MPP Students Rehearsing

The Music Performance Program (MPP) is a division of the Department of Music that offers unique opportunities to students with a strong musical backgrounds. Under the direction of Dr. Magdalena Stern-Baczewska, the MPP seeks to enable students to develop as musicians within Columbia's academic setting, by offering a wide array of opportunities for musical instruction, participation, and performance. Auditions for acceptance into the MPP occur during the first week of the Fall Semester. Students do not have to major in music in order to participate in the MPP.

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Meet Our Students

MPP student, Liyu Chen.

What year are you at Columbia/Barnard and what are/will you be majoring in?
I am currently a sophomore at the Columbia-Juilliard Exchange Program tentatively studying Cognitive Science and Economics at Columbia College, and Violin at Juilliard with Mr. Masao Kawasaki.

What are your latest projects/passions?
This semester, there have been two projects in particular that have occupied me. As for the first one: I live in Queens, and every weekend so far, I've returned home to assist my family in the gradual upgrade of our interior decor, furniture, and decorations. My grandparents are moving back in with us, so my family has been on a rather intimate journey filled with embracing, observing, and accepting change as small and incremental, with some unexpected walks down memory lane via housekeeping.

When I was cleaning a few weeks ago, I discovered an obscure box tucked away in the corner of our living room. To my surprise, it held a handwritten guitar songbook from the 1980s. What made this find even more special was a sketch of a man playing the guitar, a man I later learned was none other than my father (who looked dashingly young and handsome, I must add). 

After I presented what I had found to my dad, he was taken aback at first, but began to fondly recall his journey with music. When he was growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution, my father heard his first classical music piece when he had a cassette tape smuggled in from the Soviet Union that had a recording of David Oistrakh’s Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. He later was able to find a dilapidated violin thanks to the help of his high school best friend (they went dumpster diving in a wealthier district), and he would match the fingerings from his erhu, with its two strings, onto the violin’s four. Soon after, he acquired a guitar from the local flea market, and taught himself the guitar as well. When he went to Beijing to study agriculture, he had already written a few songbooks, and hosted small guitar underground gatherings at the local universities where he would teach other students. The sketch on the cover of the book was drawn by his bunk-mate during one of those secret sessions.

This leads to my second “project”: I drew inspiration from this moment with my father, and lately, have been thinking more deeply about my relationship with music, practice, and expression as a whole. For now, I’ve been more interested in how to truly connect my voice to my violin. After I ran through the current piece I’m working on (Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 Ballade), to one of my closest friends, she said, “Time is not something you need to chase after in order to not run out. Rather, it’s a space that you can choose to fill every moment of.” 

My perspective on playing has evolved since then, and instead of staying chained to doctrines that I believed were meant to dictate my playing, I’ve been pondering more about what space and time mean to me. Is my sound meant to expand into space? Is space a domain that needs to be filled, or does my sound define the boundaries of space? The same goes for time: why is it that Time is so difficult to fill as a vessel? Is Time a value? Sure, there are theories within physics and philosophy that similarly contemplate time, but I wonder, what are the roles of my past memories and my “undetermined” future? If I’m imagining myself playing the next phrase of a piece, what’s to say that it isn’t real? “Time" is still flowing in my daily life, and the metronome is ticking at 60 beats per minute. Or is it? Events that have happened already have already happened, but if the thoughts in my head don’t necessarily follow the rules of our current universe, then perhaps I have my own rules within my own universe —  inside my head. Even when I am watching the clock by the minute during practice, I can't help noticing how quickly I lost track of 30 minutes (if I were very immersed in intricately breaking down a passage) or how 5 minutes dragged on like hours (when doing very focused intonation work). On some days, I’m chasing after every second. But on other days, I can choose to fill each second, and center myself, instead of tending to other matters as I’m playing. I think in Time, therefore Time exists in me — in my memories, and in my capacity to perceive and imagine. 

By visualizing the role sound, space, and time itself has in my music-making, I’m able to craft my practice and subsequent playing with more intention. Now, it’s imperative to me that I completely envision and am able to segment off parts of myself that envelop the musical space in a collective whole.

