Music Academy Spotlight: Valerie Chen

Valerie Chen, 18, studies cello with Clive Greensmith. She has been playing cello for 10 years, and currently resides in San Diego, CA. This is her fourth year in the Music Academy.

This interview has been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.

What brought you to Colburn?
I used to live in New York, and when I moved from New York, I wanted to find a way to continue my music studies in California. Obviously, Colburn is a pretty awesome place for music. It’s one of the top conservatories for music, right? So I was interested in studying there and my parents were super supportive so they were willing to drive me every weekend.

You drive every week?
Yes, I do. Colburn has so many good people and great experiences for musicians. Every program there, like all the seminars and the history and theory programs, has been really helpful to me as a musician—and not just in a narrow-minded way as a cellist and a performer, but as a whole musician. I feel like Colburn has helped other parts of me as well, beyond just music. I definitely feel like the connections and the people I’ve met there and the experiences that I’ve had have been worth it.

How has Colburn helped you beyond music?
It’s shown me different ways of thinking about things. I’m actually involved in a lot of music outreach, and I’m going to continue my academic studies as an engineer. I’m also president of the orchestra at my school, and president of a music volunteering club at my school. So It’s taught me a lot about how to present different things, how to help spread music and music appreciation, and how music can change people in different ways.  It’s also taught me how to show people more than the nitty-gritty of music, like how it can impact the whole person.

What kind of outreach do you do?
Our club does volunteering at nursing homes and retirement homes. We put on events and concerts every year. This year, we’re putting on a concert for an organization in San Diego called Tremble Clefs. They’re a chorus network for people with Parkinson’s and they also teach music to middle and elementary schoolers. In my orchestra, we also have a peer-mentoring program where some of the more experienced players teach the younger players how to play.

What do you think is the importance of doing outreach?
I personally know that I’m appreciative of what all of my mentors have done for me. I’ve been so lucky to have gotten so much from all these amazing people and musicians. So I think that as a musician, because you depend on so many people for your education and to learn everything about being a musician, it’s important to give back to not only the community, but to everyone else. Personally, I’ve found a big sense of community and sense of self in music and I feel like other people may be able to find that same place for themselves in music as well. I think a lot of times people might just not be aware of musical opportunities or what it can do for you, so doing outreach and getting them at least past that first step is an important way to share that kind of experience. Even if musical outreach only impacts a couple people, I think it’s worth it.

What kinds of reactions have you gotten while doing outreach?
One of my most memorable experiences was when I was volunteering for this outreach club. I was at a dementia unit in a rehabilitation center, and some of the patients there were moaning a little bit. You could see that they weren’t really comfortable, but when I started playing, you could tell they were listening and I felt like I was able to reach them through the music. One of the best things about music is that you can communicate without words. I felt like I was really able to connect with those patients in ways that I couldn’t have by just talking to them. That was a very impactful experience.

How are you going to keep playing in college?
I’ll definitely be involved in orchestral programs and hopefully chamber music, basically whatever I can get my hands on. Music is one of my biggest passions and it’s really something that I can do to express myself. Having music there is very important balance to what I’m doing, especially since I’m studying engineering. You can get caught up in STEM as an engineer, so I feel like it’s really important to have music so I can still consider the different aspects of being what a person in society means.

Did you ever consider pursuing music professionally?
Yes and no. For me, music and engineering have both been things that I had to have in my life, so even if I pursue music professionally, I would still pursue engineering professionally. As of now, just because I will be doing a degree in engineering for sure doesn’t mean I won’t get another degree in music or keep performing. I’ll hopefully do benefit recitals and perform in orchestras, so I won’t necessarily follow the touring musician kind of path, but for sure I have considered how I would still play music and hopefully teach also.

I’m also interested in how I can combine engineering and music. I did an exploration in one of my seminars that was music and technology, and that was interesting, so I’ll see where that goes.

Why engineering?
I like to make sense of things and find creative solutions for problems. Honestly, I feel like that’s why I like music so much, because of that sense of creativity and being able to think about all the possibilities. I think that’s part of what I like so much about music and engineering. They can seem like opposite fields but to me, they’re really quite similar. I really like to find the solutions to problems and I feel like I can really make an impact on society by being an engineer, not that I couldn’t as a musician. That’s one of the things that draws me to it, the ability to find a real solution to an issue in society.

What your other interests?
Kind of along the lines of music, I like art and arts and crafts. I love literature and reading. I also swim sometimes. Baking, cooking, pretty much most things.

How do you find the time to do all of that?
If I’m really passionate about something, I’ll make time to do it. Even if it’s really hard to do, I have to make sacrifices. I’ll be willing to do that because I want to do it so much. Obviously, there have been things that I’ve had to give up, but I feel like in the end it’s worth it because I can do what I want to do.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding faculty and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.