I’m Ray Chen, international concert violinist, performed in over 60 countries, was featured in Riot Game’s Emmy winning animated series, Arcane, and cofounder of Tonic, an app that motivates you to practice. AMA!
Hi everyone, I’m Ray Chen. I’m an international concert violinist who has the spent most of my life touring in venues around the world. You may have come across some of my content on YouTube, from performances in concert halls, to playing for horses, to collabs with artists like Sting and TwoSet.
If you’re a musician or ever played/practiced an instrument, you’ll know that there’s no better feeling in the world than getting to sing or play your heart out and share that moment with others. However, the preparation and practice that’s required to get there is tough and often lonely. Even if your goal is to be able to play just one song for your friends at the beach, most people will give up before they’re able to get there. How do you motivate yourself to persevere?
For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on a platform called Tonic that makes practice fun and inspires people to share their artistry through live and social practice rooms. It’s helped many people from beginners to those who hadn’t touched an instrument in over 10 years, come back and relive the joy of music.
If you’d like to give it a go, check it out here.
From practicing, to performance, to life on tour, AMA!
Just finished a concert now so this is fresh on my mind. I recall at one point as a student, I went through a lengthy process where I examined as many human emotions I could think of (eg. delightful, exuberant, nonchalance, outside-sorrow, inner-sorrow, the list goes on forever) and tried to figure out what it would sound like coming from an instrument.
Having these different emotions are like colors on a palette. You can paint the most vivid and intense visuals through music that impact directly to the listener’s heart.
Hi Ray! Any advice for adult amateur musicians who might be struggling with feelings of inadequacy or feeling frustrated with lack of progress?
I believe when people have feelings of frustration or inadequacy from lack of progress, it speaks to their personal metric for success. If you shift your mindset of what determines success for you (for eg. If your goal is to be able to play with others or if you're measuring how well you play against others) then you'll be in a much happier and healthier mindset that allows you to enjoy music.
Hello ray! I was wondering what your usual practice routine is? Like what you start with and do during practice and what your end goal is, whether it’s to get further in a concerto or to improve?
I first like to categorize goals into scope, so long (>6 months), medium (1-3 month), and short term (1-4 weeks). There are of course even shorter daily goals, as well as longer epic goals, but for the most part it's about correctly categorizing things first to avoid frustration and sadness.
I didn't always have frameworks like this (and I wish I had), but this has helped me immensely through professional career, especially when you have to juggle so much repertoire + all the travel, meetings, other projects (like Tonic) etc. but here are a few examples of goals:
Daily goal 1: Be able to play through 2 pages.
Daily goal 2: Be able to add in phrasing + intonation + musicality.
Weekly goal 1: Be able to complete 1 movement (not memorized)
Weekly goal 2: Be able to memorize that movement.
etc. Obviously more layers apply but then you can add another layer (for eg. another piece or movement) when you feel like you have the capacity to do so. I think of "improvement" of technique as something that happens as I learn different pieces. Best not to get stuck on one piece for too longer (longer than 2 months). You can always come back to it later.
What is your favorite concert hall to perform in?
What are you thinking about while performing? Are you imagining a story? Or is mind blank and you're letting muscle memory do everything?
A few favorite concert halls where the acoustic is amazing: Suntory Hall (Tokyo), Koerner Hall (Toronto), Weiwuying (Kaohsiung), Walt Disney (LA), Davies (SF), Elbphilharmonie (Hamburg), Musikverein (Vienna), Concertgebouw (Amsterdam),
When I'm performing, I usually think of characters/personas. Sometimes it can become a story but usually it's simply a conversation or scene that happens. For example, at the bridge passage of Mendelssohn's 3rd movement, I imagine a conversation between a young student and an old teacher. The young student keeps asking why while the old teacher just keeps shaking their head. Eventually the student becomes determined to make their own decisions and that's when the 3rd movement starts into this adventure with lots of valleys, mountains, and beautiful scenery just rushing past.
If your mind is blank (which it can very easily become when practicing by yourself), then what comes out will also be blank and robotic. This is why it's important to always have a focused and conscious state when you're practicing.
Hello Ray, I have two questions:
Since you travel so often, does your home actually feel like home? Do you get feelings of homesickness or tiredness from constantly living out of your suitcase and in hotels?
What’s your favorite anime? And/or what’re you currently watching?
- It used to bother me that I couldn't figure out where my "home" was - was it Brisbane? Or Taipei? Or Philadelphia? Nowadays, I've come to realize that there doesn't have to be this rule of "only one home". You don't have to be home-ogenous. Home is where you can relax, recharge, and hang out with some really close friends.
