At the recent LunarFest Vancouver concert at the Orpheum, audience members might not have noticed Tom Su. He was one of many elegantly dressed members of the Harmonia String Ensemble, playing their hearts out for conductor Nicholas Urquhart.
Su is an accomplished and versatile violinist who immigrated from Taiwan 20 years ago. Even though he performed magnificently on January 22 on one of Vancouver’s biggest stages, he admits to feeling nervous in front of large crowds. It can even affect his hands.
“But you know what?” Su tells Pancouver at a Fraserhood coffee shop. “That will not stop me… I can actually find a way around it.”
He goes on to say that many musicians experience stage fright. Moreover, he reveals that it leads some to stop playing.
Su, on the other hand, has adapted by pursuing his musical passions in hospital wards and old-folks’ homes. He does this while working full-time as a Telus call-centre manager.
“I’m perfectly okay to play in Harmonia,” Su declares. “I’m perfectly okay to play in the seniors’ home. That’s something I can do.”
In the process, he’s bringing sunshine to the lives of local dementia patients and helping researchers better understand what’s happening inside their brains.
He mentions that recently, he was asked to participate in an experiment in which a physician would prescribe medication for some patients and music for others.
“I’m the prescription,” Su quips.
If the patients are mentally coherent, Su asks them about their favourite songs and which music they listen to at home. But if they can’t communicate clearly, he’s authorized to ask these questions of family members. Then he creates a playlist with his musical interpretations.
“The good thing is music can stimulate your brain,” Su says.
Tom Su: Music should be everywhere
Su is sharing his story in the hopes that it will inspire other musicians to do volunteer work. For him, music should not only be performed on concert stages, requiring people to travel to grand auditoriums.
“I want to let my musician friends know that music should be everywhere,” Su says.
He first came in contact with patients after his kind-hearted father contracted cancer. In 2016, Su spent an enormous amount of time at his bedside in Burnaby Hospital before his dad died.
In those days, Su noticed that patients who did not speak English could not communicate well with doctors and nurses. As a Mandarin and Taiwanese speaker, he thought he could help by providing some translations, so he offered to do this for free.
The manager of volunteers noticed that Su likes to chat. Rather than have him do translations, she asked him to speak to patients without families in the area and who received no visitors.
‘They are very lonely, so my job was actually talking to the patients and encouraging them,” he recalls. “In the regular three-hour volunteer shift, I could actually talk to 10 to 15 people.”
Su estimates that he’s probably talked to more than 1,000 patients over the years. “I would say 95 percent spoke English and five percent spoke Mandarin,” he says.
Eventually, it dawned upon him that some might like to hear him play violin because they could not go to a concert hall. The hospital went along with the idea. In 2019, it asked him to perform in the dementia ward.
Patient shows extraordinary response
For this performance, he created a playlist of about 15 songs, including oldies from the ’50s and ’60s. In the midst of his concert, something amazing happened.
A woman about 80 years old was crouching in the corner throughout. According to Su, nobody else really paid attention to her. But she suddenly stood up when Su began playing “It’s a Wonderful World”.
“I was quite surprised,” Su says. “Then the nurses and the doctors were watching, saying, ‘What’s going on with the lady?’
“Then, the lady walked to a guy reading a newspaper on the side and held his hand, and then started to dance,” he continues. “Nobody had any idea what was going on.”
After Su finished playing, the gentleman approached him.
“He says, ‘Thank you, Tom. This is my wife. This is our wedding song [from] 60 years ago.’ So, that was the song playing there and the wife still remembered,” the violinist says.
He has other heart-warming stories to tell. For example, at the Fellburn Care Centre in North Burnaby, he likes playing music from movies, which are shown on a screen at the same time. To cite one example, he’ll perform “Moon River” to go along with images of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Video: Watch Audrey Hepburn sing “Moon River”.
A generous spirit
Then, there was the time Su talked to a depressed senior in Burnaby Hospital. He wanted to know which music she liked.
“She started to speak German to me, which I do not understand,” Su recalls. “She then said German kids music is very happy and reminds me of when I was in my childhood.”
That led Su to research what children’s music was popular in Germany in the 1940s and ’50s. He chose the most cheerful songs and created a playlist. Then the music was transmitted into the patient’s ears through a headset.