How do you balance a busy academic schedule with practice time? Any tips?
It’s definitely a challenge and a work in progress for me. Last year, I used my weekly lessons as a framework to structure my time around, in order to help me prioritize my practice and other academic obligations. This year, I’m still loosely following the same framework, but with weekly orchestra rehearsals, chamber music rehearsals and coachings, I never go too long without playing. I think the most important part of balancing academics with practice is intentional practicing — in the past, I’ve been guilty of going on “auto-pilot” and approaching practicing as a mechanical act. Everyday would be the same routine: scales (occasionally), etudes, then pieces. Some pieces would have more priority, while others stayed untouched. Now, I’m trying to prioritize not just my practice time, but the content and substance of my practice. Instead of run-throughs, I’m selecting passages that require deep thinking and a deliberate, conscious awareness of every micro-movement. I’ve given more attention to how energy flows within me, and it almost mirrors meditation — something new I’ve also been trying this school year. 

What experience or piece made you first fall in love with music?
My earliest memory of sound and music was my father’s antique recordings that he would play on his DVD player.  Leonid Kogan, David Oistrakh, and Michael Rabin were household favorites. WQXR 105.9 was our go-to FM radio whenever we made trips by car. As a young child, my ADHD and dreadful eyesight catalyzed my attraction to sound. To keep myself occupied and alert, I needed to touch every object that produced noise: I’d spend hours tinkering with water-filled glasses, tapping chopsticks on the sides to create tunes. As I got taller, I started dropping items just to hear the sounds they emitted; when I discovered that ceramic simply sounded different from other materials, my grandmother’s teacups suffered an unspeakable fate. While my grandparents scolded me for ruining their tea sets, my parents were content — they believed that this was the match that ignited my world with music. So, after they saved enough money, I started piano lessons to healthily cultivate that flame (and my grandparents stored their tableware just out of my reach). In time, there was a noticeable difference in my impulsivity — playing piano started to ground me, giving me an outlet to produce sound from my fingertips. 

In 4th grade, I learned how to play the accordion (bringing over my piano skills), and I still recall the excitement and happiness that I had so much trouble bottling up everytime I wrapped the tiny box around my shoulders (as it was “kid-sized”) — during the holiday season, we’d visit every classroom and play holiday tunes. I reflect on my younger years with fondness because of music.

I started playing violin when I was 6. My sister taught me to play violin until I found a professor. Many tears were shed (on my part, though she found it rather amusing), but she set me up with the solid foundation that helped me elevate my level of playing I am able to maintain today. Now, I play piano for fun — I enjoy learning arrangements of film soundtracks and playing four-hands duets with my friends. 

How has MPP helped you better study, live, or grow in your time at Columbia?
MPP has allowed me to continue collecting phrases and pieces of music like postcards from my life — tokens of who I once was and what I once felt. Without a place to congregate my music aspirations on campus (other than my time at Juilliard), I feel like I would not have been able to continue growing as an artist and as a human. Everytime I gather in a rehearsal room or space, I’m transported to a realm fueled by vivid imaginations — whether it be my peers in my chamber group or orchestra, my chamber coach, or the conductor of our orchestra. Everytime I pick up my instrument to play, a version of myself is immortalized in a way that only I can access. Every passage teaches me something about myself. 

MPP has given me another way to house my non-academic — but still very prevalent to my day-to-day — learning and exploration of myself. Life changes, the material we cover in my academic classes changes essentially every week, but throughout all that change, the shifts in the “music” classroom seem to be all encompassing. The differences I hear in how I sound after pulling an all-nighter to write a LitHum or Contemporary Civilizations essay vs. a well-rested weekend also have powered my commitment to cherish every sound my violin emits, whether it squeaks or sings. Chamber music and orchestra give me the space to be introspective in ways that other classes do not necessarily provide a medium for, and I’m beyond grateful that I’m still able to experience the energy and joy that playing and hearing music brings me through MPP.