Shawn Moore: American violinist builds successful career in China

In 2014, Shawn Moore was sent to Beijing by Bard College to be the top-ranking American liberal arts college’s admissions officer for the Asian area; in the same year, he and three other passionate musicians formed the Beijing Axis, a classical chamber music ensemble that immediately gained popularity in Beijing’s music scene.

Over the past three years, the 29-year-old violinist hailing from Chicago has established himself both as a successful freelance musician and an efficient recruiter for one of the top liberal arts colleges in the US. Moore sat down with to share his personal stories of developing a musical career in China and prospects of culture and art in the country as its middle class rises to prominence.

Before coming to China, Moore studied with world famous chamber musicians from ensembles such as the Guarneri Quartet, Tokyo Quartet and Julliard Quartet. In 2008, he founded the Kalmia String Quartet, whose recordings can be heard on Parma records. He has also collaborated with acclaimed artists such as Paul Miller and multi-platinum American folk singer Natalie Merchant, with whom the Kalmia quartet toured and recorded an album in 2015.

Now, he is thankful that Bard has been supportive of him to continue his musical career in China. “They give me the space to do both at the same time,” he said. Besides his encouraging alma mater, Moore said, China’s booming cultural scene is also motivating young artists like him.

More open space for artists 

Moore first visited Beijing in 2008 during the Olympic Games period. Three years later when he returned for a tour, he found the city had become significantly more cosmopolitan. “The middle class in the country have started to become interested in culture. People are seeking more opportunities to enrich their lives,” he said, indicating that culturally there is a lot of open space to develop.

As a college admissions officer who has easy access to local high schools, he finds out that schools nowadays are willing to offer programs in “softer” courses like art, music, film or photography, while several years ago, only “practical” subjects like math, science and economics would be highlighted.

Despite the promising picture, classical musicians like Moore still face challenges. It’s known that even in western countries like the US, patrons are needed to support the development of classical music, as the box office is often not nearly enough to offset costs and allow artists to make a living.

“In China, the problem is there are not yet enough people of means that are interested in projects that do not guarantee certain amount of returns. Philanthropy for the arts still has a long way to go.” he said.

The veteran chamber musician believes that one way to build this community of people is by providing better access to classical chamber music to bring people to love it; performance activities work as a platform to bridge musicians and their audiences.

“The music written for chamber ensembles is among the best in the classical repertoire, and for many composers some of their best music they ever wrote; for example some of the last few works of Beethoven’s life were written for string quartet,” said Moore. The string quartet genre is commonly regarded as containing some of the most “profound and meaningful” music of the Western classical genre, and its works generate the strongest sentiments and feelings among the audiences.

“Many musicians have played chamber music their whole life, but still they find new things each time they perform or practice this music. Composers use various compositional techniques in chamber music to communicate the deepest emotions,” Moore explained. In his view, music can render emotions that “transcend normal experiences of life and evoke higher ideals beyond what can otherwise at times be a boring, pedestrian existence.”

Photos: in courtesy of Shawn Moore
Although performing events are important, there are also barriers in China. “When I first arrived, it took me quite a while to get started,” he said, “It’s sometimes difficult to organize bigger performing events because of various regulations.”

According to Moore, for large events in big halls, organizing companies need to acquire approvals from the government, and so the whole preparatory process can sometimes drag on for half a year or even one full year. “Although it is not a huge problem, it’s an annoyance. Organizers in some cases have to give up in case uncertainty may pose financial risks, and it’s difficult for foreigners to navigate the process,” he said, suggesting that performance regulations be made easier or more transparent, so that the cultural life in the country could be more interesting and vibrant.

All in all, Moore feels himself inspired by Beijing’s cultural scene, considering there are more and more musical or cultural salons these days. He predicts that the interesting spaces would one day allow the development of a mature salon society and help with the development of various cultural and art genres.

A versatile musician

The selection of the young musician as Bard’s liaison in China may be ascribed partly to his incredible mastery of Chinese language. Before every Beijing Axis performance, Moore helps interpret his team member’s English opening remarks into Chinese. Actually, if a Chinese conversation with him was made through phone instead of face-to-face, even Chinese people could hardly tell he’s not a native Chinese speaker.