- Demon Slayer, One Punch Man (get it together guys for season 3), Mob Psycho. I grew up with Naruto, DBZ (I'm so lost nowadays), and of course Pokemon (but only the original 152). Recently dived into Jojo's Bizarre Adventures which is so whacky but so awesome. Also the OST Golden Wind is my gym anthem.
How did you wind up in ARCANE?
Took a wrong turn in the lanes and now I'm here.
Hi Ray. What is your top 3 favorite pieces to perform? Please explain if possible. Also, mad respect to you for creating a platform/opportunity for people to have fun while practicing.
Thanks for the great question! If I were to be stuck playing the same 3 pieces for the rest of my life, they would be:
- Bach's Chaconne for Solo Violin. This one seems an obvious choice because the piece has an incredibly large vessel to fit vast amounts of rich expression and experience. Definitely top pick.
- Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. This one never gets old for me. It still has the same freshness as the day I met it when I was 9 years old :)
- Sibelius Violin Concerto. The 3rd one was hard to pick, but I ended up with the Sibelius because of the contrast it provides against the others in the type of expression, yet is still my style of piece (ice & fire).
Ray, thanks for the AMA:
My question for you is how does one become a professional classical musician in the capacity that you are? Do you get picked up by a talent agent or scout or something?
Just to give context to those wondering. These days, there are 4 main categories of musicians in the classical music world:
- Orchestral musician
- Chamber musician
Many musicians do a combo of these. Mostly Orchestral + Teaching, Chamber + Teaching, or Solo + Chamber. The rarest mix is orchestral + soloist, where currently I've only seen members of the Berlin Phil able to pull this off. There are also many full time quartet players and full time teachers (like my teachers Prof Zhang and Robert Lipsett) who fully commit to their category.
This doesn't factor in social media/content creation which in today's digital age, has become an extremely valuable asset to have and created a new category in itself. You could be a teacher and market yourself online. You could be an orchestral musician and take on an additional social media role within the orchestra. A chamber musicians who offers online courses, or a soloist who records albums, creates content, or builds an app.
The possibilities are endless with many paved paths, but the best part is being able to create a world in which you are placed at the top and are happy with.
Hi Ray!! I absolutely love your work in Arcane, and it inspired me to learn the Concerto that you played in it. But I really struggle with the ending, with the fast fingerings and shifts. Do you have any advice for how to play that part and parts like it? Also, will you be returning to Arcane for the season 2 soundtrack?
Yeah riot, am I coming back for season 2?
It's ok, I struggle with that part too.
Nerd question: did you actually do any of the coding on Tonic?
Music question: have you ever played any fiddle songs and, if so, which is trickier for you, classical or fiddle?
I did a little github pushing in the very beginning back when we were called Pocket Conservatory. Really simple stuff that made me respect my cofounder Rose, as well as the rest of our dev team for what they do.
Fiddle stuff: I played a few bluegrass pieces by Edgar Meyer (those violin + bass duos) and some basic hoe-downs. Also extreme respect for bluegrass fiddlers was developed in light of those experiences. One of my favorite fidllers is Jeremy Kittel, you should listen to his track "Chrysalis" - just divine!
Hi Ray! What would you say to a teenager who loves listening to and playing music, but is unsure of going to music school/pursuing a career in music?
I'm going to give an answer that is probably going to give folks mixed feelings.
The choice to pursue music depends on what your goals are in life. If you want to become famous, or earn a lot of money, and pursuing music gives you feelings of uncertainty to achieve those things, I would say don't do it. Music can always be a part of your life if you allow it.
That being said, you could always pivot even after going to music school. I know a lot of people who went to Juilliard, Curtis, and other music schools who are now in completely non-music related industries; from real-estate to finance, crypto, medicine, consulting. What's cool is the discipline, responsibility, and social skills that are built from being a classically trained musician, translates well into other fields.
Do you have perfect pitch? Is it useful to have perfect or relative pitch to be a professional classical musician?
I do have perfect pitch, though when the note gets too low (think bottom 5 notes of the piano), it becomes difficult for me to differentiate.
That being said, I don't think it's too important to have perfect pitch from a musical standpoint, but it is important to have familiarity with your instrument eg. knowing what the note is when you put your 3rd finger down on a particular valve/string/etc.
I'd be curious to hear what musicians who don't have perfect pitch have struggled with (other than being made fun of). As a musician who does, I have struggled with transposing (eg. when I attempted Paganini's Violin Concerto alla Scordatura (with the tuning raised by a half note) but that may also be the intense familiarity I have with my instrument which was tripping me up.
