Associate Professor of Music
At the age of 17, violinist Ting-Lan Chen was a first prize winner in the National Chamber Music Competition in Taipei, Taiwan, and the summer before she turned 21, she performed in Young Musicians Concerts at the White House and the United Nations as a select violinist from the Asian Youth Orchestra.
By then, she had already performed in the legendary concert halls in Asia and Europe with the prestigious Asian Youth Orchestra, an orchestra co-founded by renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
Each spring, only 100 talented musicians are selected by competitive audition for the Asian Youth Orchestra. They are chosen from among the very best music students in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. The student musicians rehearse for two weeks in the summer, and then tour in July and August as young professionals with major international solo artists and conductors. Chen was selected to tour with the orchestra for three consecutive years.
“Touring with the Asian Youth Orchestra is one of the most cherished memories I have,” she said. “Musicians from every country are trying to squeeze in. All are strong players. It’s very competitive. It’s also quite intense—only two weeks to prepare and then tour for six. They (AYO) have great conductors, and it is good to see how other musicians do.”
Among the concert halls where she has performed are the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Berlin Schauspielhaus, Vienna Konzerthaus, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Singapore Conference Hall, Avery Fisher Hall in New York, Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and the Taipei National Concert Hall. Her favorite—the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
“Playing in the Concertgebouw, the music sounds better,” she said. “Not only ear-good, but you can physically feel it. It gives the music a warm, juicy, rich sound. Wonderful!”
Chen began her music training with piano lessons at the age of 5.
“In Taiwan, music students learn two instruments—piano and one other,” she said. She auditioned as a piano student in third grade and was accepted. As a piano student, she learned sight-reading and took ear training, and at 9, she began taking violin lessons. The music lessons were more about learning discipline, she said, than preparing her to become a professional musician.
“Parents (in Taiwan) want kids to do well, to be disciplined,” she said.
“I decided to choose music as my career because of the great experiences in the Asian Youth Orchestra,” she said. She earned an undergraduate degree, a bachelor of fine arts in violin performance, from Taipei National University of the Arts in 1997 and then came to the United States to earn graduate degrees.
I came to the United States to pursue master and doctoral degrees in Cincinnati, because there is a very strong string program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music,” she said.
She earned both the M.M. and D.M.A. degrees in violin and chamber music performance from CCM, and has served as concertmaster of the CCM Philharmonic Orchestra. She also performed in the Music 2000 Contemporary Music Festival with the American minimalist Steve Reich for his composition “Different Trains” and collaborated with Xian Zhang, associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, for Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” in Ohio.
After completing the D.M.A., Chen played with the Dayton (Ohio) Philharmonic Orchestra for a year.
“It was a wonderful experience, because we did great literature and the Dayton Philharmonic played with so many great musicians that year — Itzhak Perlman, Andre Watts, Midori, Garrick Ohlsson and others,” she said.
Today, as an associate professor of music, she teaches violin and viola, chamber music and core curricula. She is also violinist for the UNK Faculty Piano Trio and has been concertmaster with the Kearney Symphony Orchestra since she joined the UNK faculty in 2004.
She spoke of her role with KSO saying, “As principal, it’s important to give a clear physical cue, because it is a cue for the whole violin section. People in four or five rows of the orchestra need to follow. You have to make sure they go with you.”
Describing the experience of performing in an orchestra she said, “Playing in an orchestra is like being part of a whole big sea wave of sound. It’s a great feeling.”
Her passion for performance encompasses a wide range of venues, but she is quick to acknowledge that some especially stand out.
“Another very precious experience for me is when I play in a duet, trio or any chamber ensemble,” she said, noting in particular her affection for performing with the Mendelssohn String Octet as part of the Omaha Conservatory of Music’s festival each July. Participation is by invitation only. Last year, Chen was the only octet member from Kearney. Others came from as far away as San Francisco, Calif., and Richmond, Va., as well as from as near as Omaha and Lincoln.
In addition to an active performance schedule, her creative scholarly research has resulted in numerous national and international jury-selected lecture recitals. Last year, she presented a lecture recital on composer Ma-Shui-Long at the College Music Society International Conference in Seoul, Korea.
Another project, “Rediscovery: The Violin Music of Rebecca Clarke,” earned her a jury-selected lecture presentation at the College Music Society National Conference in Richmond, Va. Her interest in the English composer’s music came after hearing a piece performed.
“I thought, ‘That’s music I want to play,’” she said. However, the compositions she wants to play have not yet been published, and the individual with control over the music is hesitant to make those compositions available.
“I am hoping I can play them soon,” she said. “I feel that great art should belong to everyone.”
Research on another composer resulted in a paper titled “Revival and Rebellion: Astor Piazzola and His Six Etudes for Solo Violin.” The research, which was sponsored by a UNK University Research and Creative Activity Grant, was jury selected for an American String Teacher Association National Conference presentation, and for lecture recitals at Westmont (California) College, Illinois State University, Louisiana State University and the College Music Society National Conference.
While she is passionate about music, she also has strong feelings about how music should be performed. A study of musicians who are known for exaggerating their movements, or gestures, as they perform became the subject of a paper titled “When Music Becomes a Visual Art.” The article was published in the refereed International Journal of the Arts in Society.
