Liz Wu: The Art of Living

Liz Wu is a Cincinnati native, musician, teacher, world traveler, and writer. We talked about how she fell into a life of teaching and creative expression at 1801 Mills Avenue in Norwood, a new community meeting space that she is helping to launch.

Interview by Suzanne Wilder. Photography by Chelsie Walter.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a musician. I grew up attending the School for Creative and Performing Arts and grew up around the arts. I’ve been studying music since I was 7. I started on keyboard, the way most kids do, and ended up playing trumpet throughout elementary school and high school, and then tuba in high school. I always wanted to play drums, and for various reasons, I had to wait until I was in high school. I developed a real love for the marimba. That translated into vibraphone when it was time to audition at CCM. So I went in for jazz studies, and that’s what my degree is in.

At the same time that I was studying music, I pursued a certificate program in journalism. I had been interning at CityBeat and, following graduation, I completed a fellowship at Northwestern University for literary-style journalism. At the end of the fellowship, I realized that the writing industry as I saw it was not the path I was going to go.

I ended up doing a work abroad program in England and had a chance to travel throughout Europe, and had a chance to travel in Mexico and Guatemala. During that time I made my living teaching English. I had taught English here for Berlitz, and in Mexico I found that the city where I ended up had a Berlitz, so I was able to walk in and offer myself as a native English speaker and make ends meet. And then I ended up working in an office in Guatemala. I had every intention of continuing to write and teach English and explore and travel, but I was missing music so much that in the summer of 2006, I decided to come back and try to save up for an instrument, and that’s what brought me back.

I ended up joining a band here, and I’m still in the band (Acarya). We’re still writing new stuff and moving forward. It’s original; it is something that we struggle to define. We have called it tribal rock in the past. It’s a mix of acoustic instruments (guitar, violin, bass) with a lot of percussion. And then of course vocals. We’re waiting for the listeners to tell us what they think we should call it.

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What drew you to teach music?

It wasn’t necessarily planned. If you have a love of something, it’s natural to want to share it. And so I have found myself sharing it, and that has led to teaching larger and larger groups of people.

I feel very fortunate to be able to continue to pursue a career in music and to be able to play every day and to be able to teach. That’s a good chunk of how I spend my days, teaching music to people of all ages, from young folks to seniors and everybody in between. The other part of that is teaching fitness classes. Between the two, I get to spend my day doing lots of things that I enjoy.

I teach percussion and keyboard. The majority of my classes are actually movement and music classes that combine the two. So we play games utilizing music. There’s a program I created called Ritmo. It means rhythm in Spanish. It’s really designed for kids aged 4 to 10. It uses music to teach Spanish vocabulary, as well as to get people up and moving around, having fun and learning some basic music principles at the same time. We might play some drums, we might play some rhythm games, we might learn our colors or our numbers in Spanish.

Tell us about Kind Flash.

It’s a collective of grassroots volunteers who are concerned with sharing kindness and building community. It’s open to anybody. There’s all ages. Once a month, we’ll organize some sort of event to be in service to the community in some way. It can really run the gamut.

The way we got started was in the winter of 2015, I kept noticing a meme of a scarf tied around a tree with a note that said, “I’m not lost. If you’re cold, take me home.” I just thought it was a really cool idea, and I tucked it in the back of my head. And then weeks passed, and the weather was still horrible, and I was huddled over my space heater at 2 or 3 a.m., scrolling through Facebook, and I saw another one of these photos, but this time attached to a news article from Louisville, about a group of people doing this (providing warm clothes to those in need).

And I created a Facebook event and invited some friends and said, “Hey, look, who wants to do this?” I was thinking maybe a handful of folks would want to get involved and maybe we would do it in one neighborhood and see how it went over the course of a few days. And instead, it mushroomed and a lot of people joined that event invitation and shared it, to the point that dozens and dozens of people were wanting to participate. In 10 days, we had lined up 20 different dropoff spots throughout the city, and then we had collected about 2,000 items that we put across 35 different neighborhoods.

There was so much momentum from that and so much excitement that I thought, well, we should keep it going.

