He once had to choose between music and business; now Ricker Choi enjoys both worlds

By Kate Betts-Wilmott | Mid-February 2009

When Ricker Choi finished high school, he had to decide whether to pursue a career in music or one in business. A student of the piano at the time, he went so far as to apply for auditions for music programs at post-secondary institutions. In the end, he chose to pursue a business degree at York University in Toronto.

Now a risk-analytics program manager for Algorithmics Inc., a provider of risk-management software for the financial services industry in Toronto, Choi, 34, still puts his musical training to good use. An accomplished classical pianist, he organizes concerts featuring himself and other performers to raise money for charitable causes.

Choi began playing the piano in 1988, when, at age 13, he arrived in Toronto from his native Hong Kong. Until then, he had played the er-hu — a Chinese stringed instrument that is bowed like a violin — which he dropped in favour of the piano.

Throughout his teenage years, Choi studied with concert pianist Boris Zarankin and competed in music festivals around Toronto. Before Choi finished high school, he received an associate diploma for performance from the Royal Conservatory Toronto.

Choi spent the next 12 years away from the piano, but he was by no means idle. He earned a bachelor of business administration from York University and received his chartered financial analyst designation. He joined Algorithmics in 2000 and, the following year, achieved the financial risk manager designation, which is offered by the Global Association of Risk Professionals.

Choi returned to York and graduated with a master’s degree in business administration in 2006.

Confident that his career was on track, Choi returned to the piano — and to his old teacher, Zarankin — with a new appreciation of music and what it can help him accomplish.

In 2006, Choi founded Music Heals! — a series of fundraising concerts held in Toronto that raise money for charitable organizations such as Oxfam Canada, Sick Kids Foundation and World Vision Canada.

The Music Heals! concerts feature performances by Choi and other musicians, including classical and jazz pianists, a jazz trio and Zarankin’s daughter Ilana, who is an opera singer. Ilana Zarankin, a soprano, is in her final year of studying opera at the University of Toronto.

“I have learned a lot about breathing by accompanying Ilana,” Choi says. “I am learning about using breathing to convey the drama of the music.”

Admission to Music Heals! concerts is “pay what you can”; Choi has lined up a sponsor, PCC & Associates Brokers Inc. of Richmond Hill, Ont. After costs, each of the events so far has cleared more than $2,000 for its respective charity.

“I realized I could contribute to the good in the world,” Choi says, “by sharing something I love.”

The next Music Heals! concert is slated for next November, but an exact date has not been set.

In addition to the concert series and other performances, Choi has been busy entering musical competitions. He placed third in the 2008 Washington International Piano Artists Competition held in Washington, D.C., this past July. He hopes to enter more competitions in the U.S. this year.

For Choi, an important part of music is being a part of a community of musicians, teachers and coaches who share his passion for music. In addition to working with Zarankin, Choi attends a master musicians class with other musicians who play various instruments. These musicians serve as sounding boards for each other and share their progress and pitfalls.

Choi believes the long hiatus he took from the piano ultimately has benefited him as a musician.

“I did not ‘get’ the music,” he says of the period before the break. “But after years of reading important books and watching really good movies, it has more meaning.”

He admits that, when he finished high school, he did not know what to do next: “Taking business just seemed like the easy way out.”

There is nothing “easy” about what Choi does at Algorithmics. Having built his expertise in financial risk management, he runs real-time credit-risk scenarios in computer simulations. He also has worked on the Basel II standards, the international rules on bank capital and acceptable levels of risk.

At the end of each business day, Choi looks forward to practising his music in his downtown home. For him, it is not a chore but a hobby that he loves. “I cannot see myself practising eight hours a day,” he says, such as would be required for a concert pianist. “Just two or three.”