Scott MacIsaac – Portrait of a Young Award-Winning Classical Pianist

Scott MacIssac - 2011 - pix 1

Scott MacIssac - 2011 - pix 3

If you spend some time with Scott MacIsaac, the first thing you will notice is that he is an easy going & sweet young man. And if you are lucky to hear him play the piano in a concert, you will discover he is a talented classical pianist and has also won many awards.

When I first heard Scott performing in 2009 at 16, I knew that Scott was talented but I only knew him as a person through the eyes of his grandpa Lee Yee 李怡, a famous Hong Kong writer/editorialist. In order to write about Scott in an informed manner, I spent an afternoon plus an evening chatting with Scott and his parents Doug, Wendy and grandpa Lee Yee. And conducted two extensive over the phone followup interviews with Scott and Lee Yee. I appreciate their time very much especially since Scott is leaving Calgary soon (in August 2011) to enter Yale‘s Certificate in Performance program to study piano with Professor Boris Berman.

The Portrait

After some careful considerations, I decided the best way for me to share my insights about Scott is to divide this article into three sections: 1) Impressions2) Two Q&As, and 3) YouTube videos (my  “Portrait of a Young Classical Pianist” short video, Scott’s TSO Competition videos, and his Calgary performance) allowing you chances to see Scott plays the piano and to listen to him and his parents in their own words.


I am not a piano/classical music expert, but judging from the multiple awards Scott has received over the years, I can safely and objectively say he is very talented! :) And the two performances of Scott I attended in the last few years, I thought the music were played beautifully and many pieces were performed full of passion. In chatting about piano music with Scott, I often saw his eyes lit up and his face filled with a big smile. And in our chats, he, even at his young age, recognizes a perfect performance doesn’t really exist and there are always things to improve in every performance.

When I raised the observation/fact that the career of a concert pianist can be tough and classical piano music isn’t exactly rising in popularity, I sensed he truly sees piano as his calling and willing to work very hard to overcome the challenges faced by concert pianists everywhere. And he even aspires to try to reengage the younger/newer generations to love classical piano music more. Scott clearly knows this is not an easy task so I really admire him for wanting to try.

As a person, Scott is very easy going, nice and considerate. I feel Scott truly appreciates & treasures the teachings & insights from his first piano teacher Beverly a few blocks from his home and his current UC teacher Marilyn (see photos below).

Scott MacIsaac & Marilyn Engle at TSO Competition 2011Scott MacIsaac & Marilyn Engle at UC CONTRASTS Chamber Music Festival 2011

Scott’s parents, and grandpa Lee Yee shared with me the story of Scott’s concern when his piano skill advanced and it was time to transition from Beverly to Marilyn. I was deeply touched to hear that Scott, at the young age of 14 (?), didn’t want to hurt his first teacher’s feeling. The mark of a nice and considerate boy.

The following is how Marilyn described her first encounter with Scott in a December 2010 UC article “Gifted pianist plays for U of C“,

Engle describes the first time she met MacIsaac as being like a scene from a movie. “I still remember. I was eating my sandwich, he started to play a Chopin concerto, and the sandwich got slower and slower as it approached my mouth, and then it stopped completely and I realized, that’s talent.”

Scott emphasized to me that Marilyn‘s teaching was curial in his improved and refined piano skills, winning multiple awards in recent years, and ultimately for his skills to be recognized by Boris which lead to his acceptance to Yale.

In my mind, I think all great teachers understand their talented student will one day reach a new level of maturity/sophistication in skills. And when that day comes, a different teacher may arrive to try to assist the student in reaching a new level.

Two Questions & Answers

In my extensive interviews with Scott, we touched upon many topics. Here are two Q&As that I personally find particularly interesting and illuminating.

Kempton: Classical piano pieces were created long long time ago. [Many people considered the creativity/act of creation done and finished years ago.] Do you see your each performance as a new “act of creation” [in itself]?

Scott: “Every performer has their own interpretation of a piece. Their own way, in which they view a piece, on how it should be played. Even the composer, the one who actually created the work, even he does not have the, as you say, the “correct” interpretation of it. Cause there are, in music, an infinite ways that one can interpret a piece. Even the creator of the piece himself plays it differently than everyone else. Everyone plays it differently from each other. Thats what makes music unique and creative is that everyone has their own way in which they feel [a certain piece should be played].”

And here is the second Q&A. This one is about the creative process, my attempt to understand how Scott thinks during the first moment of creation.

Kempton: When you first look at a printed music score, are you [simply] “hearing” how it sounds [in a basic and straight forward manner as the music is written/specified on the printed pages], or are you already thinking about how to manipulate it [that is, to add your artistic and creative touch to it]? The creative process, does it happen during even the first look [of the music score]?

Scott: “It actually does happen during the first look. The first time you actually see or hear a piece is when the piece is most clear to you, the most fresh. Because thats when its the first time you are ever going to see it. It’s like if you watch a movie for the first time, and there are little shock elements in the movie that surprise you on the first time. The second time its is not going to surprise you as much, because you already know that it’s going to happen.

In music, it is the same deal. The first time you see it is when everything is fresh. When all the little shocks in the music which most people or non-musical audiences wouldn’t understand fully but you can make it more understandable for them if you actually know where these shocks are. And if they do sound fresh to yourself, they will come across fresh to the audiences too.”

YouTube videos: “Portrait of a Young Classical Pianist” short video, TSO Competition videos, and a recent Calgary performance 

My short video “Scott MacIsaac – Portrait of a Young Classical Pianist“. I hope you enjoy it as much as I in creating it.

Have a listen to Scott’s recent award winning performance at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Competition (here, here, and here).

And a short video clip of Scott performing “Franz Joseph Haydn: Sonata No. 39 in D major” a few days ago at University of Calgary‘s CONTRASTS Chamber Music Festival (June 7th, 2011).

Special thanks

Special thanks to Scott, his parents Doug & Wendy, and his grandpa Lee Yee for spending time with me for me to write this article and to create the video.

Concluding Thoughts

I really enjoy interviewing & chatting with Scott. I know Scott will grow muscially in the coming years under the tutelage of Boris at Yale and for years to come with his hard work and determination. I hope to stay in touch with Scott and update you on his progress and achievements.

If Scott can find time in his busy schedule (this may be tough) and together with some creative use of technologies (possibly Skype & advanced audio recording tools, etc), may be I can even bring you some interesting updates & insights bi-occasionally. :) Will see about that.


In the interview, Scott mentioned he has read Professor Boris Berman‘s “Notes from the Pianist’s Bench” (via Amazon), if you are interested, you can read a few sample pages of the book via Amazon.

July 5, 2011 Update: Here is grandpa Lee Yee 李怡‘s Chinese newspaper article “機會與性格” about Scott.

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