Tian Xu’s life is about juggling plenty of things.
Those include her work as a violinist with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, giving violin lessons to those wishing to learn the stringed instrument, and playing private events when possible to earn money.
Did we mention that she’s married and expecting a baby this spring? Yes, the Columbus (Fortson) resident and China native realizes her world is about to become even more complicated.
“I do want to do both teaching and performing at the same time,” the mom-to-be confided about the way she views life after having her child.
And the fact is, Xu, 29, who has been playing the violin for 23 years, ever since she was a tiny 6-year-old in her native country, is just getting started, in a sense. She graduated from Bard College in New York, earned an Artist Diploma from Columbus State University’s Schwob School of Music (under Professor Sergiu Schwartz) and added a master’s degree from the University of Rochester’s well-known Eastman School of Music in 2015.
But already, early in her career, Xu has a good feel for where she’s headed and what she wants to accomplish. The Ledger-Enquirer talked recently with her about her job, her choice of playing the violin, and why she enjoys teaching others. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. So, you’re a musician earning a living?
A. Oh, yeah. For sure. People call us freelance musicians, so we do all kinds of things. We play in the orchestra. We teach a lot, and we perform ourselves, like chamber or solo recitals, and we do a lot of gigs.
Q. Things like weddings?
A. Sure. Birthday parties sometimes, but mostly weddings, and some kinds of events where they need musicians to play on the side.
Q. How long have you been playing the violin?
A. I started playing at the age of 6. So I’ve been playing 23 years.
Q. Why did you pick the violin?
A. I don’t quite remember, but according to my parents, (laughs) I think it was on my 5-year or 6-year birthday and they walked me into a music store and they asked me to pick out an instrument as a gift. There were hundreds of them hanging on the wall and standing on the ground. So I just picked a violin. I don’t know why. I just liked the shape or something. (laughs)
Q. Is a violin easy or harder to learn?
A. I believe it’s harder in the beginning. I remember my parents kept complaining that I didn’t make a very good sound at the beginning. They were like, oh, it’s not pleasant to listen to that. But that’s the process. Everybody needs to go through that.
Q. At least you did not pick the drums?
A. Exactly. Or piano, although that is actually a little better in the beginning. A piano is always in tune, first off, and secondly, you can’t really make a bad sound on a piano. You just press the key down. But that never happens on the violin for the beginners.
The violin has a natural way of making a sound. It is a very lyrical, melodic way. There can be lots of emotions. It can be very dramatic or it can be very calm and quiet. There’s a huge range.
Q. How many people take part in a CSO concert typically?
A. It depends. … Usually, it’s about 50 or 60 people in the orchestra. But sometimes, if we play some bigger symphonies, like (Gustav) Mahlar, he writes a lot of huge orchestration things. Usually, if you want to play that one, you need a huge cello section and a huge bass section, and a huge woodwind and brass section. It’s usually much bigger than other composers’ works.
Q. Do you like the bigger productions?
A. I kind of like the variety. If we kept performing Mahler all the time, then I would get tired of it. Sometimes if we play some pieces for strings only, just strings and no other instruments, that’s also sweet.
Q. You’re one of many violinists at the symphony?
A. There are probably 25 to 30, because at every concert we ask different musicians to come and play, depending on their time schedule. Then we’ll see different people showing up around us.
Q. It takes teamwork and practice for the symphony? You practice for hours?
A. We usually get the music about two or three weeks before the first rehearsal, and then we need to look at the music and see which parts are challenging, and we go ahead and work on it. Of course, we listen to some YouTube videos or recordings to get the general sense of the music, and we look into our parts closely and find our most challenging part. Usually, it’s pretty obvious.
Q. Are the violin lessons you offer important to you?
A. Yes, of course. I love teaching. As you can see on my website, I got the teaching certificate from Eastman. That’s because I really love to teach. I think I’m better at teaching intermediate or above-level students.
Q. What does it take to teach well? Patience?
A. Oh, yeah, patience, of course. And the other very important thing to me is to know the person well, or at least try to know their personalities and characters, and how I am going to communicate with him or her in order to let them be happy to learn things from me. Because each one of them has different characters and personalities. If I say the same subject I want to explain to them or ask them to do something, I probably can’t say it exactly the same way. I need to do it differently.
Q. You try to gauge them and find out their hopes and aspirations?
A. Exactly. Also I think it’s a psychological thing sometimes. For example, some students I’ll say ‘do it’ and they’re, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ But sometimes I’ll say do it and the students will (grimace). So I’ll ask them to do it instead: ‘Shall we?’ That’s more inviting. But that happens all the time.
Q. Is the age range wide for your students?
A. Right now my youngest student is 5, a beginner, and the oldest I think is 74, also a beginner. So that takes different approaches.
Q. What are the reasons for people taking lessons?
A. Nowadays, especially in this country, most of the parents want their kids to learn some music instruments or art, but not necessarily because they want them to become professional musicians or artists in the future. Some of them, it’s because the parents wanted to take violin lessons (years ago), but they didn’t really have the chance or they stopped for some reason, and they want their kids to do the same thing. For the others, the kids really like it. They like the sound. They ask their parents if they can have some violin lessons ... They (already) are doing a lot of things at school. They have very heavy loads of school work everyday. So sometimes they’ll come to the lessons and say, ‘I didn’t really study this week.’ They’re just a little too overwhelmed, I think.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of juggling all of this?
A. I think it’s probably the time. I always feel like I need more time. Because if I teach, I teach the whole afternoon, then I’ll feel too tired going back at night to practice. If I want to practice a little more, it’s almost impossible. Teaching and performing are two totally different systems for me, for my brain and my physical condition. It usually turns out better if I practice first and then do teaching, but not the other way. But I like to do both and I want to do both. So it’s how do I find a balance.
Q. What do you enjoy the most about your job? Is it when you’re in the moment with your music?
A. Oh, that’s for sure. That’s one of the biggest things. Also, when I see my students improve, that is a very big plus for me. I had two of my students’ recitals this past year, one in August and one in December, and both of them, I think, are very good. So I’m very happy about it. That’s like another achievement for me, and I feel very happy.
Q. Career wise, would you like to eventually be a university professor with a steadier paycheck?
A. Of course. That would be very ideal.
Hometown: Hangzhou, China
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 2012 graduate of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. (two degrees: bachelor’s degrees in music and arts); earned her Artist Diploma from Columbus State University’s Schwob School of Music in 2014; and earned her master’s degree from University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in 2015
Previous jobs: Columbus Symphony Orchestra is her only paid job aside from freelance teaching (for lessons, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org) and performing
Family: Husband Sean Watson, a pistol team shooter with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit; the couple are expecting a baby in May
Leisure time: She currently has little time for anything other than her music and doing private violin lessons, although she does paint (oil, pencils, watercolors) when she can