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Profile: Yuan Gao

"Classical music is a way to get to know a better world"

- This story is part of Showcasing Northwestern Symphony in Asia

Growing up with chemist parents in the Jilin province in northeastern China, Yuan Gao initially knew nothing about classical music.

When she was in fifth grade, however, she heard a violin performance on television, and it felt to her like the shock of an earthquake. She knew she had to learn to play violin, but she also knew most students began their musical journeys at age six. Gao left school to focus full-time on music. Trusting in their daughter’s solid academic foundation, Gao’s parents supported this unconventional risk.

Two years later, she was accepted into the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she picked up her studies as a sixth-grade student. As a condition of her acceptance, she was required to switch from violin to viola. Gao studied with nationally acclaimed violist Fei Cao, a member of China Philharmonic Orchestra and also a very active chamber musician.   

She describes the viola as a "comforting sound that reminds me of a loving grandparent."

Gao describes the viola’s sound as more endearing, intimate and charming than a violin. “It’s a comforting sound that reminds me of a loving grandparent.”

After completing the high school conservatory program in Beijing, she was accepted into the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She began her master’s program in music at the Bienen School in fall 2017.

Finding balance at Bienen

When asked why she chose the Bienen School for graduate music studies, Gao replied, “There’s a high academic standard, but it’s well balanced. You focus on your solo study, but on the other hand, you also work on chamber music and orchestra, which are important for anyone who wants to be a professional musician.” 

She hopes to spend her career in classical music, like her Bienen School viola professor Helen Callus. Gao states that in China, solo performers are dominant, but chamber music and orchestra are growing in popularity. Gao envisions herself teaching and participating in more chamber music.

“Classical music is a way to get to know a better world — one that is courageous, brave, embracing and forgiving of all the difficulties you have endured. That’s what music brings to me,” Gao said.

“I think going to Beijing with the orchestra is going to be very exciting. Presenting the music in front of my former professors and colleagues will be an interesting cultural interaction. The musical inspiration is going to be amazing.”