Interview conducted and condensed by Shiyang Ma and Yuping Ren from CSSAUR (Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Rochester)
Photo 1. Prof. Bin Huang and Yuping Ren during the interview
Interviewer It is my great pleasure to be able to invite our alumna, Prof. Huang, as our interviewee guest by the CSSAUR. The first two questions are provided by Dr. Kelly H. Zou, an excellent alumna of UR: How do you balance music and other hobbies?
Bin Huang First of all, thank you, Shiyang and Yuping, for taking your time to prepare this inspiring interview. Being a musician, we travel a lot, and I like traveling. I love visiting the historical places and museums in the cities I travel to. I also enjoy meeting people from different cultures and working with them and getting to know them. It is very much part of the job of being a musician, and for me it’s work and pleasure at the same time.
If I have a day at home, I like to spend it mostly practicing and reading. I read musically related books as well as books on other topics and the Bible. I also like to go on Youtube to watch performances and interviews of great artists. For something different, I would very much like to spend time in nature and forget about work and all worries. It gives me a different kind of relaxation and inspirations to music. Many composers like Brahms and Mahler sometimes lived in the woods; Beethoven took long walks in nature. Nature has always been a great inspiration to artists. I think whatever I do, how to become a better musician is always in the back of my mind.
Interviewer When did it hit you that you would go for a career as a professional violinist?
Bin HuangIt never occurred to me or my parents that I would be anything else other than a violinist after I got in the Central Conservatory in Beijing when I was nine. I studied there for eight years until I finished high school. Almost all my schoolmates then became professional musicians. Before going to the conservatory, my father had been very strict and severe with my practicing routine, and there were times when we got very frustrated, but I never thought about giving up because I loved playing the violin from the bottom of my heart.
Interviewer Stemming for the topic of your career, could we talk more about your career path?
Bin Huang During my student years, I participated in a lot of competitions and won many prizes which led to playing concerts around the world. The mentality behind my early training was to become a soloist, and that had always been my goal. I started teaching rather late because I thought teaching would take away my practice time. I was a little hesitant when the opportunity of teaching at the Shanghai Conservatory came, but I decided to give it a try. It turned out that I absolutely fell in love with teaching. Seeing a student grow is just as rewarding as playing a great concert. And teaching has enhanced my practice time! I can step back and be more critical of my own playing. It has definitely made me a better player and now I cannot imagine life without teaching. Teaching at Eastman is a dream come true!.
Photo 2. Prof. Bin Huang in her office.
Interviewer So now you’re settled in Rochester. You must have had a good time as a student at Eastman? Can you talk about your experience as a student here?
Bin HuangEastman was my dream school. There were many other great schools but for my personality and my need during that particular time of my life, Eastman was absolutely the best school for my further development as a musician in terms of its curriculum, teachers, and general atmosphere. I felt I was surround by the best musicians and scholars and constantly challenged to be better, but at the same time I felt very much supported and at home in this friendly and warm environment . This is a place where lots of things are happening and you can be as active as you want to be, but you also have the choice of having some quiet times or a personal retreat which a small city surrounded by beautiful nature like Rochester offers easily. I absolutely had the time of my life as a student here.
Interviewer How does music shapes characters?
Bin Huang Speaking for myself, I think music has made me a person who always looks for beauty and truth, and as a result, I am more sensitive to what is beautiful and true around me. As a performer, my inner world is completely revealed in my music. There is nothing I can hide when I perform. My music reveals my person most truthfully. That is why I feel it is so important to search for beauty and truth constantly and to enrich my emotional and spiritual world. I cannot give what I don’t have. Every emotion expressed in music must be sincere and heart felt. We should never do something just to impress. In the end, I want be the kind of person that is true and real, and it makes me a better artist.
InterviewerWhat role does technique play in this line of reasoning?
Bin HuangTechnique needs to be constantly worked on and improved. It is a life long conquest and I don’t ever feel I have got it. Technique is a tool that enables us to achieve the ultimate goal: the total freedom in expressing oneself through music. The heart is like a sponge, absorbing everything it can take. When we see or hear something beautiful, the heart is touched, and whatever the aroused feeling is, it can be reflected in the music one creates. We need the complete mastery of our craft in order to do that well.
Interviewer When one got to the point that more practice wouldn’t seem to be making a difference, how would you cope with this disconnection and solitude?
Bin HuangYes, it is a very common situation. Being an artist is not like solving equations, which always have definite answers. Often times the reward of hours and hours of practicing doesn’t not come immediately. Sometimes we don’t really see anything happening for a long time. But one must keep trying and never give up. One day the surprise of a breakthrough will come. I would say patience and perseverance are the two most important things in this process. But be careful, we still need to find the right direction and practice in the right way, otherwise it would be a waste of time or even generate counter-effect.
Interviewer How could one be sure if the direction is correct?
Bin HuangThat’s where the teacher comes in. It’s the teacher’s responsibility is to guide the student in the right way. And this is also why violin is very difficult to be self-taught. We can compare playing an instrument with dancing or sports. Essentially, we need to use and move our body in the right way, and we have to work with what is the most natural for the body. This is also what I often tell my students. If the body doesn’t feel right, the sound most likely won’t come out right.
Interviewer The last question is from a different direction: How do you think science and technology can help music?
Bin HuangScience and technology are definitely very helpful. As musicians we want to share our music with as many people as possible and the social media is very important for publicity. For example, the recordings and videos we put on Youtube often reach many more people than our commercially released CDs.Apps like Skype and Wechat are useful for distant teaching and learning. Thanks to technology, classical music is reaching more people than any other time in history.
Interviewer Ending: some other experiences or comments you would like to share with our fellow students?
Bin HuangIt is very challenging but at the same time exciting to be an international student in a foreign country as great as the US. I was only 17 when I first came to the US. I lived with a host family for the first eight months but for the first few weeks or so, I could hardly speak any English. Since the only way to communicate was English, I had to force myself to speak even when I didn’t feel like it. My host family was very kind and patient and after a few weeks my English improved considerably.
In a foreign setting away from home, people do need to connect with others and find support. It is only natural that we often see Chinese students hangout together as a group. Chinese people are naturally more introvert. I had been shy even before I came to the US, and I was almost completely shut down under the culture shock when I first came here. Looking back, the shyness actually comes from the possibility of being rejected. But I would like to encourage our Chinese students to reach out and make more American and international friends. We are part of the diversity of the University of Rochester and it is our home away from home. Let us really make it that way. When we reach out, people often are more friendly than we think. Since we’re already here, let us take the geographical advantage and enjoy and make the best out of the American experience.
Of course, I can imagine every student faces his or her own difficulties and challenges. Connecting with other people usually makes solving the problems much easier, and people here are generally very nice and willing to help. This is also why I appreciate the effort made by CSSAUR to create better support for Chinese students. Thank you!