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Laurie Niles interview with Sarah Chang

December 18, 2009 at 10:18 PM

Violinist Sarah Chang has recorded everything, hasn't she?

Well, okay, she hasn't. But she is one of the few 28-year-olds on the planet who can record the Brahms and Bruch concertos for the first time, and do so with more than 20 years' experience playing them at concert halls around the world.

I spoke with Sarah when she was in Los Angeles to play Vivaldi's “Four Seasons" with the American Youth Symphony, and we talked about a wide range of subjects – from her perspective on life as a prodigy to how she picks out those gorgeous concert gowns.

Sarah Change
Photo courtesy Sarah Chang

Laurie: What was the first thing you ever played on the violin?

Sarah Chang: I started on the Suzuki method, so probably one of those songs; I didn't do it for very long, only about 4-5 months. My dad is a violinist, so after that I studied with him. I went to Juilliard when I was six, and Dorothy DeLay was my teacher from that point onwards. So the first thing was most likely Twinkle Twinkle, or one of those Suzuki songs.

Laurie: How was Dorothy DeLay with a six-year-old?

Sarah Chang: She was possibly the best teacher that I could have asked for. Very grandmother-like, very encouraging, very gentle. But she never told you to fix anything – this was something I found frustrating a little later on, but I realized it was just her way of working: She always got you thinking. Sometimes you'd go in for a lesson and she'd ask, 'What do you think you can do to make this better?' or, “What is it you're unhappy with?" instead of telling you, fix X-Y-Z. She'd go inside your head and get you to think.

Laurie: That sounds pretty sophisticated for a six-year-old...

Sarah Chang: In the very beginning, she was really hands-on. Then I started traveling and concertizing more -- and not really being there. I would play, and then I'd go away for a month on tour. Then I'd come back for one or two lessons and  go out again. So it was extremely irregular, and I think she  realized that I needed to start listening to myself. She once said to me, in the very early years, that I was probably going to spend a vast majority of my life working by myself in hotel rooms or backstage in dressing rooms, and I couldn't always rely on her being there. She told me, you know, you really have to learn to open up your ears and listen to yourself.

Laurie: It was wise of her to tell you that. I don't know that everyone knows what to expect from the soloist's life.

Sarah Chang: She had so much experience at that point, (having taught) so many people.

Laurie: It is a little bit of a unique life. Not many people have the experience of being a child prodigy. I wonder, looking back on it, what would you advise somebody who showed great talent early on, who was looking at that kind of situation? What would you advise their parents?

Sarah Chang: I'd tell them to wait. Juggling school, homework, assignments, exams, career and  constant recordings – was no fun. I'm not going to kid you, that was no fun. Not only that, when the ball starts rolling, and you get caught up in the moment and everything is so new and exciting and you want to put yourself out there and play as many concerts as you possibly can -- you forget that the early years are when you should be learning the most amount of repertoire.

I think my parents were really good about that. They controlled my schedule so that I did the important concerts: I did the New York Phil, the Berlin Phil, the Vienna Phil. I did all the debuts, I did all the big dates that I needed to do. But then they would stick me back in school. They put a really tight grip on the schedule. I had – still do have – a variety of managers. But it was very much my parents who would end up just saying 'No" to everything. They said that I needed to go to school, and I needed time to learn repertoire. I'm glad they did that – because now the schedule is insane.

Laurie: So the ability to say “No" is important.

Sarah Chang: And they did. It's really good, especially at the beginning, so you don't get too caught up in everything. If I try to learn new pieces now, with a full-time schedule, it really is a day here, and a day two weeks later. It's not the ideal way to learn new pieces, but unfortunately that's the only time to do it now. So I'm really glad I got the majority of the violin rep under my belt when I was a student.

Laurie: What about becoming famous at a young age, and coping with that? Or is it so much a part of your life that you don't think about it?

Sarah Chang: You really don't think about it after a while. I started so young that the focus was heavily on the whole child prodigy thing. Any sort of label they could have stuck on me, they did: “prodigy," “wunderkind," anything that has to do with kids. So to grow up with that and then to go through a transition stage where you're not exactly a kid any more but they don't really know quite where to categorize you...I've been the the business for over 20 years now, and I'm still reading articles about me that call me the ex-prodigy. That label just follows you around. There's not much you can do about that.

