There's music in the sighing of a reed;
There's music in the gushing of a rill;
There's music in all things, if men had ears:
Their earth is but an echo of the spheres.
~Lord Byron

Friday, September 30, 2011

An exclusive interview with Cho-Liang Lin

The questions and answers below are excerpts from the master’s thesis of violinist Rebecca Jackson. The interview took place in May 2007. Rebecca asked the questions and my answers seem to reflect accurately my overall outlook on performing, teaching, career and life as a musician. I am grateful to Rebecca for allowing this reprint.

What is your definition of a successful concert artist?

Cho-liang Lin: When I was younger, just out of college, I would have said that a successful concert career would mean that you were regularly engaged by the top tier orchestras around the world, had recording contract of substance, solo albums, and recitals around the world. A few years ago there was a New York Times profile on Yo-Yo Ma. He was trying to define success. What he said provoked so many different reactions from my colleagues who read that article. Yo-Yo said that real success is how fulfilling your musical endeavors are, in that if you practice towards a particular end the process of trying to achieve that goal can already be a very fulfilling experience. In that sense, it's already a success. Some of my colleagues said, “That's great. It's so philosophical.” And then other colleagues said, “Yes. Well, that's easy for Yo-Yo to say.” [laughter] To this day I'm grappling with [what a successful concert artist is]. Artistic venues have changed so much. Let's take for example my definition of a successful concert career 25 years ago. It's no longer viable for everybody. Let's use violinists for instance... they use different, sometimes unconventional venues to promote a career. For instance some will play and actively promote contemporary music. I know some of these colleagues that are true believers of new music. They genuinely love it. At the same time I've talked to managers who worry about these very artists saying, “You know so and so? She's carving a real niche for herself but perhaps in the wrong area. She'll be identified forever as a contemporary music violinist. Nobody will every want her to play Brahms or Beethoven.” Everybody has different worries. I now have a much broader view and definition of what is a successful concert career because I think you can find great joy and reward in becoming a respected teacher. You can carve a very significant niche in your community by advocating concert activities and musical education. Some of my colleagues have become administrators. Even I have become an administrator in the sense that I have a music festival in San Diego. [Musicians] branch out in all sorts of ways. To deviate from violinists for a second, let me share about two cellists. Matt Haimovitz's career had a great beginning. At 18 or 19 he was recording for Deutsch Gramophone with Levine and Chicago Symphony. Then something changed. His name was no longer on the concert billboards and next thing I knew I read in the New York Times that he was playing at pizza parlors around the country. He played anything from George Crumb to Bach. He seems to be happy doing whatever he is doing. Then there is David Finckel who already has a great quartet established, the Emerson. He finds additional fulfillment in running Music at Menlo as well as Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. So, in a way, I think everybody gets his or her thrills differently and I think the old definition that I mentioned earlier no longer suffice. Also, when you become a respected member of a tremendous top rank orchestra there's a lot of pride in that too. There's such a broad range of possibilities that I hate painting anybody into a niche saying, “This is the only way you can be ranked as successful.” 

What were/are the key factors to establishing your success as a concert artist?

Cho-liang Lin: Let me go a little further back. I think the key ingredients are (1) family support, (2) educational environment, and that involves teachers. You also need to have a very stimulating environment in which to grow. For me, Juilliard was the right place. I saw the challenge everyday and I wanted to rise to the occasion. And third is what I call the intangibles. Those intangibles include luck and timing. Also, a personal aura or personal approach that will endear you to your audience and those who shape the music world. This category is the hardest to define. You can be an excellent violinist in school and that does not translate into a successful career. It's how you transmit your ideas on stage, how you walk on stage, how you present yourself in front of the audience, how to communicate your thoughts clearly to your audience. Also, how to work with other musicians. That's why I encourage chamber music training to all young players. It's not that they will end up playing chamber music, there's nothing wrong with that, it's great, but some people who say, “I'm going to play the Brahms or Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic four years from now so why should I bother with chamber music?” I have to remind them that when you're playing a concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic you are in fact playing chamber music with 80 players in the orchestra. You'd better know your stuff because you can't play however you feel that day and [expect] the orchestra to follow. You'll lose the respect of those players and [it could possibly be] the end of your career. It comes down to how you listen to music and how you work with other musicians. This is very important in this third group that I call the intangibles. To go back to the first ingredient, the support, initially, without that support, help, and encouragement, a young talent will find it very hard to grow.

“Talent.” Can one acquire it?

Cho-liang Lin: I think there are two layers of talent. One is the instinctive, your automatic grasp of how you feel about music. That translates into how well you express your feelings through music. I think that is a given talent, you cannot acquire it. The second layer of talent is the physical talent, to be able to play the instrument well. That can be trained although on the highest level you still need the natural ability. That's what separates Heifetz from the other great violinists. There is that extra 10% that makes Heifetz's playing utterly incredible. We all gasp at what it is Heifetz was able to do. I ask other great violinists but we can't figure out what it is that made him do it. That special kind of talent is very unusual but on a more common place level, the physical talent can be taught. In the end it's up to the individual to combine those two talents.

