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  • Vivian Chang Freiheit

Finding your way in Music

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking.

  • Antonio Machado

My immigrant Taiwanese parents sought to give their three daughters every opportunity in pursuit of the “American Dream”. During the 1970s in the suburbs of Detroit, my days were filled with violin and piano lessons, as well as ballet and gymnastics at the local YMCA. My sisters and I stayed with music over the years and became fairly accomplished on our instruments, even performing as a trio together. But as other interests and professional endeavors came along, music fell to the wayside for my sisters.

My eldest sister became a medical doctor, and didn’t have the means to purchase a piano of her own nor much time to play her violin during her 20s. My younger sister became a periodontist and I noticed one Thanksgiving, her cello collecting dust in my parents’ living room and missing at least one string! While I did end up studying at a music conservatory and became a professional musician, I did from time to time think about my parents’ hard earned investment in their children’s musical education and wonder if they felt it was worth it.

Fast forward to today: I turn 50 years young in February and have been blessed with a life in music. My older son recently graduated high school and began studying at a university in NY (majoring in Computer Science, not Music). My younger son is figuring out next steps - probably on a path less traveled, and my beautiful niece - who turned a year old on Halloween day - is learning music with me and blossoming!

During this time of personal transition, I cherish even more those early memories of discovery with my kids, singing songs together with child on hip and dancing in the kitchen to our favorite cds. I also remember more challenging and uncertain times, like when my younger son attended a school for children with developmental differences. It was then that my interest in early childhood music was truly born; I felt emboldened to bring my violin and music to his school, knowing that these kids needed the joy of music in their lives and would benefit from meaningful and appropriate musical instruction - possibly even more than those in mainstream schools. I came to understand that we are each on our own paths and there is not one way to learn, experience and succeed in music. Having studied at both Oberlin and Juilliard and being very driven in a traditional results-oriented way, this was a big lesson for me.

This past year I have been introducing prospective students to the piano in the “Meet the Instruments” class at Levine. One thing I try to impress upon parents is to not worry about making a “perfect” choice. A child might choose piano but then fall in love with singing. A child who graduates from a First Music class on the lap of their caregiver, might return a few years later to start violin lessons when they’re ready. That is the beauty of life experience and also the advantage of a school like Levine, which offers so much to every kind of student, no matter what their age or ability. And by the way, it’s never too late! This year, I have a beginning piano student in her 60s who just performed three Baroque pieces beautifully in a performance class, and a middle school student who is so motivated and zoomed through one year of musical learning in just a few months.

In addition to teaching young children in First Music, I am lucky to work in adult education, working with the American Songbook Chorus and accompanying the adult student concerts. I also play violin in the NIH Philharmonia, where I share a music stand with my older sister and perform regularly with other scientists, doctors and teachers who are devoted to music. These experiences have enriched my life immensely, especially having just moved to the DC area from New York two years ago. Ask any one of these adults their story, and they will each have reached this point of community-through-music from a different place. It is fascinating for me to be among these interesting people through our shared love of music and music-making, and to remember that they were each beginners at one time.

My parents are now in their 80s. They attend the recitals of my younger sister’s daughters and they see their own older daughters performing together in a volunteer community orchestra. No parent ever forgets the nagging over practice, the endless schlepping to lessons and recitals, and the financial commitment that can be a sacrifice. Even if I had not become a professional musician, however, ask them today and I believe they will say it was all worth it. For my life in music and for the relationships I have made through music, I am forever grateful to my parents for making it possible. I wish you and your families everything wonderful on your own musical journey.

May your holiday season be filled with music and good cheer!

Vivian Chang Freiheit

First Music Faculty

Levine School of Music

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