BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Ray Chen is an Olympic-level musician.
No, really. He performed at the 1998 Japan Winter Olympics when he was eight. Now two decades on, the violinist will tune up his 1715 Stradivarius for a gig with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Ray was born in Taiwan and raised in Brisbane, and has grown to be one of the leading stars of our generation. An international award-winning artist, he has more than 190,000 social media followers and 2 million fans on SoundCloud.
But beyond the listeners who love his music, he’s also been praised by globally celebrated violinist Maxim Venegrov, who has described Chen as “a very pure musician with great qualities such as a beautiful youthful tone, vitality and lightness”.
Well, he is youthful – but that hasn’t stopped his career from skyrocketing since he was a child. We chatted with Ray about his secrets, his practice routine, and his experiences of rocking the world as a young muso today.
You’ve achieved so much as a young musician – how have you found the ride so far? Scary, exciting, or just life?
Thanks! It’s been a really exciting time, with so many new discoveries and things to learn along the way. Ever since I was a little boy, I always dreamed about being a violinist, travelling the world and seeing new places. Still can’t believe now it’s actually happening!
What do you feel was your ‘big break’?
I’ve won a few competitions along the way – and lost my fair share of them, too. And [two competitions] I did that really propelled my career were the Yehudi Menuhin and the Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competitions. I know there are some people who don’t like competitions, or don’t see them as the best way to express music. But for someone like me who had no contacts in the field, whose parents are not musicians, this was really the only way to get my foot in the door.
I wish that one could simply play music and have a career appear at the click of your heels – it would definitely save a lot of blood, sweat, and tears – but it’s never that simple. For now, unless you happen to find your fairy godmother conductor, it’s going to have to be competitions for us normal people.
Why do you feel you’ve been acknowledged as a standout musician of this generation? What’s your secret?
I believe that if you want to be anything of great calibre, you have to have a will of iron and a stubbornness that, nurtured with experience, eventually grows into confidence.
Does age, life experience, and time have an impact on good music, or is it about the individual and their dedication and skill?
I think that everything factors in to being a great musician. When we are young, we rely on our personalities, talent, and hard work to stand out. I’ve noticed that the older people get, the less they rely on that and more comes from experience from life and music. It’s good to have it all. If you stop trying and get lazy when you’re older, you lose sincerity in your music. And perhaps if you think not everyone can hear it, you’re only tricking yourself. I hope I’ll be able to carry this belief with me until the day I die.
What’s your practice routine?
Before I even pick up the violin, I begin by stretching the muscles and ligaments of my body, especially if it’s the morning. I’m also constantly stretching and massaging my hands throughout the day. A lot of people also like to ask the other question: ‘How many hours do you practice a day?’ and for me, I’m happy to practice as little or as long as it requires me to get the work done. But I would prefer as little as possible, and that requires an efficient plan towards practising.
What qualities do you think are required in a young musician who wants to embark on a serious solo performance career?
Looking around at my fellow colleagues who are doing so well, I tend to see a trend. In addition to having your playing be at the highest level, it also helps to have a likeable personality as well as a knack for communicating – both on and off the stage. There are so many ways of communicating one’s feelings and personality to audiences nowadays through social media that I think it’s a fantastic age to be an artist!
See Ray perform with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in a tribute to Shostakovich. Sydney Opera House, 10-13 November. Check out the full gig details and book your tix online.
Originally published as First national tour: Ray Chen.
Images supplied. Credit: Julian Hargreaves.