“She was so happy,” Su recalls. “She started to sing.”
The goal, he adds, is to slow the development of dementia by engaging different parts of the brain through music.
Responding to the pandemic
When the pandemic was declared in 2020, Su had to stop performing live for seniors. So instead, he recorded holiday songs on YouTube and emailed links to 65 care facilities across Canada to be played on their screens on Christmas Day.
He also devised other creative ways to support others less fortunate than himself.
Whenever there was a major COVID-19 outbreak in a country, he would record music in his living room for the people living there. He chose pieces from those nations.
“My first country was France,” Su says. “I tried to record the music everybody knows, like ‘La vie en Rose’.”
He went on to record songs for Italy, the United States, and England. When war broke out in Ukraine, he recorded another of these musical messages.
“I wanted to send positive energy to the people in that country.”
On a trip to Taiwan, Su says he played his violin in front of a 300-year-old temple. He’s also performed “Let It Go” from the Disney film Frozen in front of Taiwanese schoolchildren.
In addition, Su has performed in Le Phare children’s hospice in Montreal and for S.U.C.C.E.S.S., Mosaic, and the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.
In the summer of 2021, Su was permitted to resume playing outdoors for residents of seniors’ homes. By the end of that year, he could return to the wards.
“I went back multiple times, including Christmas,” he says. “Last Christmas, I actually went to Burnaby Hospital. I went to every single ward and nearly every single room to deliver the holiday music to them.”
Watch Tom Su play violin to the love theme from The Godfather.
Parents shaped Su in major ways
Su is 53 years old but he jokes that he’s been learning music for 54 years. That’s because his mother played piano when he was in the womb.
He began training on the violin before his fifth birthday in his hometown of Kaohsiung. His sister, who lives in Taiwan, plays the piano and the cello.
“I was actually trained to be a classical musician, so I grew up with Beethoven, Mozart, and even Dvořák,” Su said. “I did not get a lot of exposure to popular music when I was a kid.”
Su’s mother, Louise Lee Hsiu, has written 18 books, including Penghu Moon in the Well: A Novel Centred on the Lives of Two Penghu Families During the Colonial Years in Taiwan. His dad was a civil engineer.
“I combine the musical side from my mother and my loving side of my father,” Su says.
He adds that his father often said that social or financial status didn’t matter because everybody is equal. What was important to his father was using one’s heart to love people.
After earning an undergraduate degree in music, Su studied hotel management in Switzerland. But after immigrating to Canada, he had great difficulty finding a job in this field, despite having a master’s degree. So, he went to the University of Victoria and qualified for an MBA in 2005.
After sending out about 50 résumés, Su finally landed a position as sales manager at a five-star hotel in Whistler. He says that he had to go through seven interviews.
Then after three months, someone there expressed concern about him speaking English with an accent.
“I was like, ‘You interviewed me seven times! Did you actually figure that out before?’ So, I decided not to stay at that hotel,” Su says.
Watch Tom Su play violin to “The Man of the Past”.
He moved back to Vancouver where he found a job at Telus. His experiences have given him great empathy for other immigrants.
“As people from the outside, it’s not easy,” he states.
About six years ago, Su read an article in the Vancouver Sun about a Syrian refugee family living in Metrotown.
“That’s my area,” he says.
So, he wrote to the reporter and asked to be put in contact with the family. Later, he befriended the Syrians.
“I introduced the Syrian family to my Taiwanese family,” Su reveals. “I invited them to my home.”
He taught them about the Autumn Festival and they invited him over to try their home cooking.
As an immigrant, he knows that he could keep complaining about discrimination for his entire life. But instead, he took action to improve society.
Part of the problem, in his view, is that Canada is a cultural mosaic rather than a melting pot. As a result, he thinks that the country looks like a very beautiful work of art, but the different pieces don’t always talk to each other. He aims to change that.
Su’s philosophy of bringing music to the people was reflected at Vancouver TAIWANfest in 2022. The organizer, Charlie Wu, asked if he would like to perform on-stage. Su replied that he preferred to perform in a public place.
His mother came up with the title, “Walking Melodies”, and Su played four times in the 700 block of Granville Street.
To him, it’s all about building community.
“This is my joke,” Su says with a smile. “Music has no accent.”