But I'm very grateful that I'm in the classical music world. I think people in the classical music world are extremely sophisticated, they know what they're listening to, they're musically educated, so they know what they want. They also know good music when they listen to it. I think it's one of the last remaining really honest forms of music-making. We don't lip sync, we don't have light shows, we don't have special effects, we don't have anything to distract or add fluff. We go out and we play, and we either play well or we don't play well. It's really clean, you either deliver or you don't. I like that sort of pureness to the industry.

I also like the fact that I started out at a time where everything – the classical music world, the recording industry – was in full swing. It's different now. But I started out when child prodigies were still accepted, and I was cranking out recordings like you wouldn't believe. It's a different sort of world now. You can't just slam out a record for the sake of slamming out a record. I'm still recording with EMI, and I'm very grateful that I'm working with the same company that I started out with, I know that's very unusual. Now every project that we do – there has to be a reason for it. You can't just go into a studio and make a record like you used to. First and foremost, there has to be a good musical reason for it, then there has to be a marketing reason for it, and there has to be an audience for it as well. Everything you put your name on now has a lot more thought behind it.

Laurie: Tell me a little bit about the thought behind your new Brahms and Bruch recording. You know, I didn't play the Bruch concerto until I was in college, so I was 18, or something like that. And I remember that the first thing my teacher said was, 'I played the Bruch when I was seven!' Which of course made me crumble. (Sarah laughs)

But I thought about it, and I wonder how a seven-year-old views the Bruch, versus how a 20-year-old views it, versus how an almost-30-year-old looks at it?

Sarah: No disrespect to your teacher, but I think the whole age thing – I learned that when I was six, I learned that when I was seven – means nothing.

Laurie: Really? What do you mean by that?

Sarah Chang: I learned the Bruch when I was five. It means I played the notes, and I had enough emotion in me then to play it well – at least well enough to get into Juilliard; it was my audition piece. Mozart three and the Bruch were my two audition pieces for Juilliard. And then I put it away, I didn't touch it. I didn't touch it for another 10 years, and then I started performing it in public when I was 17 or so. Same thing with the Brahms; I learned it when I was eight, at Juilliard with Miss DeLay – learned it meaning learned the notes, scratched the surface. It got to the point where I thought I knew the piece, but obviously that was nothing. I wouldn't have dared go on stage with it at that point. So again, I put it away for about 10 years. I was probably 18 or 19 before I even went on stage with the Brahms. From that point on, with every concert, that's when the learning actually begins. That's when you realize how very little you do actually know about the piece! (She laughs)

There are certain pieces that I'm really grateful that I waited (to play). Because if you learn something when you're so young and it gets embedded in your head...Memory's a really funny thing, especially when you learn something when you're so extremely young – you can't shake it off. You really can't shake it off! With some pieces, I learned the piece when I was five or six, and I learned it in a specific way. Then 10 years later I try to pick it up and it's still stuck in my head – you try so desperately to shake it off because there are certain habits that you really don't want to continue on with.

Laurie: What are some of the pieces you're really grateful that you did late?

Sarah Chang: Shostakovich. I waited until I was 20-something before I even attempted to learn that. That's a huge monster of a piece.

Laurie: It's huge emotionally.

Sarah Chang: Just draining.

Beethoven, as well. I'm glad I waited. I was probably in my late teens. Brahms, I learned when I was younger and put it away.

There are some pieces you have too much respect for – just because you can play the notes doesn't mean you necessarily should be on stage playing the piece.

And yet, I think there's also a lot to be said for being on stage and getting the piece under your skin and fingers -- living with it a bit. I started that process with the Brahms when I was about 18 or 19 and did countless concerts with it before I even attempted to bring it up with EMI, saying that I really want to record this.

