Meet the SFS Musicians: Violinist Chen Zhao

Chen Zhao

Violin
SFS member: 2000
Hometown: Shanghai, China

Chen Zhao got off to an unorthodox start as a violin student. “When I was three, I lived in a small one-bedroom house in Shanghai with my parents, grandparents, and my uncle and aunt. My uncle, Ronghao Nie, used to practice the violin in our bathroom, so I would stand outside the bathroom door and sing the tunes as he was playing. Iʼd also imitate his playing with a pencil box and a chopstick.” Soon his uncle was teaching him in earnest, on a real violin, with a truly inspiring pedagogical technique. “Sheet music wasnʼt readily available in China in the 1980s, so my uncle used to compose a song every day and leave it on my music stand for me to play when I woke up in the morning.” After lessons with Jia-xiang Zhou, a violinist with the Shanghai Symphony, Chen entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music Elementary Division at age eight, to study with Jiyang Zhao.

At age twelve, Chen took a giant step in his musical development: He moved to Santa Monica to study at the Crossroads School...without his parents. “I was alone, and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But violin was my solace when I was lonely. I stayed with many wonderful host families and learned English very quickly, in order to catch up with classes at school.”


Photo: Stefan Cohen

Despite the difficulty of being on his own, Chen thrived at the Crossroads School. “It was an incredible group of young musicians. There was an amazing chamber orchestra, and we played chamber music, gave recitals, went on tours in the US; we even made a few recordings.”

Chen went on to study with Felix Galimir at the Curtis Institute of Music, and Camilla Wicks at the San Francisco Conservatory. He earned a spot in Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony, followed by the SFS, which he joined full time in 2000.

It was at Curtis where Chen had his “a ha!” moment about teaching. “My very first student was a twelve-year-old violinist. I still remember that she and her mother came to my Curtis graduation recital. It was very sweet of them.” And it planted the seeds for a love of teaching that persists to this day in his work on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory and as a coach with the SFS Youth Orchestra.

“Teaching makes you think about each step you do to play a certain phrase or a passage. It trains your ears to look for imperfections, to find creative solutions for technical problems, and make phrasing natural and convincing. It pushes me to be creative, logical, and efficient. Not only am I passing down traditions and techniques I’ve learned from my mentors, I’m also learning a lot from my students.”

As important as lessons are, Chen also advises his students to go to as many concerts as possible. “Recordings and live performances are equally inspiring. But since we are performing artists, itʼs fun to open your eyes and watch how people play. Sometimes I catch great fingerings or bow techniques that I would not get from listening to recordings. It also helps you realize how much live acoustics affect your playing and the listenerʼs experience. Having enthusiastic audiences and being in a great concert hall are very much a part of music making!”

 

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