So we continued to do something once a month, not necessarily on that scale. Something in a different neighborhood, serving different populations. It’s all-inclusive; anyone can participate. There is some human interaction involved. If we do a drive, we don’t simply drop the items off at a Salvation Army. We will take the items to a place where they can be useful, but we’ll also spend some time with the folks there. So that there’s actual relationships built.

Creative expression through art is a common thread in your career and experiences. How does that tie all of your interests together?  

I grew up in an extremely rich artistic environment. I attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts for grades 5 through 12, as almost my whole education. Eight years of being surrounded by artists and creatives of all types,
all disciplines, in an environment that supported that kind of expression and demanded excellence in those expressions, and made it clear that with a combination of discipline and hard work and persistence, one could make a living in the arts. Which is a message that runs counter to what a lot of people might hear.

So I feel like that offered a really strong foundation for the things that are commonplace. For me to go to some sort of artistic function is kind of a matter of course. I have a night off, of course I’m going to go to an art gallery; of course I’m going to see a dance performance; of course I’m going to go to check out the chalk art at a park. That’s a normal thing – doesn’t everybody want to do that? It’s really provided a lot of richness in my life.

Creative expression doesn’t have to be something related to what are considered the traditional performing arts or the traditional fine arts. I think that a chef is an artist; a florist is an artist. Everybody can reach excellence in their craft. I truly believe everybody has a gift and a talent for something.

It may be something that society values, like writing catchy slogans. You can make a lot of money doing that. It can be something simple, like knowing how to comfort somebody when they’re upset. Which is something that isn’t necessarily monetized but that can mean a great deal to the people who surround that person.

Maybe I juggle a lot of things because I love a lot of things. But I think beyond the hats that I wear, the main thing that drives me is looking to share the things I love, and looking to encourage others to do that same thing, whatever that would be for them. It’s really hard to make that fit into a short sentence. When people say, “What do you do?” I say, “Pick a thing and we’ll talk about that one thing.” Not due to a lack of focus, but due to a love of many things.

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Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

She’s been on my mind a lot, because I think I need to find her and track her down. She’s not on Facebook; I can’t find her through the internet.

Kathleen Carothers. She was my social studies teacher in fifth grade. And she started each class by calling attendance through a question. So she would not just say, “Sanders, here. Jones, here.” It would be, “Name a famous explorer. Name a river.” You couldn’t repeat what somebody else already said. You had to pay attention. You also learned a lot. You found out what you needed to learn. I thought she was the most amazing teacher, because she taught through everything she did. It wasn’t, here’s the lesson, read the book, answer these questions, pass or fail. Every single thing that happened in that class was a process of learning or of teaching. I remember being in her class, even at 10 years old, thinking, “I need to learn this.” Not just the material. I need to learn how to communicate this way. I need to learn how to make material come alive for people and invite them to get excited about learning.

Any time I think about, OK, I’m a teacher, I need to figure out what does that mean and how do I share this information, I think about her. A lot of times, I think, OK, how would she have done this? What was it about her teaching style that was magical and made the information stick? How can you create a love of learning, and a love of exploration, and a love of discovery in someone? Even if the subject happens to be something that for most people is considered optional. Or banal.

What other projects are you working on?

The Women’s Professional Network: It’s an online networking resource for women who consider themselves to be in business, whether they own a business, are a professional working in a business, or looking to be in business. It’s free to join and hosted on the Meetup site. We welcome anybody to join and get involved. Sometimes there’s meet-and-greets; sometimes there’s speakers. Everybody has a chance to do their quick introduction, pass around business cards. Usually over a meal. Meet and mingle with people that they would like to develop a relationship with, whether it’s to make a new friend or do business with. The whole idea is supporting women in their fields, whatever that is.

And I’m curating this event with the Cincinnati Symphony, One City One Symphony, November 9 at Madisonville Arts Center. This is an event that I’m pretty stoked about. It will feature artists from around the city, in many different disciplines, including music, spoken word, dance, visual art, and storytelling around the theme, Speak Truth. It will also feature several symphonic musicians as well. Mark your calendars, because it’s going to be amazing. The depth and the quality of artistry and the stories aren’t to be missed. It’s in a great venue. My role is curating the performances, inviting the artists, and providing the programming.

Words We Heard: 'Going to work is way more than earning an income.'

Words We Heard: 'Family comes first.'