“Some musicians feel if the performance is more visual, they sustain the audience’s interest longer,” she said. “That bothers me a little. I try not to use gestures to entice. I don’t like that very much. If your music is powerful enough, you don’t need to use that.”
When asked which composers she likes to perform, she is quick to say, “I feel I have those I like, not just the form or structure but their character. I like Beethoven better than Mozart. Ravel is so sensual. And Brahms’ music is very complex. It doesn’t please an audience on a superficial level. I love Tchaikovsky, because the music is so emotional and dramatic. My temperament is not like that, so it is harder for me to play.
“Some music, when I listen, I like it, but when I play it, I experience the structure more,” she said. “When I am in the audience, it is a more passive role.”
She went on to compare what it is like to be a musician and make music, as opposed to being a painter: “A painting always looks the same. You hang it on the wall. It’s done. For a musician, playing the same work a week later, the work may sound very different.”
Traveling for performances and lectures presents a major concern for Chen, who plays an Italian-made violin that dates back to the late 1800s. For many, the intense inspection process that takes place before boarding an airplane is an inconvenience. For Chen, it’s much more.
“They (violins) are more fragile than human beings. If they’re injured, they’re done. You don’t touch the varnished part,” she said, adding that 9/11 has had “…a huge impact on musicians, because the inspectors handle the instruments.” Beyond the impact inspections can have, violins react to being moved from location to location.
“Instruments are like living creatures. They change for where they are,” she said. She purchased her violin while she was living in Ohio, but said, “When I came to Nebraska, the tone changed. It is very dry here.”
“The first year, there were not so many (violin) students,” she said, however, the number of string students increases each year.
“I really want to promote string music and have been doing so since I moved to Nebraska,” she said. “I often felt that string players and string music were like a minority here. However, there has been a gradual and stronger support to our string community, for which I feel really grateful, and I am excited to see continuous support.”
Although too modest to say so, Chen has been the key to much of the growth in the string community in Central and Western Nebraska. A successful proposal she wrote resulted in UNK becoming one of only 32 sites in the National String Project Consortium in Nebraska and the surrounding region in 2008.
Chen explained: “The project is dedicated to increasing the number of children playing stringed instruments and addressing the critical shortage of string teachers in the United States. We not only offer string education to our community, but also hands-on training to our undergraduate string students through teaching assistantships in the string project, mentored by the UNK string faculty.”
Valerie Cisler, chair and professor of the Department of Music and Performing Arts, said of Chen, “She initiated the proposal. She is a super faculty member. Not only is she a talented performer and a wonderful teacher, she has a vision for the future. She is everything—a go-getter.”
“During fund-raising events in preparation for the application, and throughout the inaugural months of the project, many string educators encouraged us and provided invaluable advice,” Chen said, adding that UNK was able to establish the National Spring Project Site, in part, because of strong financial backing .
Support for the project came from the National String Project Consortium, Dana Foundation, Kearney Symphony Orchestra Board, Kearney Area Arts Council, UNK Office of Sponsored Programs, UNK College of Fine Arts and Humanities, UNK Department of Music and Performing Arts and generous community donations.
As with any new project, there are sometimes unexpected obstacles. When the first group of third graders assembled for their lesson, they sat there at attention, instruments in hand… and feet dangling.
“We had to order little chairs for them,” she said. “Otherwise, they couldn’t balance!”
“We start with students in the third grade,” she said. “The public schools begin students in the fourth grade. We encourage them (the string project students) to do both. The more you do, the better you get. Our program is a supplement to the public school program, and that’s the goal.” The chamber ensemble class is the most advanced class the string project offers.
“This past year we had 50-60 students in the project,” Chen said. “That’s not bad for the size of our town, but of course we want more.” The project is now directed by Noah Rogoff, who also teaches cello and double bass.
“Dr. Rogoff is a brilliant performer, and a wonderful and caring string educator,” Chen said. “We are thrilled to have him as a member of our music department and especially as director of the string project
While Rogoff now directs the string project, Chen directs the UNK Thornton String Quartet and has an active violin/viola studio. Her students are successful. She has had students win the Nebraska Music Teachers Association Collegiate Strings Competition, the UNK Concerto/Aria Competition and the Music Teachers National Association Young Artist Chamber Music Competition.
The Thornton String Quartet she directs has represented UNK in several important events, including the installation ceremony for the University of Nebraska president. The quartet is comprised of two violins, a viola and a cello. A gift from UNK Alumna Mary Elaine (Thornton) House funded the endowment which provides four annual Thornton String Quartet Scholarships. Membership is by competitive audition.
“The challenging part for me now is the personnel issue,” she said. Only the best students are selected each year for the group.
“It is very tricky,” Chen said. “I get good students. We choose the best. I don’t want students to turn away, because they get replaced. I want the students to still love music.”
When the quartet was established, then music department chair Ron Crocker said: “The Thornton String Quartet Scholarship Fund is very important to the future of string performance and to string education throughout the state. It is essential that the rich heritage of string ensemble and orchestra performances be sustained at the highest levels possible. The Thornton String Quartet scholarships will help achieve that goal.”
“There was funding for the (student scholarships), but not for the sheet music,” Chen said. “Through a chain of lucky events, I got music. I found that the library had grant money, so I wrote a grant for the music. It’s nice. Much better now.
“For students, it is important to play works by many composers, so they understand the different character of the music,” she said. “Music should not be talked about. It should be listened to, or you lose the magic.”