A Conversation with David Ying of the Ying Quartet

July 31, 2007, 9:49 PM ·

The Ying Quartet (left to right): Phil, Janet, David, Tim
Photo Credit: waltercolleyimages.com/

BRUNSWICK, MAINE--When my string quartet, Seraphina, traveled to the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition this spring, we were all looking forward to meeting David Ying, the cellist with the Ying Quartet, an all-sibling string ensemble (our quartet is comprised of two sets of sisters.) We knew that, given the opportunity, we'd have a lot of questions for Mr. Ying.

We talked with him after the competition, and he gave our quartet both generous praise and constructive criticism. He also talked with us about what it means to play chamber music with the people most closely related to you in the world—your siblings.

The Yings grew up in Chicago and started playing together professionally in 1992 when they won an National Endowment of the Arts grant designed to support chamber music in rural America. The Yings spent the year in residence in the town of Jessup, Iowa (population 2000) and their chamber concerts were so popular throughout the community that they were featured in national and international media, including The Strad magazine. The following year they won the Naumburg Chamber Music Award, and soon the Yings became established as one of the premier American string quartets, performing on concert series and at music festivals in the U.S. and abroad.

The Ying Quartet's programming is creative, often incorporating works by American composers. Their current project, which they call "Musical Dim Sum" involves selections of works for string quartets by composers of Chinese heritage living throughout the world.

The Yings also have what is possibly the most clever website of any string quartet, featuring this drawing by the late cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, whom the Yings played for in his New York apartment in 2003, towards the end of his life.

My quartet is currently at Bowdoin International Music Festival, but the Yings, who teach there in the early part of the summer, have already left for their next round of festivals. So I caught up with David in by email to ask him in more detail about life in his quartet.

David Ying

Caeli: One of the most striking things about you guys, aside from your fabulous playing the fact that you're siblings. What's the order age-wise here?

David: I'm the oldest, followed in birth order by Tim (our first violinist), Phil (our violist), and Janet (our second violinist). We also have another brother, Dan, who was a bass player when we were growing up. He's in between Tim and Phil in age.

Caeli: How did the four of you get interested in playing the instruments you play? Was there nudging from your parents?

David: Our parents were interested in us all becoming pianists, so in a sense we disappointed them by becoming string players! And, though three of us did begin music lessons on piano, we all fairly soon start string instruments. We enjoyed the increased opportunities to make music with friends that playing a string instrument afforded. I'm pretty sure our parents imagined that we'd become (hopefully good) amateur musicians, while we supported ourselves and our families with more reliable day jobs as doctors or teachers. Although they were very encouraging of our music when we were young, I think it is still a surprise to them that four of us wound up as professional musicians

Caeli: A lot of times when a family has a bunch of kids all playing classical music, the parents start them out all on the same instrument (as happened in my family of four girls we all began on violin, which is a shame, since we had the makings of a quartet right there!) But the four of you played the appropriate instruments to form a quartet. Was that your parents thinking ahead?

David: My parents are very smart people, but they didn't have any idea that the string quartet is such a great and musically significant ensemble when we were young. (We had to teach them that!) So we wound up on the different instruments kind of by chance, mainly trying to play something that the others in the family were not already playing. It's funny to me how now everyone seems like they were meant to play the instrument they ended up on. Maybe it's kind of like pet-owners starting to look like their pets.

Caeli: How did you get along as kids? Did you enjoy playing together?

David: I think we did get along fairly well when we were young. We learned how to play together (not music!), and disagree with each other, and still get along at the end of the day. These are skills we continue to use every day in our quartet. Our parents definitely raised us as a close family, and I'm sure that has helped us to be able to work together successfully. Interestingly, we did not play music often together as kids, since our age difference seemed much larger in those days than it does now, and also because we were lucky enough to have many friends our own ages who enjoyed playing music, making it pretty easy to find chamber music partners who we were not related to!

Caeli: Did you all go to the same conservatory?

David: We went to different schools at first, some to the Eastman School of Music and, some to Juilliard, and Phil was even an economics major at Harvard. But eventually we all went to the Eastman School of Music at the same time, which was when we began playing together. It didn't hurt that the quartet in residence at the time was the Cleveland Quartet, who in addition to being an amazing quartet were our teachers and mentors.

Caeli: What are your individual personalities like, music-wise, and how do they fit together?

David: Wow! This is a tough question. Maybe you should ask our parents. Well, I'll give it a try. Our personalities as musicians, and as people, are pretty different, as you'd probably find in any family. So there's plenty of disagreement in any of our rehearsals. Sometimes I wonder how we ever get it together in the end! But I think when all is said and done, differences are good in a quartet- they make chemistry, and the combination of ideas, feelings, personalities always seems better than anything I would have done on my own. So the trick is just to make sure you complement each other, and try to be neither carbon copies nor musical enemies of each other.

