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Arcadia Rotary: Dan Stover Music Contest Musicians

The Dan Stover Music Contest is a program within the Rotary District 5300. Talented musicians are invited to participate in the contest to win scholarships for their future musical education. This year, Phillip Chen (Symphony Orchestra Principal Cellist) and Henry Zeng (Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster) displayed their musical prowess through an online livestream on the Arcadia Rotary Facebook. Congratulations to both for competing this year, and congratulations to Phillip Chen for winning 1st place!

We interviewed Phillip and Henry to learn more about them, their musical background, their preparations for the contest, and advice for underclassmen musicians.

Phillip Chen:

1. Could you introduce yourself?

Hi, I’m Phillip! I have been playing cello since 5th grade, and joined orchestra starting 6th grade. I have stayed in orchestra for so long because of all the people you can meet as well as all the fun activities we have all throughout the year (i.e. socials, trips, festivals, concerts, etc.). On my own time, I like speedcubing and playing video games on my Nintendo Switch (sometimes on the computer too). Recently I’ve also liked watching movie clips (though I rarely watch an entire movie).

2. Why did you decide to play the cello?

I decided to play cello partially because my mom wanted me to play it and partially because it sounded really nice. I’ve stayed with the instrument because, again, it sounds really nice, and you have a very natural position when playing it (with the bonus of getting to sit down).

3. Take us through your musical journey! What role does orchestra play in it?

I started out with piano, like every other Asian kid. However, unlike most of them, I stopped taking lessons early on, but continued on the side for several more years. I then started to play the flute in 4th grade, then the cello. For flute, I mostly got competition experience, going to many of the summer SYMF competitions, Bach competitions, and some branch level competitions. I also completed the 10 levels of CM in 9th grade and got PANEL honors a year later. For cello, I went towards a more orchestra route, playing in school orchestras primarily, and later joining the Colburn Youth Orchestra my sophomore year (I had previously played in the Olympia Youth Orchestra for 2 years with flute). Orchestra definitely gave me the chamber side of music, and I got to really learn how to play with a group. I’ve also gotten to play a lot of cool pieces, ranging from symphonies to suites.

4. How do you prepare differently for playing a solo versus playing in an orchestra?

Solo pieces definitely take up the most time in my individual practice. For orchestra pieces, I am usually able to just practice the more difficult passages close to when we first get the music, and then the rest is just relying on rehearsals to really know who’s playing what, where, and when. For more difficult [orchestral] pieces, I definitely need to listen to the recording when practicing, and sometimes play along.

5. How did you discover the opportunity to compete in the Dan Stover Music contest?

My sister competed in this music contest 3 years ago and got the same award as me, so I was aware of this starting freshman year.

6. How did you prepare for this competition?

Since my sister was home for the majority of 2020, I played a cello sonata so we could play together. I had already played a lot of sonatas before, so this didn’t feel too unfamiliar. There were only a few places that were more difficult, so the cello part was relatively easy to get down. However, with Chopin, the piano part had a lot more importance and difficulty, so there were some passages where my sister and I had a little difficulty aligning. Additionally, there was the problem of the piano covering the cello. However, with some adjustments and practice, we were able to play the piece through.

7. Because you’re a senior, how do you plan to integrate music into your future life?

In college, I plan to bring both instruments (cello and flute) and play them whenever I have free time. I definitely feel like I could improve in both instruments (especially with the flute), so that would be my personal goal in the future. Additionally, in college I may join the orchestra and continue the fun experiences I’ve had in these high school years.

8. What advice would you give for underclassmen string musicians?

As you get older, you will have less and less time to practice but play harder and harder pieces. What this means is you have to get your basics down: sight-reading and technique. When you get to a more sophisticated level, you have less time to focus on these things, as well as [shifting] your focus more towards musicality. My advice is to practice those scales and etudes. Practicing these two things, as well as practicing more (since technique takes longer to perfect) when you still have the time, will make life easier for you later on. When you get to harder pieces, the difficult passages will be more manageable because you put the time in early on. Additionally, it would be easier to bring out the musicality in your pieces if you have the techniques down. An analogy would be fine-tuning your tools in your toolbox so when you actually use them, they get the job done well. So treasure your time and go practice!

In addition, Phillip once again expresses his gratitude to the Rotary club and everyone who helped him!

Here is Phillip Chen’s performance of the first movement of Chopin’s Cello Sonata and accompaniment played by Stella Chen.

Henry Zeng:

1. Could you introduce yourself?

Hi, I'm Henry! I’ve played the violin for about seven years! Solo playing is already pretty ‘lit,’ but playing in an ensemble is engaging on another level, so ever since joining zero period in middle school, I’ve been returning to orchestra. In terms of my other personal interests, I enjoy binging anime, playing (and losing) with friends at chess, and discovering new artists.

2. Why did you decide to play the violin?

I decided to play the violin because [of] the music my parents would play. I always thought the little wooden thing was the coolest. I stayed with the instrument after I learned vibrato and came to realize that violin offers an incredibly natural way to be expressive, kind of like the human voice but even less limited in a multitude of ways.

3. Take us through your musical journey! What role does orchestra play in it?

I started taking private lessons towards the end of fifth grade, and I joined the middle school orchestra under Mr. Danielson soon after. While playing by myself for the tutor was beneficial for such things as technique and having a nice repertoire, I found that orchestra offered a different palette: we were taught to constantly listen to others, to watch them, etc. So from orch I was able to gain intuition about how voices could work together in a piece, able to discover how amazing the structure of some music could be. Throughout the years, I’ve always enjoyed this fact of orchestra more than anything else: It’s a mix between listening and participating - so you can listen and get excited and play and get even more excited. It’s just a highly immersive experience.

I personally felt a little more fearless in orchestra as well, just because most of the time other people were making mistakes as well, so why worry so much?

4. How do you prepare differently for playing a solo versus playing in an orchestra?

Preparing for a solo, I think time is most productively spent discovering the music and self-critiquing. Preparing as a section leader, it’s largely the same but with the added consideration of your fellow musicians: you have to think about what to emphasize in terms of rhythm and articulation, make choices that work for the section’s overall sound, and make sure it works well with the other parts too.

5. How did you discover the opportunity to compete in the Dan Stover Music contest?

Ms. Chen emailed me about it. I was happy to take up the opportunity—and I hope I was able to bring something to the table!

6. How did you prepare for this competition?

I chose the Mendelssohn Concerto because it’s something I’ve always wanted to play while with my current tutor - aka before leaving high school. It’s an incredible piece and I’m quite happy with my decision. In terms of preparation, I think my main weaknesses involved a sense of continuity and overall vision (of course in addition to technical things like intonation)—so my preparation was mainly geared towards those things, apart from learning the music itself.

7. Because you’re a senior, how do you plan to integrate music into your future life?

I plan on always doing music in one way or another, though I’m not yet sure exactly how. I will always try to find time to practice my instruments, and music will always be a part of daily life—and I think I’m pretty happy with that.

8. What advice would you give for underclassmen string musicians?

There’s a ton of ways you can practice, so I think it’s a nice strategy never to get stuck on one [method]. Listen to recordings, record yourself, listen to certain things, do certain bowing exercises, do smaller sections vs larger sections, even do yoga (according to the legend himself Menuhin)! Overall, it’s important to try to understand how you best practice (so you can get a sense of what you are really doing) and also to remain flexible in your process.

Here is Henry Zeng’s performance, playing the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor.

Again, congratulations to Phillip and Henry for having the opportunity to display these wonderful performances, and thank you both for the insightful interview. We can’t wait to see what you will do next in music!

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