Same thing with the Vivaldi. It's so popular; everybody knows the piece, every violinist in the world has either played or recorded the piece. There's really no reason for another record of the Four Seasons to come out, unless you really feel that you have a special version and you're convinced about it. The Vivaldi was on EMI's wish list for me for about a decade. I kept saying no – just because I knew that everybody had recorded it. I wanted to be in a place where I not only understood the piece but was comfortable enough to say, okay, even if there are 6,000 recordings of it out there, this is my version, and I feel really good about my version. It takes time before you can actually feel good about that.

Laurie: Where do you currently live, then?

Sarah Chang: Philadelphia. That's where I was born; my family's still there. My brother goes to Princeton, everybody's around the area.

Laurie: How many siblings do you have?

Sarah Chang: Just him. He's younger. He played the cello – he played really well, so talented. But he wants to do something else. He's seen me grow up and he's seen the insanity that is my life and he wants something a little bit more normal.

Laurie: You mentioned that your father's a violinist, does he still play?

Sarah Chang: Not so much, he lives in Korea, and he teaches a bit.

Laurie: So it's possible to live in Philadelphia and go to Juilliard.

Sarah Chang: Philly's close enough that I never really felt the need to live in New York. I was never there for any blocked out kind of time, I was always traveling.

Laurie: But you went to grade school?

Sarah Chang: I did that in Philly. And then I went to Juilliard, when I was in the pre-college division, only on Saturdays. Then later on I would go up more.

But it was a really great school. They were very supportive. They're ultimately nurturing performers, so at the end of the day, if you say, 'I've got nine weeks of back-to-back-to-back concerts, I'll be out for nine weeks, but I need all my assignments before I go,' they were understanding. But at the same time they needed the stuff done. I finished school only because I was able to fax stuff. E-mail was just starting up at that point.

Everybody there was so incredibly talented.

Laurie: What are some of the things you have to do to keep a high level of technique and to keep it in your fingers?

Sarah Chang: Basics, every day. There's no other secret, really. I wish there were! (She laughs) Scales, arpeggios, thirds, octaves – the regular stuff you would hate as a student, you need to do it every day. When you have a schedule like this... some days  when you can manage to squeeze in 4-5 hours, that's great. There are other days when you've just gotten off a 15-hour flight and you're so exhausted you can't even see straight, then I do my scales, all the basics. Even if it means I'll just touch the violin 30 minutes before collapsing in bed, I'll still do the basics. Even if you have three concertos and four sonatas that you need to look at, I'll start with the basics.

Laurie: You never get to a point where you can graduate from the scales.

Sarah Chang: I wish! I do the Galamian and the Flesch, I certainly use both.

Laurie: Etudes?

Sarah Chang: There are some I do to get the fingers warmed up in the morning. The normal stuff: the Kreutzer, the Sevcik, the Dont, the Gavinies, Ysaye – all that stuff. All the stuff you hated as a child. (She laughs)

Laurie: I actually love scales, I find it kind of therapeutical to start out with those Galamian acceleration scales. But I can't say that my students have taken to them! (Laughing)

Have you ever taken a sabbatical? Do you see life changing as you approach that big 3-0? Do you want to keep doing the whole solo thing?

Sarah Chang: I'll be 30 in two years, and I've already set aside that day. This year I've got a concert on the day, I don't mind, I really don't. But I just thought, for 30 I want a big party, and I want my friends there and I don't want to have a concert that day.

It's very comforting for me to have the schedule and the concerts. It's a big part of my life, that's where I actually feel the most comfortable.

Laurie: So what you still enjoy most is soloing.

Sarah Chang: It is. The majority of what I do is concertos, what I love the most. I adore chamber music, I love doing recitals. I don't get to do them as much as I get to do concertos. I would say about 95 percent of what I do are concertos. I love working with orchestras, I love working with conductors.

Laurie: Sometimes people find themselves going in other directions – composing, conducting or teaching.

Sarah Chang: I see a lot of my colleagues, a lot of the violinists out there, branching out and going into conducting. And a lot of them settle down and have families, start having kids -- you have to sort of scale back on concerts when you do that. But I still feel that there's a lot that I need to do musically, to make myself happy.

Laurie: Like what?

