Finding a World in Music

Yue Yang strives to become a violinist

By Elisabeth Kamaka

Yue Yang was not planning on studying music when she first arrived at college in the U.S.  She was interested in biology and political science.

Now a senior majoring in music at Bryn Mawr College, Yang, a 21-year-old violinist, has risen in the ranks, holding the coveted title of Concertmaster of the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Bi-Co Orchestra.

As concertmaster, Yang is the lead violin and the assistant conductor of the orchestra. This unexpected turn in Yang’s education and career path sum up her belief that we each have our calling, something we were meant to do in our lives.

Born in 1994 in the southeastern coastal province of Zhejiang, China, Yang started the violin at age four because her family “wanted me to start music.”

Her father had a colleague who played the violin and offered to give Yang and her brother

Yue Yang

Yue Yang

lessons. After Yang won a prize in a small competition, her parents decided to continue her violin lessons with another teacher. However, Yang “only played [the violin] for fun” even as other students around her were beginning to take their musical training very seriously.

Yang’s early musical influence began at home. Her family loved music. When she thinks back to her childhood, she recall a time when there wasn’t music in her life. Even before she started playing the violin, Yang’s father would play pop tunes on the family piano for Yang and her brother.

Yang’s brother later quit the violin to play the piano, influenced by the joy that the piano had brought to the family.

Other family influences kept Yang close to music. Her uncle is a music professor at Shanghai University. There is great pride that comes from the accomplishments of family members and Yang said her uncle “influenced me even though we were not close.”

High school brought many changes. Yang was enrolled in a boarding school in Ningbo, also located in the province of Zhejiang and would only go home about once a month. Although this initial separation from her family during her teen years was difficult, Yang said that it helped her immensely when moved to the U.S. to attend college.

While attending Ningbo Xiaoshi High School, Yang joined the orchestra, which was “the only high school with an orchestra in [her] province.” Yang continued to pay the violin for fun, never imagining that one-day it would be her career.

Go to Bryn Mawr

When she began to look into colleges, a friend from high school recommended that she apply to Bryn Mawr College in the US.  Yang chose Bryn Mawr because she liked the location and its proximity to Philadelphia, as well as its rich and unique heritage. Of course, she adds: “financial aid was a major factor.”

Interestingly, music was not on Yang’s college radar. According to Yang, China and the U.S. have different approaches to and interpretations of classical music. It is the same, but with a different feel.  “In China, they do not offer music classes …Music is not the focus. Most people are focused on the College Entrance Exam. People have more choice [in the US],” Yang said. “In China, science is more important than humanities.”

College was the first time Yang was so far from her family and country. She said she still sometimes got homesick when she was stressed out or when she missed home-cooked food. To stay in contact with her family, Yang uses Skype. But Yang also notes that the nice thing about her family is that they allow her to grow and be independent. They allow her to follow her own road. “My parents don’t really interfere with my decisions.”

During her first year at Bryn Mawr, Yang took Geology, French, and Economics, but no music classes. While she liked her courses, something was missing. For the first time in her life, there was no music and she was miserable. Thousands of miles from home, she realized that her curriculum was too much and stressing her out. “In music, I never felt that way.”

Once she began taking music classes, Yang was hooked. Professors Charles Porter and Heidi Jacob became her mentors, and Yang began looking into possibly majoring in music.

Yang is currently taking two music classes: Advanced Total Harmony and Symphonic Techniques.  Even as a senior, Yang continues to learn and grow in her classes. For example, she said that she never used to think about any part besides her own part before taking these classes in college. Now, she is acutely aware of how each group affects the whole orchestra.

In addition to her regular studies, Yang also takes private violin lessons, plays in the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Bi-Co Orchestra, performs with a chamber group and is taking her Senior Seminar.

For Yang, there is so much learning that she must do. One thing she would like to work on is performing in front of other people; having a presence and displaying one’s own personality and uniqueness.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice remains of utmost importance. There can be no success in music without diligent practice and hard work. Yang says that “ideally” she will try to practice three-to-four hours each day but she confesses that she is not always able to do so.

Every now and then, Yang likes to mix things up to keep on her toes. Recently, Yang took some introductory piano classes and some tried out the viola for fun. “Switching to viola gave me perspective,” she said. Yang is planning to take more piano lessons next semester in an effort to learn the technique and discipline of another instrument. She says regular and disciplined practicing is “more mentally exhausting” and takes “more mental effort” to get through than her other non-music classes.

After she graduates from Bryn Mawr in the spring, Yang is planning to attend graduate school to get a master’s degree in music with a concentration in performance. The specific degree Yang would like to obtain is a Master of Music in Performance.

She says that after graduate school she will “settle wherever I can find a job. I would be fine in either place (China or the U.S).” But Yang says that she really needs to start thinking about what she will do immediately after graduate school. One way to start is “to get to know more people in the music industry.”

