Lea Gentile: Pianist Educator



AT a charity concert in Tianjin, U.S. musician Lea Gentile performed Moonlight by Claude Debussy, evoking for the audience a shimmering lake on a moonlit night.


When we met her, she had just returned to China from the U.S. The long journey had not affected her; she looked refreshed and ready to talk. During the interview, she shared her musical journey since childhood and her unique relationship with China, a love affair that started 17 years ago.


Tightly Bound to China


In 1863, a young American traveled across the ocean and arrived in China. Despite untold hardships along the way, the intrepid explorer was to stay in this country for the next 57 years.


His name was Hunter Corbett, known as Guo Xiande in China, and he came from Pennsylvania. In China, Hunter soon integrated into local society, read the Four Books and Five Classics, and fervently disseminated Confucianism among locals. He acquired the nickname Guo Qilin, referring to the Kylin, a mythical hoofed chimerical creature in Chinese culture.


In December 1866, Hunter established Wenxian School (for boys) and Huiying School (for girls), the first two modern primary schools in Yantai, Shandong Province. Later, the two were merged into Huiwen Academy. In 1890, he set up a clinic, which later expanded into Yuhuangding Hospital. In 1900, Hunter’s wife opened the first kindergarten in Yantai. According to historical records, Hunter opened more than 40 schools in China.


Hunter won praise from the governments of China and the U.S. In 1902, the Qing government presented with him an official cap ornamented with a peacock feather, and later the government of the Republic of China conferred on him a medal. In the U.S., Hunter was recognized by academic circles and the church for his outstanding contributions. He was even received by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1907. When he died in 1920, thousands of mourners attended his funeral, and his deeds were recorded into Shandong’s local chronicle. As one of Yantai’s top 10 historic celebrities of the early 20th century, Hunter’s legacy is frequently referenced and praised by later generations.


Hunter Corbett was the great-grandfather of Lea Gentile. Since hearing the story of her great-grandfather as a child, Lea has been charmed by China. “My great uncle wrote a biography of my great-grandfather. When I saw the pictures of him in China I decided to visit China to follow in his footsteps,” she said.


A Musical Dream Come True in China


Lea came to China in 1997. She first went to Shandong Province to visit Hunter’s former residence as well as the hospitals and schools founded by him. “Students in the U.S. usually do not know the founder of their schools; it’s not something they particularly care about,” she said. “When I visited Yantai Second Middle School, which was established by my great-grandfather, students there knew who he was. There was even an entire exhibition dedicated to the school’s history. I was greatly touched that my great-grandfather was remembered and respected by others.”


Later, she went north to the coastal city of Tianjin, and worked at Tianjin TEDA International School. “During my first year in China, I made many great Chinese friends, and I became really fond of Tianjin.”


When her contract expired after one year, Lea went back to America, but she could not wait to learn Chinese. Three years later, she returned to Tianjin and stayed in China for more than 10 years. “I really like the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA). During the past decade, I have witnessed every little change and development, and even know TEDA better than some local people,” Lea said.


Born into a musical family, she was greatly influenced by her parents. She started to play the piano at the age of eight. Later, she was lucky to study at a music school. “At school I found that I had a talent for music, and music became my lifetime pursuit.”


Later, she learned classical piano from Guido Agosti in Italy. In 1992, she obtained her MA degree in teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. She has performed solo at the Lincoln Center in New York City and the Banff Center in Albert, Canada, and cooperated with the Winston-Salem Symphony in North Carolina.


Lea has a unique understanding and appreciation of music. “Via high intensity training, we constantly practiced melodies by great masters, such as Schubert, Chopin, and Bach. Playing their masterpieces is like reading a great book; you savor it and want to share it with everyone. Pianists should spread good music to others, and give old works new life.”


Based on her distinctive musical understanding, she initiated multimedia audiovisual interaction during her piano concerts. Pictures on the stage rotate and vary according to rhythmic changes in the piece being played. “People’s visual sense kicks in prior to the auditory sense. Visual changes help audiences to appreciate classical music more thoroughly,” Lea explained.


When she returned to TEDA, Lea became a music teacher at TEDA International School. She not only compiled more than 20 basic music teaching materials, but also innovated teaching methods according to China’s current situation of music education.    


Zhao Zhenni, a Taiwanese senior high student, started at TEDA International School in 2008. Her parents told the principal that their daughter had a talent for music and wished to find her a good piano teacher. The principal recommended Lea. “When she finished playing, I knew that we could become the perfect teacher-pupil combination. We could mutually motivate each other’s potential in musical creation,” Lea said. Their initial brief encounter opened a six-year-long mentoring relationship.


Lea is also devoted to the public welfare cause. In Tianjin, she held five large-scale charity concerts to subsidize children that needed special education. During these performances, Lea invited her students to play. Zhao Zhenni and Yu Qingying are two students of whom she feels particularly proud. “These nonprofit concerts afford children a golden opportunity to perform, sharing their musical charm with local residents.”


Tutored and guided by Lea’s open and passionate teaching, Zhao Zhenni pursued advanced studies in Hamburg, Germany after her graduation in 2014.


Sharing Music, Sharing Happiness


Following the example of her great-grandfather, Lea has made unremitting efforts in piano education in China. She constantly innovates and improves her teaching methods to help students develop their talents. “There is a link named ‘Kids’ Corner’ in my class. I play different kinds of music to pupils, and let them write down or paint what they feel based on their imagination. Their answers are quite different,” she said. “Actually, there are no right or wrong answers in the world of music. They are bound to have different answers, because each one of them is unique.”


Therefore, she always encourages students to embrace their unique music understanding. She has trained about 1,000 excellent students, and three of them are admitted by Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. This is enough to make her proud.


But she’s not satisfied with this and even has a larger “Chinese dream.” She hopes to improve China’s music education methods and establish a music training school with Western teaching methodology. “I notice that many Chinese students have a talent for music and are interested in playing the piano. However, due to the heavy academic stresses of senior high school, many of them have to give up the piano. My student Yu Qingying stopped practicing piano in senior high school, and I felt sorry for him,” said Lea. “I think a professional training school that incorporates Western techniques with Chinese elements could cultivate genuine musicians.”