Caeli: What's it like to be in business together as adults?

David: Funny enough, the few times that we played music together in public as kids, there was money involved. The five of us had a standing job playing for the Northwestern School of Education's commencement each June. We got pretty expert at stringing out—no pun intended— Pomp and Circumstance for as long as we needed it. So now, we're just doing that a lot more often (and we've expanded our repertoire too!). Sometimes music doesn't really seem like a job, we get so much enjoyment from it, and mostly we're just trying to bring that same enjoyment to others, whether by performing or teaching. But sometimes it is definitely a job, and one we have to accomplish together, no less. We try hard to balance our professional demands with our personal family lives, which of course involve more than just us siblings.

Caeli: When my quartet, which is two pairs of siblings, talked to you at Fischoff, you pointed out that sometimes we play as though we know one another too well. This was an amazing comment to hear, and I'd like to know if you can elaborate and tell us if you struggled with that issue as a quartet, and if so how you deal with it?

David: Yes, it is something that we've talked about. Sometimes we've thought that things came together too easily, and that because of our common backgrounds and instruction that we didn't let the music struggle enough. It doesn't seem to be a problem now though. Some days it seems like we can discuss different ways of doing the tiniest musical detail for hours. It can be good in rehearsal to not necessarily anticipate how someone is going to play, or to play the way you usually do too. Anything in life that gets so comfortable that you take it for granted is going to lose its meaning and importance on some level. And I know that's not something I would want to do with playing music.

Caeli: The four of you are now in residency at Eastman. How do you manage your teaching schedules with working together in the quartet?

David: Being resident ensemble and on the faculty at Eastman is an extremely important part of our lives. It is our home base in many ways. Working with the talented students at Eastman is very enriching, and grounding. We have to practice what we preach, and vice versa. I have benefited from wonderful teaching myself, and I find it very satisfying to pass along what I've been privileged to receive. Plus, having a teaching position makes sure that we have time for our families too, so that we don't have the pressure of doing all of work away from home. We never travel for more than a week at a time, so that we can see our families and our students as much as possible.

Caeli: Do you collaborate with your wife [pianist Elinor Freer]? How is it different playing with her than it is with your siblings?

David: I do play with Elinor whenever we get the chance, and I enjoy it very much! Music is such a wonderful thing to share with someone else, no matter if they are related to you or not. I can't imagine another activity that involves so much interaction with another person, so for me it's natural to want to play music with my wife, family and friends. I don't really find it that different, in the end, to play with anyone, as long as we are enjoying the interaction.

Caeli: Do you have any kids yourself?

David: My wife and I have a one-year-old daughter, and Tim has two children: a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. They are the best!

Caeli: I can imagine that both Ying generations will be playing chamber music together one day.

David: The quartet kids so far are a little young to be playing instruments, but I certainly hope that my daughter grows up to enjoy music, and I hope she would want to play something too! I also hope that someday sitting down to play music with each other and for ourselves (for fun only!) is something we'd all naturally do.

Caeli: What projects have you been doing recently? Anything exciting coming up in the future?

David: Recording has occupied a lot of our time lately, and we're excited about it since we'd kind of avoided it for many years. This spring we released two recordings- the Tchaikovsky String Quartets and the Souvenir de Florence (with our former teachers James Dunham and Paul Katz) on Telarc, and the second installment of our LifeMusic commissions, titled United States: LifeMusic 2 on Quartz. We have been commissioning these pieces for string quartet that reflect contemporary American life for some years now, and we're continuing with that ongoing project. We've been fortunate to work with so many wonderful, creative composers- there's no feeling like the excitement of discovering a work that's just been written, for little old us, even! We also just finished recording several small works by Chinese-American composers for Telarc, that will be released sometime in the future. We call that project a "musical dim-sum."


Caeli: I know you're in residency for the first half of summer at Bowdoin International Music Festival. How did you choose Bowdoin? Are you at any other festivals during the summer?

David: We enjoy Bowdoin because there are many fantastic students from a very wide variety of backgrounds, and because chamber music is a central activity there. It's pretty interesting to work with a quartet, for example, made up of four players from completely differing cultures, types of training, and personalities. And to see some students who are highly experienced in chamber music- some far more than I was at their age- and then the next hour to be helping young students who might be playing in one of their first chamber music groups ever. We also teach at Aspen Music Festival, as well as make brief playing appearances at several other festivals. My wife and I also direct the Skaneateles Festival, where I can always count on a visit from a certain string quartet that looks like me!


August 1, 2007 at 01:24 PM · What an interesting interview - thanks for sharing it!

August 1, 2007 at 11:18 PM · I second that. This is a great report with several interesting details. Nice job.

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