Mozart and Katy Perry: An interview with music teacher Paul Kwo

While some parents insist their children play only classical music by Ferdi and Puccini, Paul Kwo thinks they should add Katy Perry and Adele to their repertoire. Kwo, a Hollywood actor, pianist, and voiceover artist, has been teaching the arts for over 16 years. As the owner of PopRock Academy, a music and acting school in Alhambra, Kwo is trying to change the way parents and students view music, hoping they value both classical and contemporary music as well as acting and voice.

Kwo at his desk at PopRock Academy.Kwo was born in Hong Kong and moved to the San Gabriel Valley when he was 8 years old. He took a break on a recent Sunday to tell Alhambra Source about why he thinks the arts are important, how he’s trying to change music and acting education in Alhambra, and what advice he has for aspiring artists.

How did you get into music and acting?

I grew up with music, started piano lessons when I was 5 and still living in Hong Kong. I moved here when I was 8 years old and my parents just sort of threw me into piano lessons, you know, the Asian thing to do. But I also grew up in the church, so I did a lot of church music. I was the church pianist when I was 10. I started with classical stuff and eventually ventured into pop rock by myself because back then, especially with Asian parents, they didn't send their kids to pop rock singing classes.

With acting, I kind of stumbled on it by accident. In high school I didn’t like my French and English teachers. By my junior year, I just couldn’t stand them anymore and I needed to drop this class. My friend said that there was this new drama class and I said “Oh, that sounds fun!”

Teaching a student voice.

Why is it important to recognize the importance of pop music?

A lot of Asian parents think of music as classical only. They think that classical music is so good and it’s that whole elitist mentality. But it’s not. The kind of training we do here is classical but with the understanding that there’s value in pop music because that’s what the kids want, that’s what the kids appreciate. When they go out to the working world and network, they’re going to be talking about the latest Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Adele, or Florence and the Machine albums. And being able to sing at a karaoke function well, that will buy you brownie points.

That’s kind of why I started this school, because of certain things I didn’t get when I was a kid with schools around here. Pretty much 99 percent of the schools here are classically based and they’re almost exclusively classical. I started this school to provide the students both the musical training and the industry knowledge.

Why did you decide to open an arts school in Alhambra?

I set up here because we’re so close to Hollywood and you can drive to any audition from this area within an hour. It’s perfectly feasible for anyone out here to have a career. Also, I’m the music director of the Gabrielino High School spring musical and I've met a lot of kids who are interested.

Another student practices singing.

Your school also offers acting and voice lessons. Why do you think that’s important?

Voice lessons are so important because your voice is your most valuable asset. A lot of people think, “I don’t want to be a singer so I won’t take voice lessons.” But voice lessons should be a mandatory thing for everyone to take. Think of all the presentations you do. How many presentations have you done in your life whether for school or for work?  That’s why we have acting lessons, voice, improv, to help you build that confidence. You don’t have to be an actor, but we all act everyday.

What advice have you given your students?

The main thing is, with all the performing arts, you can do it and it’s really about what you want. You get what you put in, you really do. Put in the effort, then you’ll get your payoff. It’s not about how good you are, it’s really about how much you put in, how much you love it. You really have to see yourself doing it and there’s nothing else that you want to do.

And another thing to know is that in this industry, it’s not a job, it’s a business. That’s a mistake that a lot of kids make. They go into the acting and music industry, and they think that they’re interviewing for jobs. You are creating a business and the product happens to be you.

Now that you’re teaching, are you still chasing the Hollywood dream?

Kwo at his piano.

Well, I‘m not necessarily chasing after the Hollywood Dream. I’m just working in Hollywood. I think of myself as a working artist. I treat this place as a working studio. It’s all working. And if I happen to become famous or known, it’s just lucky because getting to that point, to become a regular on a recurring TV series, that’s crazy. It’s like you already have to jump through 20 hoops and keep your fingers crossed.

All that matters is I’m here, doing good work, making connections, marketing myself, and I’m just taking care of my business. I just do it because I love it and hope that I get lucky.

PopRock Academy is located at 11 S Second Street, Alhambra, Calif., 91801. Call 626-282-ROCK for hours and class registration information, or visit the PopRock Academy website.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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