Violinist Ray Chen: ‘Classical music urgently needs ambassadors’

It’s every soloist’s nightmare. You play in front of a packed hall and just at a virtuoso peak of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, your e-string snaps. You cannot continue playing, so out of necessity you exchange your instrument with the concertmaster. Shame about the concert. Or good content? The latter must have been what the Australian violinist Ray Chen (1989) thought when it happened to him himself. He cut the clip from the video recording and posted it on his YouTube channel. Violinist string BREAKS during Tchaikovsky. Pats, 4.5 million viewers.

And that’s not even his most famous video: Horses like violin playing, in which two horses in the meadow nod in agreement to a violin-playing Ray: more than 12 million. The video in which he compares cheap factory violin with a Stradivarius, more than 800,000.

Quest

The fact that Ray Chen has become a YouTuber in addition to being a violinist, with a channel full of streams, interviews, jokes, and reaction videos, is the result of a long search for an appropriate interpretation of his artistry. According to his own words, something in him changed when, as a twenty-year-old, he visited a secondary school as part of an ‘outreach project’ in San Francisco to give a master class. “Suddenly I thought: Wow, I’m enjoying this immensely! I was suddenly like those students’ cool older brother. It changed everything. I realized that all those years I had learned how to play the violin, but now it was time to figure out what kind of violinist I wanted to be.”

Bach at the Hollywood Bowl

Fast forward to now. Chen has found his form. He built a community around an app, Pocket Conservatory, to help each other practice on your instrument. And he organizes interactive projects with fans from his YouTube channel. Such as the Play with Ray project, where he recorded Bach’s double violin concerto with the LA Philharmonic on his own, and invited everyone to submit videos of himself with the missing part.

“We had three winners play with me at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 50,000 people. Then the online happening seeps into the real world. My standard for success is no longer how beautifully I can play a piece, but how much impact I have. As a violinist I am not the fruit juice, I am the straw. And I want to be the best straw possible. The people who come to me in tears after a concert, a father who tells me that his daughter never liked to practice on her violin and now plays with my app for four hours a day: that’s what I do it for.”

Are you specifically trying to interest young people in classical music?

“I think that’s great, of course, but the best thing about social media is that I simply enjoy being myself.”

Is it being yourself? Isn’t it also a specific YouTube vlogger style that you use?

“It is the style that suits the YouTube medium. But with that I can show another side of myself in a world that is very strict and serious. Classical music has a grand tradition, but it can be very stuffy, almost suffocating. There are so many rules: ‘You can’t play Mozart like that, you can’t play Bach like that.’ All for good reasons, but if you’ve been a good student for a long time, there comes a point where you wonder: when can I make my own choices? And don’t we joke with each other off stage? That’s the real world.”

Have you ever seen people at your concerts who had never heard a classical piece live before?

“Very often. That is my absolute happiness. There has to be someone to welcome these folks into the classical music world, right? The few in my world who criticize my social media use and say the do’s and don’ts are gatekeepers. Frankly, I think more urgently need more ambassadors for the arts. We already have too many gatekeepers.”

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