The Joy of Teaching and Performance with Violinist Elizabeth Chang ‘85

Photo courtesy of Matt Dine.

This week, we sat down with Elizabeth Chang AB'85, a violinist, performer, educator, and arts administrator. Chang is currently a professor of violin at University of Massachusetts Amherst, a member of the violin and viola faculties at the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard School, and Artistic Director of Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival. We chat with Chang about her time at Harvard, her teaching philosophy, and some exciting news for this year.

This transcript below has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
WHRB: It’s a pleasure to have you here with us today, Ms. Chang. Why don’t you introduce yourself briefly?
Chang: My name is Elizabeth Chang. I graduated from Harvard in 1985, and currently I’m a musician who wears a bunch of hats. I have a full time position teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst teaching violin, and on the weekends I teach at Juilliard Pre College, making the trip down to New York. I also keep my performing career as active as I can around my teaching obligations. I’ve started a number of festivals and different projects. I’m also the artistic director of the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival*, which is a 4 week program in the summer.

*Note: Other Harvard alumni part of this group include Lynn Chang AB'75, Brooks Whitehouse III AB'83, Salley Koo AB'97, and Julia Glenn AB'11.

WHRB: We’ll dive into each of those in time, but first I wanted to touch on your career here at Harvard. I know you were an English and American Literature and Language major here. How did studying these at Harvard shape your relationship with music and performance so far?
Chang: Back then, it was a bit unusual to come to a place like Harvard when your end goal was to actually go back into music. I had rigorous training as a young person growing up outside of New York. I had gone to Juilliard Pre College for 8 years, and I really felt that I wanted another experience before moving into the next phase of my life. I didn’t want to go to conservatory at that point. I finished Harvard in three years, and English was something I really enjoyed.
My time at Harvard was also full of music, and it was a wonderful place for me in that respect. It really opened my eyes from a very strong instrumental training. I had a very meaningful relationship with Leon Kirchner, who was teaching Music 180:Performance and Analysis, and Luise Vosgerchian, a legendary professor. I was also concertmaster of HRO, and I played concertos with them and Bach Soc and lots of chamber music as well. It all just fleshed out my musical experiences in a completely different way from my very strong foundation. All in all, it was a good decision.

WHRB: What were some of your most memorable musical experiences at Harvard?
Chang: Definitely the chamber music experiences, and Leon Kirchner was also a profound influence on me. I actually ended up making a CD tribute to him in 2019, with his second duo for violin and piano paired with Roger Sessions’s solo sonata and violin/cello duo and Schoenberg Fantasie; Sessions and Schoenberg were Kirchner’s teachers. The training I had had in New York before coming to Harvard was very performance-oriented, all about achieving a high level of polish and performance flair. But what I learned at Harvard was more about how the piece is made, and the emotional journey that one takes as a result of compositional decisions.

WHRB: What are some lessons that really stick with you from music or literature at Harvard?
Chang: It was a great time to be studying literature. I had some wonderful classes with Helen Vendler, who is still active today, and Seamus Heaney, who had just arrived. I was very lucky to be in Heaney’s seminar, which was just twelve students, and it was just so intense and personal. This whole environment also had this cross-pollination that I had not previously experienced between the music and the humanities.

WHRB: What advice might you give to a first-year student who is interested in pursuing music and is making decisions about their career in the future?
Chang: People can major in music or not. As long as people have strong early training and have a solid foundation, it can work out just fine not to major in music. This generation is more advanced in terms of their openness to various career tracks in music, but they are also more realistic as to what careers are actually possible. There’s generally a better understanding of what it means to be a musician, and how much of a self-starter you have to be in this profession.

WHRB: Jumping right off of that point, what are the key skills you need to be a musician, that self-starter?
Chang: It took me a long time to develop them after college. For me, I think that a lot of things came together later in life. When I left college, I was 20 and moved to Europe. I had a fellowship but ended up staying there for six years. Then, when I came back to the US, I had to rebuild my life as a musician. I began to teach—a lot. As a side note, this was a bit controversial for me, because when I was a senior in high school and won a big competition, I gave an interview where I stated that I would never teach. In fact, now I teach an enormous amount, and it is very, very satisfying.
Teaching has been an opportunity for me to reflect on my own playing and development. It’s been incredibly fruitful–I think most people who start to teach seriously realize that they are getting as much out of it as the students, if not more. There is tremendous satisfaction in watching someone develop and in helping someone find their path as a musician or even just setting up a violinist technically. That sort of interpersonal connection is immensely rewarding. Students nowadays also appreciate the value of the interpersonal connections more—in my day, it was more about ‘go to your room, practice, go out there and play concerts, play competitions, and somehow you will reach a level of professional satisfaction.”
Over time, my professional identity has become much more bound up in organizing and creating concert series and programming. With some of my colleagues at UMass we started the UMass Bach Festival Symposium. This is happening this year, 2023–the idea behind it was to give students the opportunity to play some of the great masterpieces, like the B minor Mass and the Matthew Passion. Nowadays, students don’t often get a chance to experience these works because of increasing specialization compared to when I was growing up. The symposium part of the festival brings together our own superb scholars with internationally known colleagues from all over.
Also, with some colleagues from Amherst and Smith Colleges, we’ve started the Five College New Music Festival, which is a weekend in September, and there are many other smaller pedagogical projects that I have also started. It’s extremely fulfilling to play a part in creating a meaningful exchange of ideas, musical and otherwise.

WHRB: Especially with all of the challenges to live performance in the past few years from the pandemic, how have you shifted and adapted to the ‘new normal?’
Chang: I started a Zoom series called “Music, Community Engagement, and Social Action,” a series of 14 informal Zoom talks open to the entire community about social programs that use music as a way to reach underserved youth in the inner city. I drew inspiration from the really well-known example of Providence Community Musicworks with Sebastian Ruth.
2021 was supposed to be a big Bach year for us, but as we could not meet en masse for the Mass, we decided to put on Bach’s Musical Offering, which is done in groups of 2, 3, 4, and 6. We recorded it so that they could have the whole distance of a stage between them, and we made a recording that was stitched together for the festival event.

WHRB: What from the Zoom year(s) might you carry on into the future?
Chang: Everything is just so much better in person, but I will say that having the Zoom option opens up so many more opportunities and possibilities in terms of gathering energy for the festivals I’m running from different parts of the country.
On a smaller level, my own studio at UMass has a repertoire class every week and an étude technique class. In person, these all flow very smoothly, but what about on Zoom? It all felt a bit lame playing for each other, so I decided to upload a bunch of materials like readings and such. While it took a bit of adjusting in the first semester, gradually I realized that having someone read and then present the technique to others in the class and rotating around was very successful. It was a great way to mix it up a bit, especially as teaching music is usually a very aurally based tradition.

WHRB: As we are wrapping up, do you have any opportunities or concerts coming up that you would like to plug for our listeners?
Chang: The Bach festival in Amherst is taking place the weekend of April 21-23, and we have many events at the Symposium. We’ll be playing the B minor Mass as well. There’s always a lot going on with the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival, too, and applications are due in February. We’re having a fundraising event in Boston, too, at the Pucker Gallery on March 5th with the Balourdet quartet.
Lastly, I will say that it is really important to share your excitement about music with people who don’t get it. We have to challenge ourselves to not be so insular. It’s very natural and satisfying to have our musical friendships, and we tend to just turn inwards as a community — but we really need to connect with people outside of our circles too.

// Felicia Ho ‘23 is a producer for the Classical Music Department and the Director of Online Content for Classical Music.