By: Yuan-Qing Yu, CSO violinist since 1995
In Shanghai, my father, Yu Zhen-Sheng, gave me my first violin lesson shortly after I turned six. Due to the impact of the Cultural Revolution, the only violin that my parents could find was too large for me. I learned to play the instrument with my left arm almost fully extended and with a stack of old books under my elbow to support it. Both of my parents worked full time jobs with a combined income of roughly eight dollars per month. After a long day of work, my mother, Mi Yi-Wen, would prepare dinner in the kitchen which we shared with three other families, while my father would sit with me in our 130 square-foot, one-room apartment, listening to me practice. Day after day and year after year, my parents were with me when I practiced, fanning me through the hot summers, warming my hands in the frigid winters. My father not only gave me a solid foundation as a violinist, but also taught me to appreciate and make the best use of what we have at hand.
During my Shanghai Conservatory years in the late 1980s, my teacher, Zheng Shi-Sheng, gave me lessons as often as three times a week. His love for violin and his dedication to his students taught me that musicians are people who do not just make music; they live their lives through music, breathing music and seeing the world through the lens of music. Being the exact same age as my father, Professor Zheng was my coach, my guardian, and my parent. In April of 1989, we spent three weeks together in London and Folkestone, England, in preparation for the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition. It was my first time away from home. We visited major monuments, such as the Parliament and Big Ben. We spent most of our waking moments together, studying the scores, practicing, eating our meals together and sightseeing. Until this day, I still remember his words of advice: “Do not practice right after you eat, it’s bad for digestion.” I won the Second Grand Prize in that competition.
I left Shanghai for the United States in 1990. I made sure that I went to see Professor Zheng every time I returned to Shanghai. The last trip I made was in January 2013, while on tour as a member of the CSO. At age 77, Professor continued to practice every morning for three hours, and then taught multiple students. We met at his studio in the Conservatory. Dressed in winter attire and comfy slippers, we reminisced about the past with smiles on our faces. He was especially fond of the trip to England, and my excitement when we visited toy stores in London. That was the last time we saw each other. Professor Zheng passed away in January 2014.
I will be returning to Shanghai again this coming January with the CSO, making music with my colleagues and Maestro Muti in a city where I spent my formative years. My parents will be traveling with me, my relatives will be at the concert, and my teacher will be greatly missed. But I trust that he will be there in spirit.