How much does music conservatory contribute to one's success?

Cho-liang Lin: The conservatory is a very important factor. It can a lay a really good foundation. Isaac Stern used to say he never went to high school. He never went to a conservatory. He learned by asking questions all his life. He used to say, “I was a pest. I would ceaselessly asked questions.” He learned that way. But not everyone has the brash and inquisitive mind of Isaac Stern. We have to be spoon-fed certain knowledge about music, and conservatories do that. From my own Juilliard experience, the school here was a microcosm of what was to be outside. Except the world was 50 times tougher than what Juilliard had to offer. However Juilliard prepared me well. First off I thought the competitive atmosphere from within the school I thought was healthy. Some of my schoolmates hated it but it turned out to be a sneak peek of the real pressure in the outside world. Secondly , if you take every academic course seriously, let me qualify that, to the extent that you had time to study all these subjects apart from your violin, you really could learn a lot. When I was in school I had the typical teenager attitude saying, “Well, who needs ear training. It doesn't help me play the Paganini Caprices more in tune.” But in the end when you do come around, 15 years later you are confronted with certain rhythmic patterns in Berg, Stravinsky, or Ned Rorem's music where those rhythmic dictations come in handy. You come back and utilize those things. There's a ground laying effect for conservatory training but it's up to the individual to continue that inquisitive path. 

What are music schools lacking in equipping/educating the student who desires a career as a concert artist?

Cho-liang Lin: [There are] two things that can be fortified. One is career counseling, although that is a very tough job. Career counseling is not exactly like going to law school because law students know exactly what they're going to do. In music you can diversify so quickly. In my days there was this unrealistic thinking that everybody that came through Juilliard would have an extraordinary solo career. When they didn't do it, it was a huge disappointment. Or at least that was the perception. Now I think people are more realistic, at least among my students. But often even at there master's degree they are not sure what they want to do, not defined at all. However I don't get these bragging students who say, “I'm going to win the Queen Elisabeth Competition two years from now and get an exclusive recording contract with Deutch Gramophone soon thereafter.” They might harbor those dreams but it's not like in my day when it was the expected outcome. So that's healthier. Number two is concert performing experience. Encouraging students to perform at every opportunity because there's no substitute.

Please share your thoughts on politics, networking and one's people skills?

Cho-liang Lin: I mentioned a part of that in my intangibles. Networking is important in a sense that it's part of everyday reality. You can lock yourself up in a practice room and play like god but it's the moment when you have to work with others that will prove your real worth. By that I mean you will still need to be able to communicate whatever you're working on with your audience. And that communicative skill can be taught but only to a limited extent. A lot of it has to be felt. When I was a student I went to hear Bernstein, Horowitz, Rostropovich... There was a certain aura about them. When they walked on stage you felt like you were about to witness something great. Likewise for chamber music groups, when I heard the Guarneri Quartet for the first time and Isaac Stern playing chamber music, it was something incredible. You're talking about people skills, networking. It's a very tough question to answer. You can and you should connect with people but if you rely exclusively on this to promote a career then I think one's priorities are all screwed up. I think one's aim is to play well. The aim is to believe strongly in the music that you play. Love it. If the aim is, “I know the manager of such and such an orchestra.” “I know this artists manager.” “I know this publicist.” “Let's see if I can put them all together and suddenly become the next Itzhak Perlman.” I'm afraid that's not going to happen. It just doesn't. I think being a recluse in the Glenn Gould way doesn't really work anymore. In this day and age, people always crave for some sort of communication. Probably the only equivalent of those iconic hermits today is Martha Argerich who can play only five concerts a year and people go crazy over these five concerts. To be honest, you can network without thinking about it. The fact is you can make really good friends with colleagues and people in the business without the pretense, “I must know so and so.” The really nice part about the business side of music is making friends without thinking, “They must have an agenda.” Genuine friendships can be forged.

How has the journey to success changed for today's musician?

Cho-liang Lin: Juilliard in the 70's put a lot of emphasis on the solo repertoire training especially the violin department. The two main teachers were Galamian and DeLay. They wanted nothing less than superstar violinists to come out of their studios. Now I think there is more grounding in orchestral and chamber music training. The expectation is one that will land you a secure job soon. That's the priority, not some lofty goal. That's the main difference between Juilliard then and Juilliard now.

Lin with his teacher Dorothy DeLay in Aspen circa 1983 

What role does the competition serve in the artist's career?

Cho-liang Lin: I think they are both good and bad. It's good in that it gives young violinists a chance to show their stuff, to learn about where they stand among their peers. Also on the few occasions that the winner, finalists, will get recognized is great. The bad part is that many, including the top winners don't get anywhere after a competition, even a major one. If you tabulate the top competitions around the world- Tchaikovsky, Queen Elisabeth, Indianapolis- and look at their past winners for the last 20 years to see where they have gone and how many names you might recognize, you might be surprised you don't know most of them. [Competitions] don't carry the same impact that they did in the 60s and 70s. The three biggies were Levintritt in the States, Tchaikovsky in Moscow, and Queen Elisabeth in Brussels. Also at that time the cold war created competition between the Soviet Union and US which created a lot of news. It was news worthy. Now you announce the winner of the Tchaikovsky and everybody yawns. I hate to be cynical but I think that is accurate. Competitions can be good. I encourage my students to participate in them only if they want to. If they find that it's a good challenge for them to work, gets them to practice more and get certain repertoire ready, great. 

