Students in Professor Hsiao-mei Ku's violin studio share music-making in a live, virtual recital

Friday, April 17, 2020
"Music can do so much more than just transcend time. It can transcend distance, transcend isolation, transcend doubt and transcend fear."
Students in Hsiao-mei Ku's violin studio

Professor Ku writes:  At 5:00 pm on April 15, nine students in my violin studio performed from their homes for the Duke Music Department's first virtual end-of-semester recital. We even had an audience, as parents, siblings, friends and even a couple Duke peers “showed up” to view the live performances. It was quite a moving experience for all of us. I could tell that, despite all the disadvantages of the current circumstances, my students were able to turn this into an uplifting experience.

My personal journey has shaped my values and the goals of my teaching philosophy. Studying music provides a platform to search for possibilities. Music is the solution to lift and heal the human spirit—broken in the hustle of modern life. Music can crack open a window to shed a bit of light on a willing mind. Music can help a person express the inexpressible and connect people on the human level. Music is perhaps more contagious than the coronavirus. So, keep playing music and keep music alive!

Students in Professor Ku's studio also shared their thoughts on the experience:

Alex Chao, Class of 2022: Throughout middle and high school, music was something I basically took for granted. I enjoyed playing the violin, but I never consciously reflected on the power of music and the effects it can have on people. I was expecting classical music to be something I did on the side or even discontinued once I got to college. Yet, unexpectedly it became integral to my life, or rather, I realized how integral it had always been. Realizing the emotional depth and weight of the pieces I had been playing and listening to helped me to appreciate other beauties in our world. Music became a lens of appreciation for me, as learning about music also helps you learn about yourself. Every time I pick up my violin, I look for a new discovery in the notes and the shapes of the sound, and I feel a little more attuned with myself. In the times of quarantine as we are isolated, music is a tool in which we can reflect and learn a little more about ourselves through its creation. 

Meghna Datta, Class of 2023:  In the midst of this quarantine, practicing violin has been a very grounding break from the barrage of stressful media noise that surrounds us. On a surface level, simply having the goal of preparing a piece for a performance gave me something to work towards in a time when I felt uncertain about what the next few months would look like. But on a deeper level, music is something so beautiful and untouchable, even by a virus that is causing so much pain and destruction. It is so easy to find joy even in the worst day, if you plug your earbuds in and listen to something you love or pull out your instrument just to play for fun. During a global pandemic, finding these moments of joy is all the more important. I don't think I've ever taken music for granted, but now more than ever, I am so thankful that I've had music in my life for so long. However things change, my violin or favorite playlists will always be within reach. 

Claire Fu, Class of 2020:  As a graduating senior, preparing for Professor Ku's studio recital was bittersweet. I was sad knowing that I had lost out on having a senior recital, but also grateful to have one final performance despite everything else going on in the world right now. This recital was an opportunity for me to reflect on my violin journey, and to enjoy the experience of playing and performing music. Having this recital over zoom was a way for all of us to not just show off our hard work from the semester, as well as connect with each other, our friends, and our family through this shared musical experience. 

Ayesham Khan, Class of 2023:  I played viola for around 4 years in middle school and junior high, but stopped playing once I became very busy in high school with other extracurriculars and college applications. This spring semester, Professor Ku, as my faculty-in-residence at Pegram, pushed me to pick up my viola again and relearn the art of understanding music. I found that I experienced a lot of anxiety about wanting to achieve a certain standard of success, and this held me back in truly enjoying music. In preparing for the recital, I learned, with Professor Ku's guidance and encouragement, how to "listen" to sheet music before actually playing it, and how to confront the fear I feel as an element of perfectionism. The most valuable takeaway for me was that you should approach music not with fear, but with curiosity and love, attempting to understand it rather than master it. 

Erica Langan, Class of 2022:  I’ve always loved the way that music can transcend time. The violin concerto I performed this semester was written by Mozart when he was 19 years old, and I remarked to the audience before performing how cool I found it that I, also a 19-year-old, could take his notes and bring them to life over 200 years later. But these last couple of weeks, culminating in the virtual performances of me and my peers in Prof. Ku’s zoom recital this past Wednesday, have shown me that music can do so much more than just transcend time. It can transcend distance, transcend isolation, transcend doubt and transcend fear. Music has helped me (and continues to help me) to make sense of life—it fills the silent spaces between certainties and brilliantly colors all of our connections with each other and with the world. And for that, I am incredibly grateful.

Margaret Lim, Class of 2022:  In recent lessons, Professor Ku asked me to consider how music could be meaningful to others during this time of quarantine. I reflected on how music could be a powerful long-distance tool for comfort and communication. I then realized that music has served this purpose throughout my entire life, rather than just this time of social distancing. When I was younger, I saw my grandparents every few years during visits to the Philippines. What often filled the four-year-gaps in between was music. Somehow, playing my grandparents’ favorite songs on the violin over the phone was what brought me closer to them when language and distance were in the way. Our Zoom recital was a reminder of this, when we were all able to enter into the same space and connect through the emotions of the music, even though our lives may be impacted in different ways right now. Regardless of the limitations in a situation, music is a new place for us to enter and a gift we can offer each other when other things may fail us

Steven Oh, Class of 2021: In a time of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, music offers a means of escape, relief, and control. Although making music with your peers and teachers is undoubtedly an invaluable experience, this period of social distancing has proven that being able to make music by yourself is just as essential. The freedom and isolation to explore one’s musical self is the slight silver lining in this unusual situation with the rare opportunity to indulge in one’s artistic curiosities. I am incredibly grateful to Hsiao-mei for instilling this enthusiasm and passion for music in us during this time, so that we may keep treading on in our musical journeys. However much it may seem that the joy of music is getting drowned out by worries, concern, and bad news, I encourage everyone to turn up the volume, play louder, and sing louder.

Demi Wang:  Growing up, I’ve had friends, family members, and strangers come up and ask me if I wanted to go into music as a career. And when I tell them that I learn music for fun, they would question why I spend so much of my time on something that doesn’t directly “contribute” to my career path. Then, going into college, I have had many of my close friends from different music camps and orchestras drop their instrument because they “didn’t have enough time for it.” This made me rethink why I wanted to continue and what benefits that not only I, but others, can gain from my music studies. There are a myriad of studies proving various benefits music has on people who study it, but what are some contributions we as musicians can give to the people around us? As Professor Ku says, “music is more contagious than the virus." Music has the ability to connect and move people. During difficult times like this, music is used to help others feel less alone and more uplifted. Additionally, music speaks, comforts, and conveys human emotions when we struggle to put them into words or when we have no words to express them. I'm so glad we still got to perform in front of our peers over Zoom despite the current situation! On Easter, I saw that Andrew Bocelli was able to donate his voice to the public by giving a public concert. He was able to give people hope through his music. Similarly, during our small recital, we were able to come together to listen and play music and support each other!