Shu Liu closed her eyes, gripped the neck of her violin and took a breath. Normally a soft-spoken person who is shy when speaking English, she exhaled as she played her opening notes, which were surprisingly loud and full of gusto.
Her slight figure swayed with the rises and falls in the music, which suggested a passion and emotional connection to music that wouldn’t normally be seen outside of her performing role.
Liu, a violin performance junior, and two other ASU violinists were selected at the summer InterHarmony International Music Festival in Germany to perform at Carnegie Hall on April 25. The ASU trio was part of the group of only four performers who were selected to perform in Carnegie Hall’s InterHarmony Concert Series: “Rite of String.”
Liu said performing is more than just being on stage.
“One way you’re expressing yourself and your feelings, and then you’re also communicating with your audience and letting them feel the beauty of music,” she said. “That’s what we really like to do.”
Liu said she’s been playing violin since her parents started her at age 6. The other violin performance majors selected to perform, sophomores Xiangyuan Huang and Clarice Collins, started at the young ages of 6 and 5, respectively.
Despite this similarity, there were major differences in how the girls each began their violin careers. Huang said her dad initially forced her to pick up the instrument.
“At the beginning, my dad just forced me to practice it,” Huang said. “But when I was in middle school, I really wanted to practice and play, and I was really enjoying it.”
In contrast, Collins said when she was very young, she approached her mother about her interest in the violin.
“When I was 4, I asked my mum if I could play the violin, because I was listening to classical music in the car,” she said. “A year later, she said yes.”
All performers agreed that their supporters, both at ASU and at home, helped them get to where they are today.
“My parents are music lovers,” Liu said. “They don’t know much about music but are very supportive. (They said), ‘Do what you do best, and we will support you (and) be by your side.’”
Collins said she’s very appreciative of all the people she’s met who cheer her on and believes her family will become more supportive as time goes on.
“My mum is very worried about me in music, because it’s such a tricky career to have to do on your own,” she said. “Slowly I think my parents will be OK with it … at some point, I think they’ll recognize it as a career.”
The trio said performing has become a monumental part of their lives, and they have only continued to grow their appreciation for their instrument as time goes on.
“The violin represents most the human voice,” Collins said. “I can’t sing, but to play the violin and get out that unique sound, it definitely has a strong impact on a lot of people. … I’ve always thought that playing music is a way of telling everybody absolutely everything about yourself without saying anything.”
Liu and Huang, who were raised in Beijing, said performing is a way to break the language barrier and express themselves freely and completely.
“Sometimes it’s hard, because we’re from other countries, so it’s hard to communicate,” Huang said. “But when we play on stage, it’s a universal language, so everyone can understand you.”
All three girls agreed that their music is an inconsistent art, which translates into days of frustration, and each said they are sometimes even tempted to quit.
Collins said that when these days happen, people just need to remember the days when they feel proud of their talent.
“I think we all have those days when we’re like, ‘I should just quit; it’s too hard,’” she said. “You have to realize that it’s just a rough day and it’s OK. … But then there are some days where you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’”
The Big Moment
Huang was the first to know about the groups’ selection because her teacher broke the news during her lesson before the violin studio class, where all violin students convene to perform for each other. But Huang’s teacher said not to tell Collins and Liu because she wanted to surprise them during class.
Collins said the moment when she was told about the selection, she was excited to share her experience with her two colleagues.
“We were playing in studio class,” she said. “It was funny looking over at Shu and Xiangyuan and seeing that they were happy, too. … I think that gave me a lot more confidence as a musician, knowing we were all having this moment, and that I would play with these two musicians I play with on a weekly basis.”
All three musicians said they enjoyed their families’ enthusiastic and supportive reactions to the news. Collins said she called her sister first.
“She was flipping out,” she said. “She’s actually going to New York. She saved all the money to come and see me.”
Huang said it took a few moments to get the message across to her parents, though when they understood, their reaction was ecstatic.
“I told my parents, and they didn’t react at first because ‘Carnegie’ is a different word in Chinese,” she said. “But then I told them in Chinese, and they were like, ‘Wow!’”
Collins said a big component in preparing for the big moment is to mentally prepare.
“It’s a big concert,” she said. “A concert where we feel a lot of pressure, we have to make sure that we are calm and be able to play really well and feel good about it.”
