Quite a Year: An Interview with Michael Chung, cellist


Date of Interview: 12/06/13, By Cathy Spieth

Michael will perform this Sunday, 12/15/13 at the ECYS Holiday Concert.

Free Ticket Flyer and Concert INFO

Michael Chung
 is a 17 year-old high school senior from Cupertino, California, and Principal Cellist of the Senior Symphony. He was introduced to the cello through the Point Loma Nazarene University String Project in San Diego at the age of 8, where he got to take free lessons in an ensemble taught by undergraduate music students. He eventually began private lessons with teacher Lu-Yan Guo shortly before moving to the Bay Area and practicing on his own using borrowed instruments until the age of 11. Michael now studies with Jonathan Koh, under whose excellent tutelage he has blossomed as a musician. Michael has been with the El Camino Youth Symphony for 5 seasons, the last three as the principal cellist in the Senior Symphony. Michael is the winner of the 2013 Mondavi Young Artists Competition Instrumentalists division, the winner of the 2013 MTNA String Performance National prize in the Senior Strings division, and was named a 2013 Doublestop Foundation Ambassador and winner of a Special Cello Award (details below).

Tell us about Joining ECYS and Getting Serious about Music
I was in Sinfonietta during my eighth grade. We had our quartet, before, the four of us, (with Miles Chan, Jay No and Brian Kosiadi,) and I remember that quartet is kind of what really got me into the whole orchestra thing. Working with them in a more private setting later helped me in working with many more people in the orchestra. That is definitely one of the things I have loved the most about orchestra: learning how to work with lots of different types of people.

I think it wasn’t really until high school that I really started pursuing music seriously. I have always been interested in science and math, and cello was kind of my side thing. I did it and that was okay, but I really never did a ton of it. Summer after freshman year and after my first ECYS tour to Spain and France, when I came home my dad had me practice six hours a day for the month between the tour and the Annual Retreat. That was kind of crazy, but that’s how I made my first break-through. I think it was then when my playing really started to improve a lot faster.

My dad especially challenged and pushed me; he used to say, ‘You should just do a lot of this,’ and I was like, ‘Okay.’ For the first week it was really hard.  I had my repertoire, and after about two hours I would get through it all, and then sit there and think, ‘What am I going to do for the next four hours?’ But eventually it became a routine, and I would just go through it. There were some days I got so excited about something I went over, like practicing for eight hours or so, and that was definitely pretty crazy. It was literally all I did: cello all day, then eat and go to sleep.

How did you Develop as a Section Leader?
Learning to be a leader in the orchestra has been an important journey for me. In sophomore year, when I first became principal, I was trying to be the leader, but it was really hard. I was a little young, and I didn’t really entirely know how to be that. I wasn’t the greatest people-person either. I did my best to learn the music and all of that, but I had to work really hard on my communication skill. Having been home schooled up through eighth grade, I had to learn how to work with people. I had to learn how to talk with people. That was my main struggle for that year. By my junior year I was feeling more into it, and I got how it worked. The breakthrough I had last year was working more in the sectionals, getting a lot more involved. It was a really cool experience at Retreat this year, leading some of the sectionals.

What is different about this year (I especially noticed at Retreat) is that now that I am a senior in the group and a principal, I can see that some of the younger musicians look up to me, like ‘Whoa, it is the principal guy.’ It is a really humbling experience because I can trace my own journey, and how I’ve learned through all of that. I remember how in my first year in Symphony, I really looked up to Thomas Jang and Jeffrey Kwong. I based my role model off of both of them, for their leadership and people skills. I remember looking up to those older people, and especially Thomas, who was a senior.

I remember especially the year we pretty much lost all of our principals after the 2011 tour. They all graduated—people that I looked up to who were really good in their areas. I remember thinking, ‘How are we going to manage without them next year?’ But then, somehow we pulled through. It’s funny, how I feel that way every year. Every year we lose many people, but every year I feel like we are improving. I remember the year we played at Davies Hall (Bay Area Youth Festival 2012) was very special to me. It was incredible how we pulled that off, after losing so many seniors. The fact that we were able to pull through so wonderfully meant a lot to me. We performed so well that we blew ourselves away!

Tell us about your Solo Repertoire
I think solo opportunity is the original reason I joined ECYS. My teacher Mr. Koh encouraged me to join an orchestra, and he said that ECYS was helpful for growth and solo opportunities. My first solo was the Lalo Concerto with Sinfonietta in my freshman year. I had played Lalo before and then didn’t touch it for a while, and brought it back up for the solo about a month before the performance.

