Grace Chung is highly sensitive to sound.
The 27-year-old graduate student who studies computer speech recognition, also is a jazz singer.
She recently performed at the Improv Asylum, a comedy club in Boston’s north end. Going from a growl to a whisper, she belted out the lyrics to Mae West’s “Peel Me A Grape,” exhibiting all the fun of the jazz clubs of the 1920s.
Chung loves to sing with all her heart.
Although jazz singing and engineering may seem unrelated, she says, the two actually are very much alike. She’s interested in vocal technique for both people and computers. Although it is possible to program a computer to sing, what’s tricky, she says, is to get computers to understand human speech.
Perhaps she also is sensitive to pitch, she says, because she speaks Cantonese, a language built of nine tones. Each tone has a different meaning depending on inflection. “I can hear the sounds in my mind,” she says.
Loved to sing
Born in Hong Kong, she moved to Sydney, Australia, at age eight. As a child, she loved to sing and perform, singing in the choir and performing for guests at her parents’ parties.
She began listening to jazz as a teenager and at 21 began a jazz workshop of amateur musicians. “I was picking things up quickly and had a feel for the music.”
Soon after, she was asked to perform. Her first job was at the Lane Cove Cafe, a family restaurant in a Sydney suburb, where she first sang soft jazz. Frequently she later also sang at other Australian restaurants and pubs.
Swamped with work when she first came to MIT, she stopped singing for two years. But when she returned to Asia for a summer job, she was asked to perform at a black tie restaurant in a fancy Hong Kong hotel. The experience reminded her how much she loved to perform.
Back in the U.S., she immediately returned to work. She fast realized that performing is not just singing. There is an art to it. It’s making chitchat with the audience. It’s engaging them. It’s introducing the song, announcing who wrote it, and maybe telling what the song is about.
Although she has been paid for her singing, mostly she sings for love, not for money. “I certainly don’t earn a living from it,” she says.
Singing with passion and intensity, what she loves most about voice, she says, is conveying her feelings and the depth of her emotions. In fact, the big reason she sings is to stir emotions in others. “For 12 hours a day, I’m doing school work and using my mind. This is my emotional outlet.”
She says the lyrics are the center of a song, and she spends a long time thinking of them. Communicating a powerful message to the audience is what she always aims to do.
In the future, she’d love to maintain a professional jazz career as well as an engineering job. There still is much she’d like to do musically. “I’d like to go on a long music tour and also make a commercial CD. But I’d never say goodbye to engineering.”
The most valuable insight she has gained on stage, she says, is that you can be an engineer. And a jazz singer. It need not be either/or, but rather, it can be both.
“Pursue what you love. It is important to channel your creativity and emotional self and not feel that you don’t have the time or energy to do that. Many people are extraordinarily talented in their work, but they also might have the ability to paint or to play classical piano.
“Don’t neglect it,” she says. “It’s part of you. Developing that part of yourself makes you a fulfilled, well-rounded person.”