Sarah Chang: There are a lot of pieces I want to learn, a lot of rep. Conducting, I don't think is in the cards for me. I think you get to that when you feel that you've done everything in the instrument's repertoire and you want something new -- I'm not at that stage yet, I still feel that there's so much violin music out there that I want to learn, that I want to commission....

Laurie: Commission!

Sarah Chang: I've only worked with three living composers until now Donald Sur, Richard Danielpour and Christopher Theofanidis -- he wrote a concerto for me last year. I had so much fun with that! It was a huge responsibility, and not something that I do all the time. But it piqued my interest enough that I definitely know that I want to do more of that.

And there's so much that I want to do before I even think about branching out and going into conducting, composing ….

Also, just trying to squeeze in what little life that you can.

Laurie: And clothes shopping, you have to squeeze that in.

Sarah Chang: I love shopping!

Laurie: I do, too. It's important.

Sarah Chang: You know what? It really is.

Laurie:  It makes you feel so much better.

Sarah Chang: I love clothes, I love shoes. I'm a big shoe freak. It's my one weakness in life: shoes.

Laurie: What is the best kind of shoe?

Sarah Chang: (She laughs) Anything that makes you walk taller. Dior has great shoes. Louboutins are, on occasion, great -- some of them are quite painful – I mean these are Louboutins (she points to her high black boots) and I don't wear them on stage. But I love shoes.

Laurie: What makes a good concert dress? What factors does it have to have?

Sarah Chang: For me? Personally?

Laurie: Yes.

Sarah Chang: Everyone's going to give a slightly different answer, but I love color.

Laurie: What do you mean by that?

Sarah Chang: First of all, I love black. When I'm not on stage, you'll most likely see me in black because I never get to wear black on stage. But on stage, I've only worn black a handful of times.

I love color, color meaning something that's bright and happy and makes your coloring look good, and for everyone, that's a different color.

Cut, how it fits. How it fits is more important than anything else. As long as it's altered to your body and fits well, it doesn't matter if it's a $1,000 dress or a $10,000 dress or a $20,000 dress, I really believe how it fits and how it hangs on you is the most important thing.

I also think that beyond all of that, the most important thing for a musician is that is should be repertoire-appropriate.

Laurie: Oh really?

Sarah Chang: For me, that is a major factor. Some people, when I say that, they don't quite get it, they say what do you mean, it has to be repertoire-appropriate? But if you have a red, hot, sexy number for Carmen, I'm not going to be wearing that for a Beethoven concert. I'm not going to be wearing that for a Brahms concert. And vice-versa.

You know how, sometimes when you put on a really hot slinky red dress it just makes you feel different? It makes you walk differently and feel differently? If it's not the mindset I want to be in for Brahms...It's really weird, but I think that for a woman, it affects the way that you walk and you feel; even subconsciously, it will overflow into the way you're playing that evening.

Laurie: What is a Brahms dress?

Sarah Chang: I try to go more elegant and more classical when it comes to stuff like Brahms or Beethoven.

Laurie: Mozart.

Sarah Chang: Mozart, I think, fresh, young, simple.

Laurie: Shostakovich.

Sarah Chang: Whatever the heck you want! (Laughter) It's so complex, and obviously it's very modern, so sometimes I try to go modern. But really, across the board. You can do whatever you want with that one, I think.

Another important thing is, can I move in this dress? Can my arms move freely in this? I've had enough wardrobe mis-haps on stage that I know that the last think I want to worry about is: Is this going to fall off? Are the straps going to fall? The worst thing you can do for yourself, as a woman on stage, is play a 40-minute concerto and worry the entire time about your dress. There's nothing more unsettling. You do not want the dress does to become a distraction when you're on stage.

For example, when you have a beaded dress – I always ask the designers to not bead the last inch of the dress, because you always end up crunching on them on stage. Little things like that. Straps, if they fall, no way. You're focusing on that.

When I had my debut at the Sydney Opera House – I was wearing this new, sky-blue Dior dress which I absolutely loved . It was my first grown-up dress, my first dress where I didn't have to go to the teens section. My mother let me go to Dior and get an actual formal gown, and I was so in love with this dress. It had a row of about 20 buttons that you actually had to do yourself, and I thought, I'm never going to have the patience, so I asked the seamstress to make them into snap buttons, which at the time, seemed like a really good idea.