Hey Ray, I got a weird one. What’s your favorite color and what piece would you associate with that color?
My favorite color is midnight blue, however it is a "cooler + darker" color and there's not that many moments in music where you need that particular sound.
Hi Ray! I’m wondering about how much practice in a day is too much. I’m on my first year of my BM in Viola Performance and my workload has gotten very large to the point where 4 hours isn’t covering everything I’m working on. My professor recommends me to start doing 5-7 hours/day in order to cover everything. I understand quality is greater than quantity but do you think that 5-7 hours/day is too much for someone in my position?
I've had a varied relationship with practice. When I was younger, I practiced a lot more because I had yet to develop my own practice frameworks and methods. These days I've gotten to know myself better and so when faced with that question I often reply with "I practice as much as necessary".
I will say, the most I practiced in a day was 10 hours. Definitely not advisable over a long period of time and also dependant on your instrument. This was a special few weeks when I was competing at the Queen Elisabeth competition. I was also 20 years old - pretty sure if I attempted this now my neck would break.
Will you be working with arcane in the next season? How was it working with the team? Love the soundtrack :)
Hehe no spoilers about S2, but it was incredible to work with the team. Christian Linke is honestly one of the most talented people I know and I'm so happy for him with the quality of talent he's been able to attract to his team.
One of the composers (Alex Temple) wrote some pretty gnarly stuff for the violin like this passage in the song "What Could Have Been" with Sting as well as the mind blowing cadenza where Jinx is just going batshit "She's here".I was so with how things worked out that I asked Alex to write our theme song for Tonic, which is in a completely different style but goes to show how versatile of an artist he is!
How important of a skill would you say memorization is, and how difficult is it to memorize long pieces? I imagine some parts might intuitively be easy to remember, but others not so much.
Being able to fully memorize the part can come in handy, but I would say it's down to the repertoire. Certain repertoire (like chamber music or sonatas) has an etiquette where unless all players have memorized it, you should also use music.
Also it depends on the instrument and how it affects the player. I think pianists don't get affected as much because they're more stationary, but when violinists or cellists have a music stand that's blocking them from the audience, their focus tends to go towards the music stand.
I would say it's like giving a speech. It doesn't have to be fully memorize but one should have enough of it memorized to be able to focus on the musicality and meaning behind the notes.
Hi Ray hope we're not too late. Wondering how long you practiced per day at 8 years old? My son is pretty talented according to his teachers, playing pieces around 4 courses above his level in the conservatory, but recently been feeling he has a little burnout with all the classes and practice. Need to keep him loving music. Any suggestions? We started using your Tonic app a couple of days ago and he likes that! Thanks
Thanks! When I was 8, I was playing
8 hours a day
Just kidding. I think I practiced around an hour to an hour and half on weekdays and 2 hours on weekends.
Interesting though that you mentioned you "need to keep him loving music". If love for music is the primary goal here, then he certainly doesn't have to play pieces 4 courses above his level. People (especially kids) need to feel accomplishment and there's no better way to do that, than for him to be the one to say "Yeah, I'm ready for more". There's a balance to strike here but the fact that you're already aware of the burnout tells me that things need to level out for a little while before going higher.
Hi Ray! With the knowledge and expertise that you have now, is there any advice you would tell your younger self? Or anything you wish you could have done differently?
Appreciate you carving time out for this AMA! Your performances have inspired me very much as an adult beginner on the violin :)
Although people say it's not good to dwell in the past, I like reflecting because I think it's the easiest way to determine personal growth. (ie. Situation in the past that happened, how would I deal with it now?)
Therefore I do have a few things I wish I knew that could have helped make life smoother:
- Don't make assumptions before you have all the details
- It's OK to be different because everyone is. Some are just hiding it better than others.
- Don't be afraid to ask people for help but don't let their help go to waste. Learn and adapt so you can be stronger and more useful.
- It's better to say "I don't know" than to make up something.
- Be aware of not only yourself and others around you, but also the impact you make to others through your actions.
- Goldfish only need to be fed once per day.
- Buffets are not the answer.
- Instead of being defensive, learn to throw yourself into the situation to fully understand everyone's perspective.
Can a Violist also play the Violin?
Viola jokes aside, many viola to violin (and vice versa) is a pretty easy switch. For eg. I did record the viola in the opening episode of Arcane. You can check it out here and rate how my viola skills are.
We are about to board our plane to Pittsburgh to see you tomorrow night. Bringing my daughter for her 16th birthday. Any chance you can sign her program? We are super excited!
If you join The Ray Fans group on Tonic, I usually post the time and location for secret meetups at concerts where there isn't an official signing happening (and these days due to covid, it's pretty rare).
