Ain’t Got That Swing?

Ernest Chang Mentors the Best


It’s a simple motto meant to encourage the kids. Keep them focused. But it speaks volumes to his commitment, his focus, and his unflinching single-mindedness toward piano and classical music. And you have to admire it.

His own love affair with playing began when he was 6, inspired by seeing classic comedic actor Jimmy Durante on television and in movies. As Chang remembers, Durante made the piano seem “cool and interesting. And I wanted to be like him.”

In 1956, as a high school senior, Chang got his chance. He was given a great honor: to open the brand new Waikiki Shell.

Chang recalls the special occasion presented to him at the ripe age of 17: “It was an amazing experience. I was honored to play there. I walked onstage; I was so excited. And, as I looked out at the crowd, it was as if hundreds of fireflies were buzzing around the audience. Then I realized that all the lights were from everyone smoking.”

Since his playing days, Chang has naturally moved on into teaching – where he’s found great success – playing “through his students.” He spends the better part of every day working closely with them in his music studio, which he calls “fulfilling and rewarding.”

In a town that’s world-famous for Hawaiian music and hula, Chang has quietly churned out a multitude of quality classical musicians. Currently, he’s working with the second generation of students, the children of his former students. They’re his extended family, his ohana.

Over the years, his commitment to his craft and his students has paid off. Most piano teachers spend an entire lifetime working to send one student to Juilliard, the prestigious performing arts conservatory located at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. As the foremost piano teacher in the Islands, Chang has the unique distinction of sending 10 – a Herculean feat. Yet at 71, he has no plans to slow down.

So what’s his secret?

“You have to make it gratifying for them,” says Chang. “You don’t put up Beethoven’s Sonata and play it right away. It’s more about process than result. And I believe in continuity for me and for my students. I’ve never been away from the studio for more than a few days. It’s rewarding. It’s my passion. And it’s my life.”

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