“Since I became completely blind soon after birth, I always wanted toys that could make sounds, so my parents bought me a toy electronic keyboard. Through feeling the keys and learning the sounds they made, I was gradually able to play the demo tunes stored on it. Then it was songs from the radio,” said Jiajun “David” Lai, a first-year doctoral student and associate instructor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
“After first hearing and touching the keys of the piano, at age three, I fell in love with the beautiful sound it produced. It was more enjoyable than that toy keyboard,” said Lai, now 25 and the winner of the Jacobs School’s recent Mozart concerto competition.
“David Lai possesses a unique musical sensitivity; he transforms the piano from a percussive instrument into a singing instrument,” said Norman Krieger, chair of the Jacobs Piano Department and Lai’s current teacher. “His affinity for Mozart’s music and the Viennese classical style is remarkable. And he is as wonderful a human being as he is a musician.”
Lai started lessons at age four in his hometown of Hangzhou, China. In 2005, through the help of renowned Chinese pianist and pedagogue Guangren Zhou, he moved to Beijing with his family and began studying with Dongli Mao.
Lai graduated from Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music (CCOM) high school in 2015 and from CCOM with a B.A. in Piano Performance in 2019. He earned an M.M. in Piano Performance from the University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Michael Chertock, in 2021.
Chertock encouraged Lai to apply to the Jacobs School of Music, whose research and performance opportunities further influenced him to choose the school.
“I first got to know Professor Krieger at Brevard Music Center; I loved his detailed approach to the music and singing tone,” Lai explained. “Working with him this year has really fulfilled my expectations; he is what I’m looking for in a professor—a detailed listener and a kind mentor who gives helpful advice for me to grow as a musician.”
Lai was rushed to the hospital and given high-pressure oxygen after being born almost 10 weeks premature. Although it saved his life, he lost his sight completely due to oxygen toxicity.
“I was brought up with the belief that although I am blind, I am able in other ways, so blindness has not affected me or how I interact with life,” Lai said. “Of course, I may have to ask for help in some situations, but I don’t let it become a hindrance, just a different way to go about life, that’s all.
“Have I ever resented it? No. Have I dreamed of someday sight-reading and playing music? Yes. I love the world that I experience through listening, and that’s how I learn to play music, even now.”
Lai said he has always enjoyed performing and has discovered his passion for teaching since coming to Jacobs. His goal is to become a professional performer and an instructor in piano, so he can combine the two passions for the instrument he loves.
And when he’s not focused on the piano?
“I’m a big fan of musical theater, and I have a soft spot for The Great American Songbook,” shared Lai. “When I don’t feel like productivity, a cast recording, a Frank Sinatra album, or a beautifully narrated story is a great companion. I also enjoy listening to a film with good music, and I love John Williams’ scores.”
Does he have any advice for the rest of us?
“I feel I am not yet ready for such things as ‘advice,’” said Lai. “I will say, though, that I want to encourage those at this great university to follow their dreams and use what they are learning to make our lives better. Also, it is a good thing to ask for help, and a supportive community is very important in our lives, both as students and as people in society. Always know that whatever you may do ‘you’ll never walk alone.’”
Lai will play the competition-winning Piano Concerto in E-Flat Major, K.482 by W. A. Mozart at 8 p.m. on November 3 in Bloomington’s Musical Arts Center with the IU Symphony Orchestra and Oratorio Chorus, conducted by Jacobs professor Arthur Fagen.
The free event may be enjoyed in person, masks required, or via livestream at IUMusicLive!