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Chunyi Zhou

Chunyi Zhou

2022 Davidson Fellow
$10,000 Scholarship

Age: 16
Hometown: Irvine, CA

Music: “Songs Without Words: Using Classical Music to Promote Introspection and Connection”

About Chunyi

My name is Chunyi Zhou, but I go by Grace. I’m a sixteen-year-old violinist from Irvine, California, where I’ve lived ever since moving to the United States from Cambridge, England. I’m a rising senior at University High School, and I love playing music in all forms, especially chamber music!

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"I am so honored to be named a 2022 Davidson Fellow and am very grateful to the Davidson Institute for the opportunity to continue pursuing my passion for music and art. I’ve always been inspired by the stories and work of previous Fellows and hope to similarly utilize my platform to encourage young musicians, scientists, and writers to find joy in exploring their ideas."

Project Description

As society continues to experience rapid growth and the issues associated with it, rising morbidity and mental illness rates signal the need for new routes to meaningful connection and emotional relaxation. Classical music represents one such route, but its audience base tends to be limited due to its abstract nature, especially in comparison to film and visual art. In my project, “Songs Without Words: Using Classical Music to Promote Introspection and Connection,” I sought to apply my experience as a classical violinist to the development of new ways to approach both abstract and narrative-based classical work, exposing the potential for music as an alternative to visual or verbal storytelling and finding ways to expand its audience. By taking a methodical yet explorational approach to examining the emotional possibilities of a varied set of repertoire, I constructed a basic framework from which classical music may be visualized and perceived, which may be applied to further consideration of the uses of classical music not only in emotional introspection but in new forms of interpersonal connection.

Deeper Dive

While classical music is perhaps not the first avenue of recourse when solving world issues, its potential to encourage human connection on a larger scale is often overlooked—not without reason, given playing music has relatively few immediately obvious practical benefits. My project, “Songs Without Words: Using Classical Music to Promote Introspection and Connection,” involved the development of a basic framework for approaching classical music pieces in a way that encouraged greater audience participation and connection, with a focus on developing concrete stories and manipulating playing style accordingly. The portfolio I developed is essentially the culmination of years of study on several pieces that I view to be some of the most iconic in the repertoire: Poeme by Ernest Chausson, Fugue from J. S. Bach’s Solo Violin Sonata no. 1 in g minor, the first movement of Brahms Violin Concerto, the first movement of John Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, and the Waxman arrangement of Bizet’s Carmen Fantasie. I selected them to range from extremely well-known with a fixed storyline (the Waxman and Chausson), to abstract (the Corigliano), as well as pieces in between. My work with these pieces and the ideas I developed in terms of approaching them is to establish a more audience-friendly approach to classical music, representing possibilities to increase its accessibility to audiences and potential uses in emotional therapy. I originally did not aim to embark on a project of this size and scope—I was actually looking for practice inspiration to stay focused and creative through the pandemic—but was inspired by my pandemic practice experimentation to create a body of work that aimed to provide a general audience with a more practical way to approach the sometimes intimidating scope of classical music.

In finishing my portfolio, I faced two major challenges: efficient time management to allow me to work on the project while fulfilling my other academic commitments and the technical proficiency required to fully examine the emotional scope of my repertoire. As a high school student taking many AP courses, I work through about three or four hours of homework a day; I also study at the Colburn Music Academy, which connotes several hours spent there after school and a ninety-minute commute three days a week. My work in competitive mathematics and chemistry takes up another 12 hours of my week. Consequently, I make sure to plan out my day in advance, practice as much as possible at Colburn, and make sure to make any “dead time” (i.e. time spent commuting, eating) as productive as possible. In terms of my playing itself, challenges originated from both the typical technical problems that arise during playing and the issue of staying faithful to the composer’s intentions while being creative and realizing my own ideas. I received considerable guidance on this from my teacher, Mr. Robert Lipsett, as well as my mentor, Miss. Aubree Oliverson, both of whom are affiliated with the Colburn School. I am very grateful also to my piano accompanists Hsin-I Huang, Alice Yoo, and Mitsuko Morikawa, who provided me with helpful input on creating a larger musical picture. Moreover, I am lucky to have received regular lessons and performance opportunities throughout the pandemic. While I believe my work would have benefited strongly from a more comprehensive survey of audience feedback (which was made impossible by the pandemic), I’m fortunate to be part of an extensive and close-knit network of musicians, including the From the Top and Heifetz Institute alumni communities, all of whom provided invaluable input.

Given the fast-paced nature of society today and the associated rising mental illness rates, opportunities for introspection and relaxation have become increasingly necessary. I hope that by considering my framework for approaching easily understood programmatic music and more abstract works, musicians will be able to find new avenues through which they can communicate with audiences more intimately and effectively. Furthermore, the creation and discussion of a concrete story behind a piece and creative alteration of playing style may foster greater interest in classical music in imaginative children and other audiences who might not understand or have the patience for it otherwise. Thus, on a larger scale, I believe that my work may help more unfamiliar audiences become acquainted with more obscure parts of classical repertoire, exposing a broader swath of people to the emotionally therapeutic possibilities presented by classical music.


Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

If everything works out: working at a surgical residency, playing lots of chamber music, living in a comfortable apartment in a nice city with lots of parks, and with a pet cat.

What is your absolute dream job?

I’d love to be a violinist in a string quartet! Nothing could ever be better than performing, meeting audiences, a bit of traveling, and good company.

If you could magically become fluent in any language, what would it be?

Russian—I’d love to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s works in the original language, as I’m sure there are lots of literary quirks that the English translations can’t quite do justice. I will say that I barely made it through Crime and Punishment when it was in English, though, so I’m not sure how I’d fare in Russian.

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In The News

Los Angeles – The Davidson Fellows Scholarship Program has announced the 2022 scholarship winners. Among the honorees are Vivien He, 18, of Rancho Palos Verdes, and Chunyi Zhou, 16, and Anjal Jain, 18, of Irvine. Only 21 students across the country are recognized as 2022 scholarship winners.

Download the full press release here