On that note: I love revisiting pieces! It was really interesting coming back to Lalo; it was so much easier to get into, to really understand the music. Putting that together with Sinfonietta was a new experience too. However, for that solo, I pretty much just went in, did my thing, and left—not a whole lot of collaboration or communication.

By now, working with Dr. Kolchinsky on solos has become much more interactive. I have started to collaborate more, communicate more; last year, the Barber concerto had a lot of little things to work out; it’s a really difficult piece for the orchestra, because hey, it’s Barber! There are so many crazy things going on at the same time, and putting it together is no easy task, but we pulled through pretty well in the end.

This year, we’re working on Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso; it is very open with tempo and rubato and everything like that. After last Sunday’s rehearsal, I stayed with Dr. Kolchinsky to go over the details to get an idea of how things are going to work. It always amazes me: the first rehearsal is always pretty rough! But at every single subsequent rehearsal, the orchestra makes huge jumps. By the concert time it is fine; it is all perfect and great. I have to remind myself that we always pull it together and do it well! I am really looking forward to the concert on Sunday.

As for choosing solo pieces, I usually just go with whatever I have ready by the concerto competition. Until this year, I had a yearly cycle—take a year on a set of pieces, and then make a new list. Through this past year of competitions, though, I had a repertoire of five pieces which was kind of hard to handle, so it stretched to almost two years for a couple of them. The repertoire included Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Barber Concerto, Beethoven’s Fifth Sonata in D major, Bach Suite No. 2 (Prelude and Allemande), and the Kodaly Solo Sonata.

One of the pieces I am working on now is Bach Suite No. 4. The cello I am playing now has such a beautiful tone; it is very even all over, and the bass is beautiful—a very solid, warm bass. This suite covers the whole range of the cello; particularly, in the Prelude, the bass notes have the chance to really ring out, which makes this suite a good match for the new cello.

2013: Quite a Year
Michael’s achievements have basically exploded over the past year.

Winner, Instrumental Prize, Mondavi Center Young Artists Competition: Michael’s first major competition success outside of ECYS in 2013 was the Mondavi YAC. Says Michael; “This was the first year they branched it out to different regions throughout the country.” This was the third time he entered. “I had entered twice before, but only made it to the semi-finals. This year, though, I somehow won.”

Then it was on to the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), 2013 Senior Performance Competition, National Winner, String Division (after winning both the State and Regional (six states) levels.

Nationals was at the Disneyland Hotel, in Anaheim. My brothers went down to Disneyland while I was there, but quite frankly, I didn’t even care!

When I got to the national competition, it was 6 violins and then me! It was kind of intimidating. Violinists tend to have technical showy pieces, and competing against that can be difficult. At least I had my five pieces. It’s funny, when I was applying for the competition, there was an online application. It said you had to have at least two pieces, maximum five. Somehow I read that as needing five pieces, so I put down five, from four different eras. But when I went to the state competition, I noticed that some people only had two! When I went back and read the application rules again, I realized my mistake, but I think it really turned out in my favor anyway; it showed the judges that I could play in many different styles, and I also learned to budget my time in order to polish all five pieces.

Doublestop Foundation 2013 Instrument Loan Competition: Young musicians are provided with no-cost loans of high quality instruments, mentored, and serve as ambassadors of the program. Michael was named a 2013 DF Ambassador and winner of a Special Cello Award. He had applied for a bow, but received news that they wished to not only award a bow, but also a fine cello. Tarisio Fine Instruments and Bows is sponsoring Michael with a late 18th-century cello made by William Forster.

I sent in recordings for that in April, after MTNA and Mondavi, and then I kind of forgot about it. I guess I wasn’t really expecting anything and completely forgot I that even applied. I was in Slovakia with ECYS on tour when my brother messaged me with the news!

The auction house Tarisio Fine Instruments and Bows in New York provided the instrument, and my dad and I flew over there in September to try it out. My own cello is great, but it is lacking a bit on the lower end, where the sound tends to be unstable and unsettled. This cello, on the other hand, is so even; the bottom is all there, and the top is all there.

I remember trying out the cello at Tarisio on that Friday afternoon; I was sitting there playing on it for an hour or so, running through everything I knew. Whenever I have an opportunity to step up a level on the quality of a new instrument, I enter this state overwhelmed-ness. My head swirls around, like I am on a high or something (not that I know what it actually feels like!). That was happening big time, even when I was using my own bow. Then Matthew, one of the Doublestop people, walked in and said ‘Oh, you might want to try this bow too.’ That took everything up yet another level. My bow is a good all-around bow; it’s pretty good at everything, just not particularly spectacular. With this one, everything was so much clearer and cleaner.

