Sarah Chang and I have a lot in common. We both play the violin, we have the same name, we both started playing the violin when were really little, and we once stood together in the same place at the same time long enough to have a picture taken. We even share a love of our stuffed animals and sushi. But that’s where the similarity ends. Sarah is a superstar, and I am a student. Or as the New York Times would put it:
“Her gifts are at a level so removed from the rest of us that all we can do is feel the appropriate awe and then wonder on the mysteries of nature. The ancients would certainly have had Ms. Chang emerging fully formed from some Botticellian scallop shell.”
The next time I see Sarah, I am going to ask her how much of her talent was a “gift” exactly, and how much was just plain old hard work. When I was a little girl, I played the violin, but I also spent hours creating Sculpey™ animals and playing store in my back-yard play structure (I sold my mom’s herbs and flowers to her). I went to pre-school, and took classes in magic, ballet, karate, and forensic science. I only practiced on my 1/10 violin for about fifteen minutes a day, but I told my mom I’d practiced for an hour. When Sarah was a kid, she was practicing for four hours a everyday, and playing the violin well enough to attract the attentions of Dorothy DeLay. I wonder if she was really practicing for eight hours, and telling her mom it was only four.
On Sarah’s website, she posts an article with an adorable picture of herself at the age of twelve or so. According to the article, four years earlier at EIGHT years old, she was asked by Zubin Mehta to fill in for a cancellation at the New York Philharmonic. She played Paganini. At eighteen, I can almost play Paganini well enough that people don’t trample each other running for the exits.
While I really enjoy hearing Sarah play, I appreciate her kindness and generosity even more. Earlier this year, I was able to attend a benefit for Danielle Belen’s Center Stage Strings summer program where Sarah performed as the guest artist. She seemed genuinely happy to be playing with all the young musicians and spent a lot of time taking pictures after the concert with anybody who asked. And did I mention the cute pink gown she wore?
Benefits are really important, because there are many kids like me out there with college tuition and retired parents. We can either work or practice, and we need to practice or we’ll never work. Kind of a Catch-22! When new musicians perform there are a lot of expenses, and usually zero pay. We need transportation, concert wear, and a place to stay. We need long hours of private lessons, and have to find money for summer camps and festivals. We often pay for concert tickets so we will know what is happening in our chosen field, although fortunately, many performers generously offer their extra tickets to music students. Applying to several conservatories or universities is expensive, too. We have to travel to our auditions. The elephant in the room that most people don’t ever see is the cost of a violin, which can equal a year of university tuition or more. For the best of students, there are schools and other organizations that lend fine violins from their private collections. For the rest of us, it’s catch as catch can.
I’m hoping to see more of Sarah Chang, but she seems to be playing fewer concerts these days than she has in the past, and I know it’s not for want of opportunity. Life on the road must be incredibly demanding, and burn-out is a very real thing. I secretly hope she is taking a well-earned break, resting and taking care of herself, but a quick check of twitter tells me that she’s busier than ever, and has the cutest dog on Earth.