There’s a moment in the 2014 documentary ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ when a group of professional concert pianists discusses their unique line of work.
One of the pianists shares that people often say to him how impressive it is that he can sit down and play such complex classical music. He then explains to these people that he can’t just sit down and play a piece.
Actually, it takes months of practicing a single piece to even play it as written. It takes thousands of hours’ worth of practicing to become a professional performer.
But it’s the nature of performance that the audience doesn’t get to see the process, only the product of that process.
We think it’s worth talking about the process that leads to perfection, not only to highlight the dedication of high-level musicians but also to make performances more fulfilling for the members of the audience.
In the deft hands of the most accomplished musicians, instruments can create music that’s more than the sum of its parts, and today I’d like to share the story of one of these musicians.
“One of my earliest and fondest memories of playing music is of taking the level two exam back in China. I felt a strong connection to the music, and the memory of that moment continues to remind me of my dedication to the craft.”
Jiawei Cui is an award-winning violinist who has performed at some of the most renowned venues in the world, including Beijing Concert Hall, Bin Hai Cultural Center, Boston’s Symphony Hall, and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and he has trained with notable musicians such as Chai Liang, an experience I’ll be discussing in more detail shortly.
But I also don’t want to give the impression that Cui has restricted his career to classical music. He also works as a session musician for film scores, pop music, and other contemporary genres. Cui teaches as well, furthering a longstanding tradition of musical excellence.
I’ve spoken with many musicians here at Artvoice before, but this was my first opportunity to speak with a world-class violinist, and the experience was just as fascinating as I expected.
Without further ado, I’d like to share what I learned from Cui during our visit.
Studying with Professor Chai Liang
I was a bit surprised to hear that Cui didn’t start out with an innate love of the violin. There was definitely a love of music, but forming a connection with the violin specifically and all that the instrument could do was an extended process. That process started in primary school.
“I started playing the violin because everyone at my school played an instrument. I happened to pick the violin, but I didn’t really like it at first. I even stopped playing for a few years. It wasn’t until I met Professor Liang and decided to study with him for the next six years that I really started to understand the beauty of the violin. He influenced me in a way that made me want to pursue music as a career.”
For the few who haven’t heard of Profesor Chai Liang before, he is a singularly talented violinist with a career spanning the globe. Currently, Liang is serving as the String Department Chairman of the China Central Conservatory of Music, and he continues to share his knowledge through master classes.
When Cui first started studying with Liang, he knew right away that he wanted his own playing to reach the same heights one day.
“When I had my first violin lesson with this world-renowned teacher and performer, it was an eye-opener for sure. At the time, I didn’t know the violin could sound so beautiful. He showed me what mastery sounded like.”
Cui was just ten years old when he met Liang, and he would go on to train with him for the next several years, and he told me that these lessons were always enjoyable.
“When I’m studying with him, it always feels like time flies. There are so many things to learn from him. He’s also just a very friendly person, which always inspired me to work even harder.”
Cui trained for several more years at acclaimed institutions both in China and the US, including the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, where he studied with prize-winning violin professor Lynn Chang.
Cui’s skills earned him a place on the international classical music performance circuit, which quickly led to performances at some of the world’s most lauded classical venues.
And while Cui maintains a deep appreciation of classical music (the works of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann in particular), he has also showcased his talents through extensive session work here in the US.
Session work: a different pace
Before getting into Cui’s session work and contrasting it with classical music performances, I should explain what session work is all about.
A session musician is a professional player who gets called in to play for individual studio recording sessions. Session players might specialize in a certain instrument or a certain genre, but being able to handle a wide variety of styles and genres, and potentially even multiple instruments, makes it more likely that a musician will get called in for sessions on many different projects.
Session musicians also need to be extremely professional in how they operate and especially in how they play. These musicians have very little time to prepare their parts. They might even be expected to sight-read their parts (i.e. play while seeing the music for the first time) at the start of a session.
Studio time is expensive, which means that any mistakes made, during any take, slow everything down, and so session musicians are expected to be spot-on every single time.
Do well and your reputation improves. Do poorly and your reputation drops. To the average person, that likely sounds stressful, but for players of Cui’s caliber, it just means that you play your best every session.
It goes without saying that Cui has been very successful as a session musician, working on film scores and pop music for major clients.
As for how session work compares to classical performances, the two aren’t completely different. A lot is expected of musicians in either environment, and there’s a certain amount of room for interpretation of the source material.
But according to Cui, one of the most important distinctions of session work is that time is money. You can’t slow the rest of the team down.
“In sessions, there’s a certain pacing to the workflow, and you have to make absolutely sure that you’re in line with that pacing. But in classical music, especially if it’s a small group of musicians, people can wait for you if you want to take your time. In sessions, your performance has to be exactly the same every time you play.”
It’s impressive that Cui has been able to thrive in both of these environments, and during our conversation, I also learned that, in addition to everything I’ve covered so far, he plays for musical theater productions and performs quite a bit of traditional music as well.
Cui’s incredible passion for music of so many different genres and forms can all be traced back to those early days of playing the violin and the insights shared by his instructors. And years later, Cui is paying it forward by teaching students of his own.
The next wave
During visits back to China, Cui finds time to share his expertise with students who are just beginning their musical journeys.
As for his approach to instruction, there has definitely been a certain amount of influence from his prior experiences with Liang and other instructors, but Cui also finds new ways to communicate crucial concepts.
“It’s a combination of my own ideas and the many fundamentals and basic techniques I learned from working with Professor Liang. It’s so exciting to see them making breakthroughs, understanding how their instrument works, and improving their playing in a really noticeable way.”
Musicians as highly skilled as Cui are rare enough, but it’s even rarer to find an artist so wholly committed to their craft.
Still early in his career, Cui has established himself as an expert in multiple sectors of the music industry, and he just keeps expanding even further.
Talking with Cui gave me a chance to explore just how much can be accomplished by someone whose career is driven by unending passion.