The secret lives of our profs: Assistant Professor of Music Wen-Lei Gu

David Rubin

(courtesy of Wen-Lei Gu)

DR: Describe your early years studying music. When did you know that you wanted it be your life’s pursuit?

WLG: I was born into a musical family. My parents are both musicians. My dad was in the first violin section of the Guangzhou Symphony. He started taking me to orchestra rehearsals when I was two or three years old. I would sit there quietly by myself — I was a very good little girl — but I was also clumsy. Occasionally I would knock down my drink and spill all over, but fortunately my dad was sitting in the back of the first violin section, so he could come and rescue me.

I started playing the piano when I was three and the violin when I was five. I was very drawn to both instruments, especially the piano. I would take two things to bed: one, a flashlight; the other, an alarm clock. I thought that if I could get up earlier and earlier every morning, I would be… the winner, or something! I would get up when it was still dark, sneak downstairs and practice my piano.

I don’t think there was a moment when I realized that this would be my life’s pursuit. It was always a major part of my life. But I think I can definitely say that I have never loved music as much as I do now. I really feel it’s a privilege for us to play the great music that we have. If when I was younger I practiced to please my parents or please my teachers, now I only practice for myself. I do it for my own satisfaction and my own fulfillment.

DR: What lessons have stayed with you over the years? Did any of your teachers tell you anything that sticks with you to this day?

WLG: I have been very fortunate to study with some wonderful teachers. I got different things from each one of them. My first important teacher was Professor Yao-Ji Lin. I started with him when I was eight years old. We had an interesting lesson setup — he would come to my house anytime he wanted to, almost every day. He would come to our house after dinner and stay for two, three hours. Sometimes I would be taking a nap, and he would come say, “It’s time to get up and work!” I studied with him from age eight until I won second prize in the Yehudi Menuhin competition when I was 13. He set a very solid technical foundation for me.

And then Bin Chao, who was Professor Lin’s assistant at the time. He taught me how to practice, to listen carefully and objectively. He introduced me to the concept of practicing open strings, etc. Practicing in a very calm way.

The two teachers in America who were most influential to me were Ida Kavafian and Miriam Fried. They taught me not to separate technical and musical issues. It’s better to take both into consideration when you are first learning a work.

I still remember that my first teacher in Beijing would tell me, “You need to turn your fear into love.” He would say that for any risky shift, anything fast, anything technically challenging. “Turn your fear into love.” And it works.

DR: What are your goals when you play music in front of an audience? How do you view performance?

WLG: It’s a funny business that we’re in. We practice for hours, days, months, all for these precious few minutes on stage.

My goal is to be true to myself. I think it is fulfilling when we can forget about our small self and immerse ourselves in something greater, loftier. I think it is the most wonderful feeling in the world. I used to worry a lot about what other people would think of my performance — people’s perceptions — but then I read a biography of Claudio Arrau. He said that he played much better after he stopped trying to please the audience, when he started trying to be true to himself.

My goal every time I go on stage is to be true to myself. I tell myself and my students to focus on what you want, and not on what you’re afraid might happen. If you are thinking of what might go wrong, then things will always go wrong.

[Jascha] Heifetz said that a performer must have “the nerves of a bullfighter, the digestion of a peasant, the vitality of a nightclub hostess, the tact of a diplomat and the concentration of a Tibetan monk.”

I always tell my students to look forward, not back. Don’t give up if you make mistakes. I tell [them] to forget about everything I’ve said in lessons and just do whatever they want on stage. It doesn’t matter if you make some small mistakes. I think in the end, if you stir someone’s emotions, if your music moves them, then they will remember your performance for a lifetime.

DR: On a lighter note, what are some memorable — or silly — experiences that you’ve had on stage, or in your teaching studio?

WLG: Nothing catastrophic. Once, when I was performing in Israel, I used a rubber band to attach my sponge — as a shoulder rest — but the sponge fell off, along with the rubber band. I could see the whole first row of the audience looking on the floor for my shoulder rest.

When I was playing in New Zealand, a little girl didn’t know how to contact me afterward, so she wrote a note and gave it to the organizer of the concert, and it said, “Your music made me smile.”

Once a bird flew into my studio, and I was freaked out! My students got very excited, and we spent the next 20 minutes trying to get it out. It was in the winter, too!

During a studio class, one of my students was playing a movement of Bach. When she started playing she was facing us, but she got very involved in the music and by the end of the piece she had her back to us. When people clapped, she didn’t know what was happening. She had her eyes closed.

DR: Are there any composers who you feel a particular affinity with? And don’t say that you feel equally close with all of them!

WLG: I think, at the end of the day, I have to say Bach.

DR: Are there any particular artists who inspire you?

WLG: Henryk Szeryng, Isaac Stern, Ginette Neveu, [Jascha] Heifetz, [Arthur] Grumiaux, Zino Francescatti and [Joseph] Szigeti, to name a few. And other instrumentalists: Jacqueline du Pré, Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich, [Arturo] Michelangeli, [Vladimir] Horowitz, Ella Fitzgerald and Maria Callas.

DR: What are the greatest challenges you face as a teacher? As a performer?

WLG: As a teacher, [my greatest challenge is] getting my own students to be their own best teachers… teaching them how to practice efficiently on their own. Students in general don’t practice slowly enough. Even when they practice slowly, they are not engaging their mind enough. Practicing slowly is paying attention to all the details, thinking quickly, anticipating what’s next and listening carefully and objectively. Very often we listen to the sound that we wish to hear in our head, and not what it is actually coming out. Students should start each day by asking themselves, “What do I want to achieve?”

I get very excited and emotional when I perform. It is a challenge to find the balance between a warm heart and a cool head.

DR: What advice would you give to young musicians?

WLG: I would encourage young musicians to spend time discovering historical recordings. As performers, it is important to know where we came from. I think we can learn a lot by listening to recordings from the last century. Every great artist had a distinct sound, vibrato, phrasing, character and personality; we just don’t have that anymore.

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