Moore began to learn Chinese in college when he took East Asian culture as a second major and aspired to communicate with his Chinese classmates who had just arrived in the US. “When I was in school I used to record myself to practice the accent every morning for years just to make sure my own speech in Chinese is correct,” he said.
Shawn Moore with newly recruited Bard students 
“Learning a foreign langue is just like learning to play a musical instrument. You must practice every day. And the same techniques I used to memorize music I use to memorize Chinese characters,” he said, “Musicians have to memorize a lot of things, so our ability to selectively memorize is usually quite strong. Learning as an adult however, I don’t think mindless repetition is very efficient or effective, so I do not use that technique. Instead, I rehearse mentally; in the case of Chinese characters, I look at them for a moment, but don’t write over and over again. I visualize and hold the image in my mind to imprint it in memory, much like I would practice a piece mentally.” Moore said he very much enjoyed the whole process of learning Chinese language.

Although all people know that in the musical circle, there are far more qualified people than there are opportunities. Moore decided to give it a shot when he was quite young.

“Halfway through high school, I knew it’s time for me to make decisions for the future,” he said. Like most young people in the United States, he decided not to count on parents’ funding for college. “I wasn’t sure if I could make a career out of this some day, but I figured music was not something I could ever quit,” he said.

And Moore knew he should also learn something else. With that aim, a year and a half later, he got admitted to a dual degree program of Bard College with full scholarship and began to learn violin and Asian Studies simultaneously. After graduation from Bard with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Music, Moore continued his study at Yale and gained a Master’s degree in music there.

Moore said he was endowed with an advantage to learn music when he was young. “I was born into a musical family and started to play violin since I was seven,” he recalled, “There was always music around because my parents are singers and would play music for us and practice with us.”

However, it remains torturous sometimes for a teenager to practice classical music every day on a hard instrument to learn, until his high school tutor helped him out. The teacher, who is an Iranian immigrant and abides by Russian ‘strict style’ of practicing music, spared no efforts in explaining music, “He made me comprehend the power of emotions hidden beneath and so inspired my love for it,” Moore said.

He studied with Ida Kavafian during the Bard period, and the female musician graduating from the top US conservatory, Curtis Institute of Music, was a nurturing figure to Moore. “She taught me techniques so that I could render music in the most precise ways,” he said. 

Moore gives presentations on behalf of the Bard College
In order to relax his body and use his muscles in the proper way, Moore took Alexander Technique courses at Bard from a teacher who is a guru in that field. He feels grateful that the technique, based on meditation and awareness of qi, has been helpful in his efforts to play violin. Till now, every morning when he opens his eyes, he practices Alexander technique as a way to reconnect with the body.

Based on all the efforts from himself and his mentors, Moore believes he would keep on seeking his “own unique voice from deep within”, and that will be the key element that makes a really good musical artist.

The Berkshire Review describes the American violinist as possessing “a very appealing directness in his approach. Apart from his impressive technical ability, there is not a trace of affectation in his playing … he tackles showy passages with an understated confidence, as if they are just music.”

To this, Moore responded that he would keep on practicing in a bid to find new voice for each new melody or performance. “Our audiences want fresh experience and I would not want to repeat myself either. So, musicians cannot stop practicing and rethinking music their whole life,” he said.

Moore also hopes one day to set up a private conservatory in China. “I hope I could pass on my perceptions about playing music, especially the part relating to relaxing your body; the mind-body connection is so important to becoming comfortable. But, this important point is often ignored by even professionals,” he said.

With himself being a good example, Moore also calls on students specializing in music to take a second major or to expose themselves to things other than music, “musicians should not only learn how to play instruments, but also be informed about history, literature and other things that would help them communicate with their audiences or connect to classical masters who had composed the music.

Finally, Moore told that he heard a lot of stories about corrupt public conservatories in China from his friends working in the system. “If you look at the worldwide representation, China has a large population but only a few world renowned musical artists, which doesn’t make that much sense unless you understand the system and its problems. It often seems that, by and large, only rich families send their children into top schools, because they could afford the most expensive teachers from these elite schools to be their kids’ tutors before college. This is bribery in a different form, and the students aren’t necessarily the best – your family’s wealth has nothing to do with your musical talent. I was lucky to receive scholarship in the US, otherwise my talent would have gone to waste as well,” Moore said, noting that without improvements or scholarship opportunities for talented, poor students, China could miss the most talented students who have the potential to become world-class musicians. 


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