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Profile: Sihao He

Playing (and competing) with good friends

- This story is part of Showcasing Northwestern Symphony in Asia

Sihao He, a native of Shanghai, China, started playing violin at age nine. He laughed as he recalled the day he made the switch from violin to cello at age 10. “I had a chance to audition for a youth orchestra, and the jury was rather critical of my playing. Then a jury member noticed I have big hands and said, ‘You have to stand to practice your violin, right? Isn’t that pretty tiring?’ I agreed and told him I hated standing. The judge said, ‘For cello, you could actually sit and practice.’” He said he went home that day and told his mom he wanted to switch to the cello.   

By all accounts it was the right decision. 

"When I perform a piece, I feel I’m speaking to the audience about my own story."

Now in the second year of a music master’s program at Northwestern, He is no stranger to performing in the international spotlight. In 2017, he was one of two Northwestern cellists, both students of Hans Jørgen Jensen, invited to play in the prestigious Queen Elisabeth International Cello Competition in Brussels.  

Setting the standard

He recalls feeling extremely anxious after he was selected to perform first in the competition. “Professor Jensen told me, ‘You are going to set the standard for the competition, so just be free, be relaxed, and enjoy the contest.’” And he did. He and the other Northwestern cellist, Brandon Cho, advanced to the final round of competition and had the opportunity to perform back-to-back concertos with the Brussels Philharmonic. “It was an experience I’ll never forget.”

When He was 16, he studied with Professor Jensen at a music camp in New York state. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from the McDuffie Center for Strings in Georgia. Jensen encouraged He, upon completion of his bachelor’s degree, to apply for the graduate program at the Bienen School. 

When asked what he looks forward to most about the Asia tour program, He says he is looking forward to playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. “I think the fourth movement is the most touching movement in all music. Mahler wrote it for his wife, Alma, and you can feel the love he felt for her.”

Human voice

He still feels the same way about playing cello as the day he made the switch. “The cello voice is really close to the human voice. When I perform a piece, I feel I’m speaking to the audience about my own story. Of course, the composer’s feelings are the priority, but it’s always my goal when playing cello to express my own feelings and imagination.

“The Asia Tour is a fantastic chance to showcase Northwestern and the level of the Bienen School’s orchestra to my friends, my old teachers and professors in Shanghai,” He said.

“I think it will be exciting for NUSO members to experience Chinese culture and perform for a Chinese audience. I’ve already told some of my Shanghai friends about this tour, and they are looking forward to meeting my NUSO friends and welcoming them.”