Misha Quint, music director and founder of the InterHarmony International Music Festival, heard the girls perform at the festival in the summer of 2013. He said the girls didn’t need to be judged to be selected, because he liked them and immediately wanted to help them perform at Carnegie Hall.
“We listened to them play, and I really loved it,” he said. “We knew they were good.”
Quint said he believed this opportunity would help the girls showcase their talent and gain an experience of which most musicians will only dream.
“For any person to have the chance to perform at Carnegie Hall is important,” he said. “It’s really important to practice, but really you learn a lot by going on the stage and performing.”
Collins explained that the girls’ friendship has grown as they’ve performed together, and they are excited to travel to Carnegie Hall as a group. They even shopped for their concert attire together for their coming performance.
Collins said her relationship with Huang is especially close because the girls will be performing a duet together at Carnegie.
“(Huang and I) spend so much time together,” she said with a laugh. “I mean, we slept in the same bed in Iceland, because they didn’t have enough. We’re pretty close!”
Since the trio’s start at ASU, they have been directed by professor Danwen Jiang, who has toured the world as a professional violinist and performed at Carnegie Hall in the past.
Jiang expressed great care for the girls and said she sees a bright future for them. In working closely with the trio, she said she’s noted their dedication to not only improve their skills but to become successful and great performers.
“They don’t have a break, other than sleeping, eating, and whatever other necessary things that they need to do,” she said. “They work very hard, but I have no doubt they’re going to be very successful and (performing at Carnegie Hall) will certainly benefit their performing career future and become successful artists.”
Jiang said she is pleased to be their teacher and be able to share this moment in time with them. She was thrilled when she heard the news and is certain they will represent ASU well.
“We are very happy, the school and me,” she said. “For our institution, I think it’s really wonderful news.”
All three girls said they have big goals for their future in making meaningful careers out of their passion for the violin and music in general.
Collins chuckled and said she envisions her future in a variety of ways, including playing in the pit orchestra for an opera ballet company, or owning her own studio and teaching lessons.
All these ideas considered, Collins said there is one scenario she sees as ideal for her future.
“But I think the biggest thing that I want to do is make my own contemporary music,” she said. “I just want to make new music and premiere works by new composers and just go around and tour with that. That would be the ultimate dream for me!”
Liu said her ultimate goal is to join a chamber group, perhaps with friends or colleagues, and tour the world. Even though she is a performance major, she said she would also consider teaching music in the future so she could give aspiring performers the knowledge she has received from others who have taught her.
Huang said she has a hopeful, but realistic view of her dreams.
“I want to be a classical soloist — but it’s hard, so I’m not sure,” she said. “But I’ve always dreamt of it.”
Huang said she would also enjoy teaching in the future to further explore the personal differences each person can have with a single piece of music and to showcase those differences.
“Music is totally different for each person,” she said. “So when you teach someone else, you gain more and grow together.”
She said despite this accomplishment, she looks forward to continuing her education and practicing to keep increasing her skill.
“There’s still a long way to go,” she said.
Envisioning the Day
With her eyes still closed, Liu continued inhaling before each musical phrase, as if she were playing a wind instrument. Her fingers danced across the violin’s neck with quick, shrill high notes and finally landed on a lower, resonant chord. She lifted the bow and glanced around with a shy smile, as she finished the introduction of the solo piece she will be playing at Carnegie Hall.
Liu and the other girls discussed how they imagine the moment will be when they walk onstage to perform at the famed venue.
Huang said she looks forward to the moment and hopes she will be able to calm her nerves enough to perform to her fullest potential.
“When you go onstage, it’s all about the excitement, but mostly, we feel nervous,” she said. “The most important thing to do is enjoy the performance, to have the power to impact the audience emotionally (and) to move all the people in the audience.”
Liu said she plans to avoid looking out into the audience so she can keep her nerves under control.
“It will get easier once you start and find the pulse (of the music),” she said. “I hope I get really focused and transcend the passion.”
But Collins said she felt differently than her colleagues about this performance. She tries not to think about walking onstage at all, as she wants to be able to completely live in the present moment when it happens so she can fully enjoy it.
“I’m not picturing it,” she said. “I’ve dreamt about it, but I want to feel it all in the moment and not go in with this idea, but go in with no idea and have it be the best thing that’s ever happened to me so far.”
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