000 subscribers interested in watching her practice Brahms and Bach, serve up audition tips, interview other musicians, and rehearse with guests including cellists Jan Vogler and Eric Jacobsen.

By comparison, Lang Lang trails her with a mere 23 million total YouTube views and 177,000 subscribers, while Daniel Barenboim only claims 96,000.

For Poon, her audience translates into ad revenues— the traditional form of income for YouTube creators — plus funding from 600 supporters through Patreon crowdfunding. She also manages the non-profit platform, Together with Classical, which raises money for other arts- and education-related causes.

“I'm very lucky that my audiences are very, very loyal to me,” Poon said in a recent Zoom call. “Of course, it took years. I only started making vlogs [video blogs] because I thought that classical music lacked human elements. Composers are dead and current musicians don't really talk about themselves as humans.”

Poon’s first posted videos date to 2007, but only in the last four years has she emerged as an online personalty, her upbeat productions attracting music nerds as well as casual browsers who find her through YouTube’s algorithms.

“Why in the world would two million people watch me practicing a Rachmaninoff concerto? Not that it's necessarily my favorite video, but that surprised me,” a bemused Poon said of one practice video that has received 2 million views. “So many things have surprised me. I mean, how did I walk into Steinway Hall and walk out with a piano?”

Poon refers to a moment in 2019 when she responded to an open invitation to play Vladimir Horowitz’s piano at the Steinway Showroom on 6th Avenue in Manhattan. (She refers to it as Steinway Hall in a video.) After promoting the visit to her Instagram followers — who now number over 90,000 — a dozen of them turned up to watch and, as Poon tells it, “someone alerted the marketing director that there's this girl with a camera” in the building. Seizing the potential of a social-media savvy artist, Steinway officials soon struck up a deal with Poon in which they would lend her an instrument in exchange for promoting their brand in her posts. A Model B piano was delivered to her Manhattan apartment in February 2020.

Hong Kong to New York

Born in Kong Kong, Poon was four years old when her parents noticed her keen interest in a toy piano and quickly signed her up for piano lessons. At age seven she traveled to New York and successfully auditioned for Juilliard’s Pre-College Division but deferred her studies for a year in order to first learn English. After moving to New York with her mother at age nine, she studied with Yoheved Kaplinsky, the chair of Juilliard’s piano department, and later enrolled at the Calhoun School, a private, pre-K-12 school on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

By age 10, Poon was winning top prizes in young artist competitions, leading to concerto dates with the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, in Columbus, OH, and Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra, in Arkansas. After high school, she received a full scholarship to Columbia University, where she earned a B.A. in philosophy, while continuing her piano studies with Joseph Kalichstein and Emanuel Ax through the Columbia-Juilliard exchange program.

“I had more thoughts at the age of 17,” she says of her decision to attend Columbia. “I knew that music wasn't just about music. It’s about something bigger. It's about life experiences, and I wanted to expand my world view and just know more things.”

In 2017, Poon posted her first vlog, a day-in-the-life snapshot that included a rehearsal and visit to a Greenwich Village noodle restaurant. The response spurred her on to do more on the web. Soon came quirky-themed videos like “5 most difficult Chopin pieces” and “50 Facts About Me.”

“I remember sitting in a coffee shop with a friend and looking at the numbers and I could not believe what was happening,” she recalls of the site traffic. It marked the beginning of her huge fan base.

Poon’s followers have at times served as a focus group, voting on recital selections and posing questions that inspire other videos. She routinely thanks her Patreon supporters, who give between $5 to $30 a month and, in return, receive exclusive performance videos, photos, and audio recordings. With fan support, Poon plans to record a solo album later this year.

Fan Management

The enthusiasm of those supporters has required some careful management at times. When she appeared last May in a 24-hour livestream marathon, organized by Vogler, some of her followers were accused of drowning out comments in support of other artists. Poon later took to Instagram to plead for civility. “As much I appreciate your support,” she said in a six-minute video, “I don’t want you to put down other musicians or be so over-the-top impatient that other people would be jealous or be mean back.” She added, “Please be nice to everyone else. I don’t want your support for me to backfire.”

This may be partly chalked up to the rough and tumble of online fan relationships. “There will be ups and downs,” she admits. “There will be stresses, and I've had my moments, but my audience knows that and I pretty much tell them when I'm stressed out or when I'm not stressed out. So we kind of have this close relationship that I really, really appreciate.”

In April 2020, Poon raised some $7,000 for frontline workers in a streamed recital hosted by Doctors without Borders, an experience that prompted her to look more broadly at charitable endeavors. A winter campaign on her Together with Classical netted $10,000 towards MusiCares, the Music Health Alliance, and other charities. Poon employs two staff members and three volunteers who help oversee the platform, which includes a store selling T-shirts, tote bags, and other merchandise, some emblazoned with her personal tagline, “Be Kind, Keep Striving.”

With concerts scheduled for this spring in Dresden and Salzburg, it remains to be seen how much Poon’s online following will translate into pandemic-era ticket sales. But many will no doubt follow her journeys via social media. The Dresden recital program is expected to pair works by Clara and Robert Schumann, two of her favorite composers.

“I could tell just from reading her music that she had a lot to say, but she couldn’t really say it,” Poon says of Clara Schumann. “I always get this really tense feeling from playing some of her passages because they're always a bit more complicated than Robert’s or someone else from around her time.” Unlike Clara Schumann, Poon may never lack outlets for self-expression.

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