Pianist Tiffany Poon is one of those rare phenomena that come along once in every generation to upend our preconceptions. With over 270,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, she is the most watched young pianist of her generation. But whatever you do, don’t call her an influencer. The 23-year-old Hong Kong native has broken the mold on classical music careers. Poon came to New York as a girl of eight to study at the Juilliard School and continued there until 2018. When I asked her why she elected to take a degree in philosophy from Columbia rather than a music conservatory, she replied, “I think there’s so much more in life beyond music. Music is not about music, it’s about life. I wanted a more expanded view.” After finishing her bachelor’s degree in 2018, Poon struck out on her own to forge a career.

Tiffany Poon
© Sid Baker

Poon began updating her YouTube channel in 2017 at a presenter’s urging by recording several new videos at Juilliard. She elaborated, “I posted them every single Tuesday for six weeks. Eventually I ran out of things to post and I was asking my audience and one of them suggested vlogs. They wanted to know what my day was like.” But Poon never does anything for just one reason. She went on to relate, “I was studying philosophy at Columbia and I was very interested in the relationship between the audience – or consumer – and art.” She felt that classical music had a “disconnect between the audience and the music. The composers are dead and there just isn’t that human connection anymore. And the dehumanization because of technology was something that was planted in my mind during those philosophy classes.” Her greatest desire is to bring life back into classical music and to enlarge the community of listeners.

Of her vlog development, Poon said, “I definitely struggled at first, not knowing exactly what would be interesting for audiences the first half year or so. I think that what draws people to my videos and the interest in what I do is because there isn’t anything like it. I think I’m growing more into my niche, knowing the kind of things people are interested in. When I started doing practice vlogs, that really got people engaged. I don’t think anyone had done anything like that.” About including her mistakes and struggles, Poon reveals her thoughts, “I think that the super refinement of classical music disengages people because it’s kind of scary. You have to be perfect. You can’t do normal human being things like make a mistake. I think for people to see me document that publicly and explain my process is interesting for them.”

The format is simple. Followers ask questions and Poon responds. She shows us her practice sessions, mistakes and all, and adds parenthetical remarks in a sidebar so we can follow her thoughts. There are GRWM (get ready with me) vlogs before recitals and concerts that dispel the glamor and yet enhance our identification with the performing artist. It’s surprisingly personal, spontaneous and without artifice.

Reaching 100,000 subscribers happened quite suddenly. Poon said, “The reason that it happened was because of preparing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto for a concert in Mexico. (seen in vlog # 67) I remember seeing the counter hit 100,000. It’s surreal. I don’t really know how to describe the feeling.” And that’s when things really started breaking loose for Poon.

In July of 2019, Steinway invited pianists to play the legendary Horowitz’s Steinway in its Queens location for 20 minutes. Poon invited followers to come along and see her play Schumann’s Kinderszenen (vlog #82) and a sizable group met her there. By chance, Steinway’s head of marketing, Anthony Gilroy, was present, and her appearance made a huge impression. Poon, who had been searching for a piano to rent was offered a loaner by Steinway and a precious relationship was formed. This is an enormous leap for a still little known, young pianist. Every pianist dreams of becoming known to Steinway and Poon’s ability to develop a precious marketing relationship at her age is unheard of. In January of 2020, (vlog #100) Poon interviewed and played with Steinway’s CEO, Ron Losby. She had bookings for recitals and concerts set up and everything was going her way. Her concerts were selling out and she was beginning to draw serious attention from audiences, critics and presenters.

The Covid-19 pandemic put an end to live performances soon after that and most performers sat at home, stunned by the catastrophe. Tiffany Poon was ready, perhaps even made for a challenge like this. She encouraged her followers with her trademark phrase: keep striving. She arranged livestream concerts and incredibly more than doubled her YouTube subscribers. With no bookings to provide income, Poon was in the enviable state of having a successful YouTube channel that brings her some income and a Patreon platform. In a desire to leverage her influence, she turned her attention to raising money for causes including Doctors Without Borders, Midori and Friends, Direct Relief and frontline workers. Her new YouTube channel, Together with Classical, is a full-fledged charitable organization dedicated to supporting musicians in need. Her online livestream recitals have been extremely successful, beyond her expectations.

Tiffany Poon
© Sid Baker

Poon’s scheduled appearance at the Dresden Musikfestspiele was cancelled but a new opportunity presented itself when the event’s artistic director, German cellist Jan Vogler, invited her to take part in a 24 hour livestream. It was during this event that her social media success came back to haunt her. The world of classical music is used to a level of decorum that is at odds with the immediate and boisterous nature of the wider internet. When some of Poon’s most zealous fans began commenting on the event’s livestream chat it quickly spiraled out of control. It generated some serious animosity and the blowback was immediate and snarky. She went to her followers and implored them to be more respectful in the future, but real damage was done. Poon is aware of the nature of the internet. She explained, “Part of the problem with what I do is that YouTube is a platform that is not for refined content all the time. There are other people doing things that go against my career path. There are people in the classical world that don’t understand or even respect the videos or what I’m trying to do and they can label me as an influencer, labels that don’t say classical pianist, which is what I’m trying to be. That’s the negative part. It’s so public that anyone can have an opinion on it. Sometimes I have critics who look down on me because all I am is some popular person on the internet. So, it’s just about trying to gain the respect of those who are not necessarily paying attention to the digital world and how a lot of people connect with their audience in the pop music world, for example.”

The question of whether Tiffany Poon’s success in the world of social media turns out to be a durable new model for classical career development will not be settled anytime soon. Is she bringing in new listeners who will become fans of all classical music or are they just her fans? Are they with her for the long haul or will they get bored and move on to another novelty? She doesn’t know but she does have some advice for anyone who wants to follow her path: “Don’t do it for the popularity and don’t go into it to try and get an audience. I had a philosophical concept. You have to have something that you want to bring to people because everyone wants a following. Who doesn’t want an audience? You have to come up with something that is genuine to yourself.” Her goal is to let people know about the world of classical music and inject some life into it and so far she has succeeded. In the end, she says that the world of classical music will have to engage with social media whether they like it or not. Technology is going to be a big part of their future.