College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Different forms of the same art: Iowa State student combines passion for music with engineering

Adam Hu (Photo by Kate Tindall)
Adam Hu (Photo by Kate Tindall)

Civil engineering student finds similarities between engineering and piano performance in college adventure

“You never have enough time.”

For Iowa State junior Adam Hu, lack of time is a way of life. You can see this if you take a moment to watch him practice piano. His concentration is focused fully, making emotion flow from thoughts to fingers. Seeing so much energy thrown into a practice makes you think, “How rigorous is a performance, if this is the trial run?”

Hu has to throw everything into practice. As he points out, his schedule is packed. He studies both civil engineering and piano performance. To some, the combination may seem at odds with one another. But to Hu, the differences aren’t so pronounced. In fact, he is fully at home in either field. “They’re just different forms of the same art,” he insists.

The civil engineering, or CE, major has been balancing time between these two areas of study for the last two years of his college career. When you ask him to name similarities, Hu’s answers may surprise you: Whether it’s engineering or performance, you only have so much time, so many materials, or so many notes.

“[Engineering] is all about efficiency,” Hu says. “The same thing goes for music. This is how many notes you have. You can’t add any more notes, because it’s not in the music. How do you make the music communicate? How do you make it effective, persuasive, convincing? It really is the same thing.”

Hu plays a movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 11 in B Flat Major (Photo by Kate Tindall)
Hu plays a movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 11 in B Flat Major (Photo by Kate Tindall)

Hu makes it sound easier than it actually is. He devotes hours each day rehearsing in the basement practice rooms of ISU’s Music Hall. He’ll then spend hours working on engineering homework. Top this off with chamber music performances (one of his favorite parts of music), and Hu’s schedule is packed. The trick, he says, is not just managing time but also effectively using time.

“You can sit there for two hours and get nothing done,” he says with a laugh. “ … So you squeeze in time for whatever you think is most important to you.”

Hu grew up in China. When he was five years old, his parents let him try out many instruments before he settled on piano. As he puts it, “piano was the one that really spoke to me. I don’t know why. I just knew that I liked it.”

When he came to Iowa State University in 2014, Hu started out with only one major: engineering. By the way he describes this first major, though, it’s no surprise he soon added the arts to the mix. To Hu, engineering is “consolidated art.”

“I always love helping people, and I think civil engineers do a lot of behind-the-scene things with clean water, waste treatment, waste management—all the things we don’t see, that sometimes we take for granted,” he says. “It really is what helps people in the most fundamental way.”

A close-up at Hu's hands while he plays (Photo by Kate Tindall)
A close-up at Hu’s hands while he plays (Photo by Kate Tindall)

With his senior year coming up, Hu is thinking about acceptance to music conservatories, the pursuit of a master’s degree, and his senior recital. That means a lot of studying and a ton of practicing. He admits that, sometimes, fellow students just don’t get the practicing part.

“Why do you need to practice?” they’ll ask Hu. “You just practiced yesterday.”

“Do people ever ask that of a professional athlete?” he says. “‘Why do you have to run today? You just ran yesterday’ … I tell them that’s what being a music major entails. You practice every day.”

For now, it’s a constant balancing game. But whether it’s engineering or piano, Hu gives all he can. It’s perhaps one of the best pieces of advice his mom, a teacher, ever gave him.

“She has always taught me that, if you tried your best, getting an 80 percent is way better than not trying hard enough and getting a 95 percent,” he says. “It’s about how much effort you put into it, not the final grade.”

Interested in cool student stories? Check Iowa State University’s Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering Department out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn (Iowa State University Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering and ISUConE). Want more? Find it on our website,