What do you think of recordings, old versus new? What effects have they had?

Cho-liang Lin: First of all, going back to my old definition of success where I said recording career was priority. 25 years later, it's not a priority anymore because recording labels are all suffering and they are cutting way back. Sales are way down. Right now it's rather amorphous in that a recording contract may not guarantee anything. It's a bonus if you have a big label pushing you but if you look at labels, what they're pushing and whom they're pushing, it's often based on appearance, sex appeal, a certain look, a certain marketability. It's not a recognition of real talent anymore. In that sense, it's a very different game today and I would not put a strong recording career as a priority in any young artists' career. 

Most of the things I read about classical music in America is that it's on its way out. Since this is a vital component to our success what do you think?

Cho-liang Lin: I don't think classical music is on its way out. It's constantly in danger of being wiped off because we occupy this tenuous niche that is so at the mercy of funding. We don't usually make that much money in this business, not like a pop tour or a rock concert where the profit is clear. Often a lot of people work in this business based on good faith and a passion for music. Right now I still see a huge amount of passion among those in the business and that's a good sign. Periodically you see doom and gloom reports about so and so sales dropping, ticket revenue down, CD sales down, but ten years after such reports come out you see the same orchestras operating. Some of them rebound nicely. Composers today are still cranking out some really wonderful works. I think it's there. The question is what format. CD sales are a worrisome trend but I think that's an industry-wide worry. The pop world is worried about it too. In that sense I feel good that classical music is in the same boat as the multi-billion dollar Hollywood and pop music industry. I wonder if 50 years ago there were only elderly people going to concerts too. What became of them? They couldn't have continued to live for the next 50 years [laughter] so there must be a steady supply of these people. This country faces a big problem in that music education in the schools is poor and non-existent. So where you find the next generation of audience is always a struggle. Whereas when you go to Asia the audience you find are much younger. That is healthier in a sense. But the same thing exists whether the average age is 65 or the average age is 35, if you don't turn out something attractive to the crowd nobody will show up. It's that simple. 

What do you consider your greatest successes and why?

Cho-liang Lin: I've done all sorts of things in my life with my musical abilities. There are some defining moments in my life as a concert violinist that were very thrilling and life-changing. For instance, making my debut when I was twenty with the Philadelphia Orchestra. That was a thrilling moment for me. One that made me feel like I belonged. When you're studying as a teenager in school you're never sure whether you'll become a worthy player or not. You keep trying. You win a little here. You lose a little there. But that moment when I was playing with Ormandy and Philadelphia, it made me feel like I could do it after all. That was a very important moment in my life. Then, similarly, another moment came in 1991 when my late teacher Dorothy Delay asked me if I would consider teaching at Juilliard. Of course, that was a very exciting proposition. One that I actually hesitated before I said yes because I thought I was not qualified. I had been giving masterclasses around the world but I wasn't sure if I was ready to take [teaching] on seriously. But I did and 16, 17 years later I feel like it has added one more dimension to my overall musical make-up. Another very defining moment is the realization that I could do something about music, not only by playing but by actively promoting and getting new works written- whether I can persuade an orchestra to commission a violin concerto for me or through my La Jolla Summerfest to pursue composers to write chamber music works for the festival. In other words, how to use other people's money effectively [laughter] for not only what I personally think is worthwhile but also for music at large. Those three areas have been very defining moments- concert career, first as a player and performer, as a teacher, and as a musical administrator. 

Do you think music serves a purpose? Why do you do what you do?

Cho-liang Lin: Music began as an expression of human emotion and it's evolved so. Humans have manipulated the shape and form of music but for me it has always come from the heart. So as long as it echoes human emotion and continues to do so, I don't see any change in that. It's like great paintings and great dramas. It will always be a part of human existence.

Lin with some of his students at Rice Univeristy, class of 2011

What are the words of wisdom you would like to pass on to the future concert artists?

Cho-liang Lin: The more important disciplines given to me are be very tough on myself. I don't beat myself up over every performance but in the preparation and in general existence I require a very high standard for myself. I'm a perfectionist. That is very important for all young players. But the second most important fact that I have learned over the years is simply to have fun. Labor carefully and diligently but don't lose the idea that music should be joy, love, bring a smile to your face, rather than having a sour expression. You often wonder, “Why am I practicing 5 hours a day for the last 15 years killing myself? What for?” Realize it's a privilege to play great music. I think that's a good reminder for everyone, myself included.


  1. Mr. Lin, what a wonderful interview! I am so impressed with the realistic, down-to-earth comments about the music world. I agree that we must work very hard to improve our music education system, and in doing so, the music that we love will continue to thrive.

  2. Really interesting and helpful interview, thanks! Is Mr. Lin still teaching at Juilliard at present? He seems to have a fairly busy schedule on his website.