Now it’s true that there is no substitute for a lot of hard work, but the instrument does make a huge difference. When my parents purchased my own instrument, simply having all of its capacity to fill gave me motivation to rise to that level. Now, I have been gifted with a fantastic instrument and bow, capable of so much more, and now I must rise to the next level to take full advantage of them.

What is next for Michael? 
I am in the college application process, by the end of which I will have applied to nine institutions. At this point, I want to go into music, but I also have several other interests. I really like math and science, and I want to be able to follow those also. So at this point I am still keeping my options open: I’ve applied to universities like Northwestern, Indiana, and Rice, which have great academics as well as wonderful music programs. I am still figuring out my future, and I want to leave the doors open!

About “Pezzo Capriccioso”
Until pretty recently, I thought that there wasn’t that much to the piece. Tchaikovsky composed it in a week—someone needed it and he cranked it out! But the more I delve into it, the more I see how complex and difficult it really is. Structurally, is it very simple, and there is a lot of repetition. But I see now that there is so much to it. I keep finding new things about it to bring out, even right now, in preparation for the concert.

Tchaikovsky is one of my two favorite composers, Shostakovich being the other one. All of his (Tchaikovsky’s) music is so romantic—in my opinion, the epitome of romantic era classical music (I am so happy we are playing so much Tchaikovsky this year!). This piece is not as big or glorious as a lot of his pieces, but it is a very intimate piece. It never gets super loud or to that big, glorious like many of his works, but the more I get into, the more I see that there is so much emotion in it, so much in it still for me to bring out. I am hoping that I’ll be able to communicate all that to the audience!

On Performing: Do you Get Nervous?
I am usually shaking when I first go out, but it dies down once I get into my usual rhythm. It is always nerve racking at first. What’s strange is that after I walk off stage, I can’t stop shivering for a couple of hours! For competitions and performances, that is usually the case: I get into the flow and lose my nervousness, finish and walk off, and then I start shaking. Auditions, on the other hand, are a completely different thing. I recently auditioned for the New York String Seminar, which I didn’t get into. But for that one, as well as for ECYS auditions, I couldn’t stop shaking the entire time. At ECYS retreats, everyone is always freaking out on Wednesday night before auditions. I do my best to stay calm, but even though I make it a point to really get into the music ahead of time, and even though I have already been principal for two years, even this year I was still shaking and couldn’t stop. I talked to my teacher about it, and he said it is normal.  I think it is important for younger kids to know that. All you can do is to just learn to play while shaking!

The Power of Music Education
Learning the cello has been a nine-year journey for Michael.

It all started down in San Diego, at the Point Loma String Project (PLSP). It is a program that offers free music lessons and group lessons, and it’s where I started cello. I want to credit them, because that is where I began, and can’t thank them enough for the wonderful work they’re doing down there.

Of course, this is what ECYS is doing up here in the Bay Area. I love looking through the past ECYS brochures (I’ve kept all of them), but I recently started noticing more in them. Flipping through them, I would usually pay close attention to only the first half of the brochure, all the big stuff. It wasn’t until recently that I began to fully appreciate the stuff in the back, the preparatory programs.  Last summer, this little boy in my church that plays cello talked to me; he had heard that I play the cello, and now he tells me everything he is doing. He and his sister are in ECYS, and participated in one of the Summer Workshops. The beautiful part of it all was when I realized I was him, nine years ago. This is where it all starts, through organizations like PLSP and ECYS who dedicate themselves to training countless young musicians.

This is something that is really important to me, and the main reason why I want to pursue music is that there is so much beauty in it—even just the music itself! Music has such a healing and emotional power, and I want to be able to use that for the benefit of other people.  That is the aspect of music most appealing to me.

Giving Thanks
In addition to all the people skills I’ve learned, my musicality maturing by leaps and bounds, I’ve grown so much as an individual.  I’ve learned so much from everyone, from Dr. Kolchinsky, the staff, and even from the music itself, and I want to thank you all deeply for your wonderful guidance, support, and encouragement through the years.  Who I am as a musician and as a person has been hugely influenced by ECYS, and by the amazing people behind it. These are things that will stick with me for the rest of my life; I am who I am because of ECYS. And for that, I will never be able to thank ECYS enough.