No musician wants to be a starving musician. Yang recognizes that many people who choose to be musicians do not just have one job because they may not earn enough to make a living. Yang said that she plans to perform and teach. The benefit of her many years of violin instruction is that she can now teach others how to play the violin, which Yang finds inspiring and motivating.

Yang has had extraordinary role models and mentors. One of the most important lessons she has learned from her music teachers is to “see each phrase as a whole, think as a whole”.  As a young musician, it is easy to get caught in the execution of the notes, and not see them as a whole. It is just like learning to read by understanding the whole sentence instead of focusing on each word. It takes a lot of patience and training to get to this point.

Her teachers have also taught her that the pieces she performs are “not about you, (they are) about music.” “Being too self-conscious won’t help you.” She wishes her teachers in her early years had given her the same guidance about music performance, but she is thankful that she is learning now.

No secrets

There are no secrets to playing the violin well. It takes a lot of time to develop the right skills and intuitive sense. Yang says, “Once I have the idea, I have the techniques.”

In response to a question about what advice she would share with violinists interested in majoring in music, Yang says, “There are no tricks. Learning theory is very important for strings.” Diligent practice is key. Music majors have to simply ”learn to practice on your own.” Yang says that concerning style and technique, she is still “working on it.” She says that a musician’s style matures as they grow.

Yang believes that what makes a musician extraordinary is using “really good technique.” She says that musicians becomes skillful is when they are able to “make their own sound” and develop their unique technique and style. Yang says that successful musicians also have a “great personality.” Their personality can significantly influence the quality of their practice and performance. Yang also says that great musicians “ have a life outside of music.”

Yang has been the concertmaster for the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Bi-Co Orchestra since last year and it has been one of her most fulfilling experiences in college. “One reason I enjoy orchestra is that you get to make the decisions such as the dynamics and making sure everyone is playing in the same style.” She also likes “getting to lead a section.” One of the other reasons orchestra is enjoyable is  “having a great stand partner,” knowing that someone is there to support you and help you find your way.  She is pleased with the  “great communication” within her section.

Yang likes performing in an orchestra because it is both “quite individual” but “gives exposure to others.”

Yang enjoys the thrill of competition. One of her favorite moments was playing a solo with the Bi-Co Orchestra after winning the Concerto Competition in 2014. She had spent the winter break practicing every day and said she was “really happy I won.” Another competition she won was at the National Music Festival in Maryland. Yang played part of a Mozart concerto and had only a little over a month to practice for it. She said it was “fun and inspiring to play with professionals. I’m glad I got in.”

For the past two summers Yang attended music festivals. It was a “more intense, fast-paced schedule.” She felt excited because everyone there was devoted. Yang said she would want to do it next year as well. Yang usually plays romantic and baroque era pieces, but has not played much modern music.  Yet there is a certain electricity and positive energy that comes from being around people who love what they do. Even if a particular type of music is not her cup of tea, Yang finds tremendous pleasure and satisfaction in taking it all in. There is so much to learn and experience musically.

A borrowed violin

All musicians would be nothing without their instrument. Yang is currently playing her teacher’s violin this semester, using it during her concerts and auditions for graduate school. Every hand-made musical instrument is different. Yang describes the particular violin she is playing as having “more color and depth, especially in the lower range. It is important for musicians to be able to ‘make colors’ in their music,” and certain instruments make it easier to achieve a special sound or texture.

Yang is not taking her own violin back to China to practice over winter break because she “wouldn’t want to risk it.”  During one summer heading home from college, the airline she was flying on would not let her take her violin on the plane. She was bothered because she had been taking the same airline for years and they had never told her that she was restricted from bringing her violin on board. When she got the violin back, it had a huge crack in it. “I argued with them until they paid to have my instrument fixed,” she recalled. “Now I try to avoid traveling with my violin as much as possible.”

Music is important to Yang because “it makes me feel happy. That’s something other disciplines don’t make me feel…Music is so universal.”

To Yang, music is a wonderful way to connect and communicate with others all across the globe. When she was studying abroad in France last year, Yang came across a man playing a familiar song on the street. She said she recognized the song and the man even let her use his violin to play her version.  Another time, one of her friends from Germany was playing in a wedding. One of the musicians got sick but Yang was able to fill in because she had played the song before. She was able to make some valuable friendships with other musicians there, even though they spoke different languages.

Yang says that when she plays her violin, she feels “emotionally attached to the music.” She says she connects to the emotions carried by the music.  Once she was performing songs on her violin at Suburban Station in Philadelphia. She was surprised at how many people crowded around her and complimented her performance. One individual who had stopped to listen to her play her violin, cried while listening to Yang play. She told Yang that she could only cry when she heard how beautiful Yang’s violin sounded. Yang was deeply humbled by this experience, and it made her go back to school and practice even more diligently.

“Music really inspires people to do great things,” she said.

View a performance of a Bach sonata for violin by Yue Yang: