Staff photo by Allison Potter
Ray Chen performs for a small audience gathered on the Kenan Auditorium stage as part of the University of North Carolina Wilmington series, Setting the Stage: Conversations on Creativity, on Monday, Sept. 16.
A hush fell over the 200 elementary school students gathered in the Snipes Academy of Art and Design Auditorium on Monday, Sept. 16. Alone on the stage, a 24-year-old world-renowned violinist launched into the blistering first movement of Bach’s Partita No. 3.
This week’s artist-in-residence at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Ray Chen is giving local students — ranging from elementary school performances to graduate-level workshops — an opportunity to see firsthand the potential in playing an instrument.
The students’ initial chatter transformed into silent fascination as Chen alternated between classic virtuoso pieces, including Vivaldi and Paganini, and a discussion in which he recounted his life as an 8-year-old symphony player, while urging the students to nurture their own passions.
“One day I decided to put the guitar under my chin, and grabbed a chopstick and pretended to play the violin. That’s how it all started,” Chen told his audience. “Your instrument becomes part of you. Music is really just a part of our lives. You wake up, you go wherever, there’s music in the elevator. There is music everywhere.”
Snipes Academy of Art and Design, a magnet school in downtown Wilmington, hosted the first of the public school stops for the young musician. His appearance in the Port City is the result of roughly two years’ planning by Georgeann Haas, supervisor for arts education in New Hanover County Schools, and Courtney Reilly, UNCW’s assistant director of cultural arts.
“About a year ago, Georgeann had mentioned that the string programs were really growing throughout the county,” Reilly said. “So we decided it would be great to bring an internationally-acclaimed string person here who could come and work with string students, but also give younger students a taste of string instrument.”
The auditorium’s young audience responded in kind, with a 10-minute question-and-answer session at the end, drawing dozens of tiny hands into the air.
“How did you learn to play so well?” one student asked.
“It’s a combination. It’s your teachers, but most of it is you, it’s how much you want to learn,” Chen answered. “Today I’m trying to get you all to find your passion in life and discover what that is. In the end, you should really get to do what you enjoy.”
Following the presentation, Snipes’ music teacher Christa Faison expressed hope that the students would follow Chen’s example to pursue their own passions in life.
“A lot of the composers that Mr. Chen mentioned, they don’t have that exposure to,” Faison said. “I hope they see the possibility of exploring their instrument. … I want them to see that they can do exactly that, if they put the time and effort and patience into it.”
Haas echoed that statement, indicating a growing local interest in stringed instruments.
“The string program has just gone crazy; there are so many kids signing up,” Haas said. “Snipes is a magnet school for that, which is why it was selected.”
UNCW also benefitted from Chen’s week-long presence, hosting workshops for students enrolled in the school’s music department. Later in the afternoon, UNCW’s director of cultural arts, Norman Bemelmans, thanked the visiting musician for his involvement at “Tea with Ray Chen,” a public meet-and-greet hosted at the university’s Kenan Auditorium.
Asked about the role of teachers in a musician’s development, Chen answered, “Every person has a different say in how music should be … a teacher should be there to guide you, not just tell you what to do.”
As the youngest-ever soloist performer at the internationally-televised Nobel Prize concert, Chen was also asked about the difficulty in performing before huge crowds.
“Each concert to me is something really special,” he said. “I compare it against myself and the last concert I did. It doesn’t really matter where the concert is.”
Chen noted that one of his favorite performances was before a particularly rowdy crowd at a California university. Grinning, he added, “Hopefully you guys will be the same.”
On Thursday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. Chen will take the stage at UNCW’s Beckwith Recital Hall. He likened the program to a “multi-course meal format,” starting with some lighter fare by Mozart before moving to Prokofiev, Bach and Sarasate for “dessert.” For tickets and additional information, visit www.uncw.edu/arts