Cellist Nathan Chan recently graduated from Columbia University, but has already immersed himself in the musical life of New York City. Here, Fairweather's Mable Yiu chats with the music prodigy about the role music plays in his considerably well-rounded life.
When did you discover your love of music?
I started my musical journey at the age of three when I began conducting. I am lucky enough to have grown up in a musical family. My mother Rena Ling is a piano teacher and my father Samuel Chan is a cardiologist but also plays the violin in his free time. My sister is a violist who is studying at Barnard College this year. Growing up, conductors were my heroes. I would often watch and emulate conductors on LaserDisc and was hugely compelled by their command of sound and emotion. I guess I had an intuitive connection to the music that still astounds me to this day. Physicality was an important part of how I connected and grew to love music and I feel physicality is still a large component of how I play the cello today.
When did you start playing the cello, and when did it become a primary part of your life?
I started playing the cello when I was five years old! I think I first truly understood my passion in music when I realized how profound and positive an impact it could have on the people around me. I think there was one defining moment in my life that really solidified my desire to make this “my thing.” When I was 11, I was fortunate enough to be featured in a documentary on HBO called “The Music In Me” in which I performed and spoke about “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens. Much of the segment included me describing the musical feelings and emotions behind the piece and so I described the song itself as being bittersweet; its lyrical passages hide an inner turmoil within a dying swan. The ending result was really meaningful, and I am still amazed by it to this day. This experience showed me the importance in communicating my passion as a way to express deep inner emotions to listeners. This emotional aspect of playing the cello has really come to influence the way I approach the world and is the biggest reason why I love it so much.
What inspired you to study at Columbia?
When I was deciding upon choices on where to study for college, I made a conscious and deliberate choice to pursue both academia and music at an extremely high level. I ultimately decided on attending both Columbia University and The Juilliard School for their dual degree program. So much of music is being able to relate the entire amalgamation of human thought, knowledge and emotion into your playing. I strongly feel that having this vast wealth of knowledge made possible by a liberal arts education has and will continue to be an important part of the way I play the cello.
How would you compare the music scene in New York compared to the one in San Francisco?
I am really loving not only the music opportunities in New York, but the life lessons here too. I feel immensely mobile in this city, which makes me feel so free to absorb the energy and culture here. Playing in both Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall (as a soloist with the Little Orchestra Society and with the Juilliard Orchestra) are two great examples of the musical possibilities in New York. I am excited to start my Masters degree at The Juilliard School this year and really can’t wait to immerse myself in its energy. I really love it.
What’s a current project you’re excited about?
I am currently working on a project called “Nathan Chan: Breaking the Wall.” I am extremely excited about the project, which is a documentary made by Shearwater Films, which is a small and talented team of filmmakers in New York. The goal of the project is to explore and show- case the creative musical opportunities to connect audiences with music in a way made possible by a 21st century musician. Ultimately, we would like to see the trailer reach a global audience, but are currently focusing on reaching a demographic in Asia.
How do you balance music and your ensemble, String Theory, with school and your social life?
Throughout my life, I’ve had great fortune to be able to pursue both music and academia at a very high level. I feel that beyond music and the cello, I am a great “people person.” I think I am outgoing and extroverted in my personality and have used this to bridge both these spheres of my life. I am always trying to see how things from different fields of study relate to each other. I try not to get caught up in whether or not different projects take time away from one another, but instead to see each opportunity enhances the other. In this sense, school enhances my musical life and my musical life enhances my social one. I embrace things one at a time and always try to prioritize things in order to keep myself focused and sane.
What advice would you give other musicians just starting out?
More often than not, one or two hours of the most inspired and creative practicing is much more effective than five hours of meaningless work. Reach out and practice communicating your passion to others.
To learn more, visit nathanchancello.com.