‘ I Work Hard at Being Myself ’
Embarking upon a promising career as a professional musician, Yu-Chien Tseng is in the first movement of his dream of performing into his eighties.
‘ I Work Hard at Being Myself ’By Yi-ting Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 615 )
Dreams. Sometimes they begin a bit crudely or clumsily, but if you just try to move forward, one day you could look back to see what great strides you have made.
Yu-Chien Tseng is already an internationally acclaimed classical violinist at the tender age of 22. Yet even he (and those around him) endured a rough patch when he first began playing.
Then five years old and unable to carry a tune, Tseng was sent by his parents to take violin lessons. After a month, he had barely achieved a grasp of the instrument. “Unlike the piano, with which you can at least make sounds when you start out, when you start out on the violin, it can sound pretty bad, like slaughtering a pig,” he recalls.
Today he is an established professional soloist, enjoying the feeling of mastery of the instrument and music on the stage before an audience. “When you are up there performing, the audience is anticipating every note you play during the space between notes. In that space, it feels like you are in control of so much on stage, like you can do so many things,” says Tseng. “This is something I really enjoy.”
Violin is Part of Life
Truly, when Tseng picks up his violin and begins to play, everything is different.
On a warm winter afternoon, the melody of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s Variations on “The Last Rose of Summer” as played by Tseng reverberates throughout the office of Universal Records. Tseng has just returned to Taiwan from New York to promote his latest album, Reverie. Back home for less than three days, he appears undisturbed by jet lag, his eyes closed as his expression moves with the melody, note after deliberate note pouring from his instrument as he plays.
The confident, assured figure with the violin is completely different from the bashful, slightly nervous young man interviewed on camera just an hour earlier.
“It’s (the violin) like a part of me,” he says. “It isn’t possible for me to express everything I want to say in an interview, but when I play the violin, I am able to express the emotions of the song or my thoughts,” he explains. The violin and its music, it would seem, have become integral to his life.
This has earned him such appellations as “musical prodigy” and “the pride of Taiwan,” and, on the strength of his second-place ranking at the prestigious 2015 Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition in Moscow (the top prize at the competition that year, as no first prize was awarded), he is now a rising star in the classical music world. Unfazed by the accolades, he prefers to define himself by focusing firmly on his ideals. “These titles have no effect on what I want to do. I just do what I want to do, and go where my ideals take me,” he says.
His dream was to become a professional musician, a blueprint first drafted out when he was just 11 years old. That year he took third place at the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists (the Menuhin Competition) in London, defeating numerous conservatory students from around the world.
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How did Tseng do it? Even more important than talent has been his unbounded imagination and commitment to his music, and “finding out where it could take me.”
This helped him persuade his father, Tseng Hsien-hung, on several occasions.
For instance, he decided to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at the tender age of 13, following in the footsteps of Chinese pianist Lang Lang. “First, Yu-Chien persuaded me. Then, he and I turned to convincing his mother,” says the elder Tseng.
At first, considering that sending him to study in the United States would cost over $NT1 million a year in living expenses, Hsien-hung Tseng made no concrete plans for Yu-Chien to study overseas. “That made him really depressed,” his father recalls.
Undeterred, Yu-Chien kept after his father to let him apply to schools. He said, “Let me take the qualification test once. If I don’t get accepted on the first try I won’t mention it again,” recalls Nanette Chen, music department director at National Taiwan Normal University and Tseng’s teacher at the time.
In the end, he convinced his father, and Yu-Chien Tseng was accepted into the institute. His father quit his job to accompany him in the United States, and Professor Chen was able to find corporate sponsorship to ensure they had enough funds.
Yu-Chien is similarly resolute about his musical style, his assuredness sufficient to ease his father’s worries.
“His style is restrained and assured, not flashy, unlike some star modern soloists,” says Cheng Li-pin, conductor of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra.
Still, his father could not help but fret, wondering whether his son’s understated style was not flashy enough to win applause.
“He (Yu-Chien) told me: ‘That’s other people; if I copy them, I won’t be myself.’” These words made his father try to put his faith in him. “He even said that if no one enjoyed his music, he would never win any awards, and would never be able to hold recitals. And although some people might not like him, there would always be people that do.”
Failure as the Best Accelerator
Tseng’s road to success has not been without tribulation.
In 2014, while still a conservatory student in the U.S., Tseng took part in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, his first entry into a competition in two years.
Looking back, Tseng recalls it all clearly. “Everything was under control, but I didn’t make to the finals. How could that happen?”
The defeat shocked and devastated the young violinist. His father, now back in Taiwan, was unable to reach him for a week.
Still, the experience made him stop, reassess, go back and alter his course, and embark on the second movement of his life thus far. “Failures have really helped me improve the most. That’s when the motivation is the strongest,” he says.
For instance, over the subsequent several months, he worked especially hard on his bowing technique, and in 2015, he fared well in two successive competitions. “When you ask more and more from yourself, you end up improving,” says Tseng.
From avocation to profession, Tseng has finished school and become a full-time performer. And while he no longer needs to prove himself in competitions, he knows that staying the course while you are living your dream is even tougher. “It’s a long road, with a lot to overcome,” he says.
Chief among the difficulties is that he must compete with his own time and determination.
Last year, his schedule full, he rushed between performances and recording sessions, flying to a different city every few days, and living on planes, in hotels, and on stage. He had to seek out gaps in the busy schedule just to fit in practice time.
“A lot of people start going backwards after three years of performing before they disappear. If you want to maintain a high level through the age of 60 or 70, you need excellent self control, and even higher standards,” says Tseng, adding that he wants to model himself after legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, who remained active into his eighties.
He knows that on the soloist’s journey of dreams, this is only the beginning.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman
Chinese Version: 國際小提琴新星曾宇謙：我比誰都努力做自己