Laurie: I think I know where this is going...

Sarah Chang: So I did the whole test – stand, play – it was fine.

Then I went on stage, took my first bow, and the whole thing just ripped. It just came undone. (she laughs)

Laurie: What did you do!?

Sarah Chang: I wanted to cry. I literally wanted to cry. And the conductor just didn't see, he just started the orchestra. It was a short introduction, so I had the violin and bow in one hand, and the other hand was trying to get the snap buttons, as many as I could – and that's not really what you want to be thinking about before you have to play! For the entire concert, you're thinking, please stay on, please stay on...

I didn't wear that dress again.

Laurie: Oh that's sad, your first lovely dress!

Sarah Chang: But I think, at the end of the day, a concert is an event. With operas, you have costumes and lighting, and you're telling a story, in a character. At a concert, you can basically wear whatever you want. But at the same time, you are, in a way, loosely representing the composer, and I think you should keep that in mind.

I love, when I look out into the audience – in a gorgeous hall, so beautiful with the chandeliers and the lighting. You look out into the audience, and you know that the audience has also made an effort. The women look beautiful; the orchestra, they're in tails. I just think that it's appropriate for the soloist to make an effort as well.

I remember, there was an orchestra, several years ago, that was thinking of new ways to bring in young audiences. They asked if I would support this new idea of Friday afternoon casual concerts, where everybody would show up in jeans, including the performers. They asked if I could just wear jeans and a T-shirt or a top or whatever. I thought, this is a concert! I seriously doubt that wearing jeans is going to bring in more people.


From Jasmine Reese
Posted on December 18, 2009 at 10:41 PM

Great interview!  You touched on everything!  I loved the "age means nothing" part....

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 19, 2009 at 1:20 AM

Thanks!!! Sarah Chang is in my top 5!!!!!!

So exceptional artist!


From John Platen
Posted on December 19, 2009 at 4:22 AM

On stage seems so much more feminine than other women soloists, and when you compare this interview and other interivews with other women soloists that you have had on here, you see the same thing. Man, it is hard not to fall in love with her playing because she brings so much energy to every concert (I have seen her many times), and it is hard not to fall in love with her period! A girly girl who looks and plays like an Angel, what is there not to love? 

On my wish list for 2010 is her recording the Bach Double with Repin. That would be something! Wonder what shoes she would wear for that?

From Andrew Paa
Posted on December 19, 2009 at 4:37 AM

I had the chance to play in the Sioux City Symphony earlier this year when she performed, a great violinist and easy to work with on stage.  I love her Dvorak album!!

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 19, 2009 at 4:35 PM

John, your thing about the Bach double concerto would be so cool since they are my two top favorite modern idols ( I cannot say "living" because Ida Haendel is still a living member of the past generation of great violinits!). Chang is in my opinion (since this is just a matter of taste) the best woman violinist and Repin is the best man violinist of our days.  Shoes? Probably very high heels since Repin is quite tall (just kidding ; )

As a "broad sound" type lover, what charmed me about her playing was that it was more energic and powerful than what we often ear (narrow and "stiff" always pp somehow scratchy). I am absoluntly astonished by her ability to seem to have no limitations and if I close my eyes, it sounds just as good as Repin or Vengerov etc how cool!!!

Hope to see her in concert one day!


From E. Smith
Posted on December 20, 2009 at 12:07 AM

 Terrific interview, really fun to read. I love the dress story-- (I was once at a concert where a soprano was wearing a slippery wrap dress that literally fell off as she sang her final note, and she had to run offstage.) About living in Philadelphia and commuting to Juilliard, I know a family that was community every week from Ann Arbor to Juilliard and just moved to Philly to be close by. 

From Ray Randall
Posted on December 20, 2009 at 12:17 AM

Nice interview. Thanks. I'm glad she mentioned basics every day. That's what my teacher says  that all the top professionals she knows do every day. Starting out with open string playing.

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