In many ways, Ray Chen’s career has played out like those of most other up-and-coming young violinists. The Taipei-born Australian prodigy started playing at age 4 and entered Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music at 15; from there he won competitions, recorded a few albums, garnered glowing reviews and joined the standard-repertory concert soloist circuit, playing Mendelssohn in Madison one week and Sibelius in South Bend the next.
Next up: Tchaikovsky in Seattle, where Chen, 32, will perform the beloved Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony Nov. 4, 6 and 7. But what has set his career apart is his devotion to technology and social media. This latter is de rigueur these days for any young musician, classical or otherwise, but Chen’s online presence is varied and extensive, its centerpiece his dozens of YouTube videos — from behind-the-scenes clips and chats with colleagues to master classes that encourage interaction: He’ll discuss a particular violin technique and invite watchers to send him their own videos for comment. (His YouTube channel currently has 204K subscribers. One video of Chen playing Vivaldi for a pair of appreciative horses has gotten more than 12 million views.)
This spirit of interaction has even led to a new project: Pocket Conservatory, an app developed in collaboration with musician/engineer Rose Xi. During the pandemic sabbatical year, which offered plenty of time for reflection, Chen and Xi realized that fostering a classical-music community meant building not only a listening/ticket-buying base but a fellowship of participants. “We started chatting about the future of communities, and what that might look like … a future where social media might be built around interests rather than idols,” Chen said in a recent interview.
One aspect of classical music that has perhaps hampered wider appreciation is that (except perhaps for the occasional documentary) we rarely see how the sausage is made; we see only the highly polished finished product on the concert stage. That glamour may be part of the attraction of any performing art, but it also creates a distancing mystique. Seeing the hard work behind a performance can make it more relatable, less exotic and less intimidating.
Though much online musical instruction focuses on beginners, Chen and Xi designed Pocket Conservatory for musicians of any age in the midst of their studies. Its goals are twofold, Chen says: “making practice social, and bridging the gap between practice and performance.” The app enables musicians to listen in and comment on other users’ practice sessions. During the Zoom interview, Chen demonstrated on his smartphone: “You can open a live ‘practice room’ where people can come in and listen to you” — he clicked a button and we heard a pianist dutifully plugging away at an etude — “and we can send her a little heart.”
Available free for iOS and Android devices, Pocket Conservatory has already attracted 3,500 users (with another 4,000 on the wait list) in 117 countries.
It’s an innovative rethinking of the concept of practice, turning this formerly lonely pursuit (the mythical “10,000 hours of solitary confinement” required to master an activity, says Chen) into an opportunity for community. (Not a moment too soon, after a year and a half in which we’re all sick and tired of solitary pursuits.)
This interactivity also provides an informal, nurturing opportunity to scratch the performing itch that drives people to pursue music in the first place. “Putting yourself out there is the magic moment, when you share your inner artistic ability with another human being,” says Chen. “But that’s also where all the problems start: How do you find the people?” Traditionally, the chance to be heard as a solo performer by anyone other than a teacher, or maybe friends and family, has been largely accessible only to professionals.
It’s “a safe, comfortable space for people at all levels,” says Chen. “We’ve got kids on the platform and adult learners, too,” and the first-rate faculty participants Chen has recruited include members of the Berlin Philharmonic. “People can have a place to gather, meet, practice and get excited about the thing they really love.”
The violin mastery that persuaded these top-of-their-game musicians to sign up with Pocket Conservatory will be fully on display when Chen plays Tchaikovsky’s concerto, a crowd-pleasing test of a violinist’s technique and theatrical flair since its 1878 premiere. It’ll be paired with a very different Russian epic, Shostakovich’s powerfully cinematic Symphony No. 11. Ludovic Morlot returns to fill in on the podium for previously scheduled conductor Michael Sanderling.