Zidi Chen

A girl and her violin: a look at musician Zidi Chen, one of the winners of the University of Chicago Concerto Competition.

2014 | Economics

It’s a familiar story: Zidi Chen started playing the violin in the first grade when her mother signed her up for group lessons. Chen recalls that she thought it was “lame” and that she “didn’t like practicing at all”— she and her mother would fight all the time about it.

“I basically hated violin until middle school—but it’s not like I hated playing, I just hated practicing,” said Chen.

But when Chen joined a youth orchestra in the seventh grade, her perspective changed.

“It was fun because that was pretty much the first time I actually got to play with other people my age. It’s cool to hear the whole orchestra rather than just yourself. Then I just started liking playing,” Chen explained. “I still hate practicing—everyone hates practicing—but I like playing so much now that I think it’s worth it.”

Chen’s most memorable concert experiences, both the ones that she’s performed in and the ones she’s attended as an audience member, have been collective performances. She singles out playing a concerto with her high school orchestra senior year and attending a transformative performance from the Berlin Philharmonic in high school as especially unforgettable.

“The aesthetics of them on stage was really impressive,” said Chen. “They were all together and they were all playing using the exact same amount of bow—each single player, so you could see a sea of bows going in the same direction—totally in sync. It was just so cool. If you go to concerts for any orchestra that isn’t a well-known ensemble, their bows are sort of in sync, but not really, and there’s always someone who does the totally wrong thing. That’s very realistic. What I saw with the Berlin Philharmonic was unbelievably surreal.”

Fast forward to this past winter quarter, when Chen was one of four exceptionally talented students—and one of just two undergraduates—that emerged victorious from the University of Chicago Concerto Competition. The competition, which is held just once every two years, drew a record number of contestants hoping to earn a spot performing with the University Symphony Orchestra.

Although Chen realized that she would have another shot at the competition as a fourth-year even if she didn’t win this February, she knew that she had to view it as a do-or-die event if she wanted any chance at winning. And this mindset paid off: Chen performed Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82 in Mandel Hall on Saturday, April 22nd.

For Chen, a second-year Economics major, balancing being a non-music major with her musical pursuits is a non-issue.

“Music is a big part of my life, but I don’t think it takes up that much time. I have orchestra rehearsals once a week. I have a lesson once a week. I practice a bit in-between,” Chen laughed. “It’s only been this past quarter when I’ve really had to get ready for this concert and the competition that it’s been busy.”

When she’s the busiest, Chen points out, it’s not from having to practice violin.

“I find that whenever I’m busy, it’s because I have problem sets due, discussion sections, office hours to go to…and then sometimes music takes a backseat.”

Though she doesn’t see herself pursuing music professionally after college, for now, Chen continues to be heavily involved in the U of C music scene.

“A lot of people I know stopped playing after high school as soon as they got to college because it was like, ‘I don’t have time for that,’” said Chen. “But for me, it just made sense that I would keep playing. It never really occurred to me to stop. I kept playing and then there was the competition in February. I did that.”

Chen said that the University’s support has been crucial in allowing her to continue to play and develop as a musician.

“There’s the very obvious financial aspect,” said Chen. “They do a lesson scholarship; you have to audition for it every year. They pay up to 60% of your lessons. The orchestra conductor, Barbara Schubert, has been really good about recommending violin teachers. After I won the competition, they also had someone from Eighth Blackbird, which is a contemporary ensemble, a very, very good, Grammy-winning ensemble—the violinist in that ensemble, to coach me. I think just providing the opportunity to have this whole concerto concert is really great.”

The concert also held special significance for Chen for personal reasons.

“I kind of see it as the last chance that I have to play with an orchestra. And for a soloist—for any musician—I think that’s a pretty big event. I kind of see this as my last chance to do it. Because after college, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I want to kind of close off my career, so to speak, on a good note. It’s closure.”

Chen wistfully notes that she’s very happy, in hindsight, that her mother forced her to keep playing the violin.

“I love music. There’s a lot more to do. There’s a lot more to learn. And it’s kind of sad, because I won’t get around to all of it. I don’t know if I’m ever going to do anything major with it. It’s just a part of my life. And I hope that it will always be a part of my life.” 

By Emily Wang, Class of 2014

Photo and video by Monika Lagaard, Class of 2012