Hi Ray, I'm a big fan of yours! Did you ever come across negativity, toxicity and favouritism in the industry? Any time through your studies and career? I wonder if you have any tips for musicians who have struggled with this sort of thing? Kindest wishes
Oh yeah, all 3, all the time. I was pretty mad for a period of time (couldn't you tell from my content? jks) but yeah, it was sort this helpless feeling that actually made me feel like "Welp, I have nothing to lose, might as well focus on what I want, which is connecting with people and creating positive impact".
As advice for those who are dealing with this sort of thing, if it's outside of your control, try to change your environment. If it is something you can change (where you're not hurting others), then do it.
One of the best realizations that I made was when I finally decided I would stop living in the eyes of others. Best wishes and hope you're doing okay!
Hi Ray, It is so generous of you to provide such great opportunity to ask a world class violinist a question that puzzled me since I started learning to play.
Did you have to cover LOTS of etudes when you were a child learner, like Wohlfahrt, Kayser, Mazas, Dont and Kreutzer?
Thank you and hope to see you in England sometime in the future!
For the first 9 years of learning the violin, I didn't play any scales or etudes. None of my teachers at the time told me to - I think they probably thought I was doing just fine playing concertos like Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Bruch. However, it soon became apparent that I was hitting a plateau in my technique. My intonation was not consistent and not improving.
I decided to switch teachers and that's when I was told that in order to improve, I had to play only scales & etudes for 6 months without touching a single piece. Peter Zhang in Sydney was the guy who fixed my technique. Thanks Professor.
Hello! What are your thoughts on being included in fanfics, if that's okay to ask? (It does say to ask ANYTHING right?🥲)
I haven't read any (and probably won't) but I think creativity should always be encouraged.
Hi Ray, teachers all over the globe recommend to pick a piece that is a little harder than one's current level which sounds like very sensible advice. But it's fun to try to play pieces that are way to hard! Could there still be a benefit in challenging myself with a piece that is too difficult for me?
Picking a piece that's slightly above your technical level can be very good for technical growth. If you decide to go with a piece that's multiple levels higher, then make sure you remind yourself that you're having fun (1-2 sessions is fine) and that you don't have any external pressure. Otherwise, chances are you might become frustrated which could affect your overall relationship to the piece (don't wanna ruin it for later) or even to your instrument.
How would you react if (politely ask you to use your imagination here; I can think of a few examples so reckon it's well within your cognitive purview), somehow, you learned that a chicken (or a duck, maybe) was a musical genius beyond any human in recorded history or contemporary knowledge?
I would want to be friends with it.
Hey Ray, I'm looking to play La Campanella but the double stop section is rather confusing, how should I start? Additionally, how should I make sure the artificial harmonics stay in tune consistently?
Ah, if only blackpink had included the harmonics section in their track...
No, but your question is a good one. This is where having more opinions probably makes sense because everyone's hand is shaped differently, some people have more trouble with certain techniques than others. Would recommend you search for the "Advanced Violinists" group on Tonic - they could help you with fingerings and advice if you upload the part in the sheet music you're having trouble.
My personal take on harmonics and intonation would be to always check the "real notes" by checking to see if the 4ths are in tune and placed as intended.
Hi Ray, how do you get over performance anxiety? I have stomach aches and shaky fingers even when it's just a small recital - while you look so calm and connected to the music even when there are an entire hall watching you. What are your tips to be so calm and musical? Thanks!
There are 2 methods for getting over performance anxiety. I've used both but recommend the second - I'll explain why:
- "The bulletproof musician" is where you get to a place where you focus and shut off all external forces. The way to do this is practice the same passage over and over in the same style, same phrasing, etc. where you develop the "muscle memory" to be able to play the passage at any given point (even when emerging from sleep). This method was used a lot by the Soviet musicians back in the day. However, if your mental focus cracks and you become aware of the audience during your performance, it's game over.
- The second method is constantly practicing in front of an audience to the point where your brain can't differentiate between practice & performance. This is harder to achieve (and a little more terrifying in the beginning) because there are suddenly people in your practice session, but this is probably the most valuable reason I use the Tonic app. The result is when I now walk on stage, I have the feeling like everyone's here to listen to me "try things", just like I do in the Studio.
That feeling you get when you wish you tried different things right after they happen? Yeah, it's possible now which is pretty cool.
Ray, your performances in Arcane were absolutely splendid. I'm not ashamed to say that your song with Sting, What Could Have Been, made me tear up.
When you compose and perform a piece, is there some method you use to ensure you invoke a particular emotional response from the audience?
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