Shanghai Orchestra Academy Taps International Principal Players in Cutting-Edge Curriculum

By Cristina Schreil

It’s the second day of spring in Shanghai. China’s thriving financial hub pulses with its usual activity: cargo boats zip along the Huangpu River; shoppers clutter posh commercial thoroughfares; scooters bolt through traffic.

Down in the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s basement, however, things are much less hurried. “I’m not quite hooking up with you on measures 152 to 153,” says Cynthia Phelps, principal violist of the New York Philharmonic. She’s coaching and playing alongside two graduate students from the Shanghai Orchestra Academy: violinist Renchao Yu and cellist Dunbang You. Moving meticulously, they chew through the first movement of Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3. Not one measure goes unchecked or unpolished.

The trio pauses as You navigates a tricky interval on the cello. He searches for the right intonation, bowing several times and adjusting his fingering. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly.

Phelps’ answer is simple: “That’s why we’re here.”

The violist later explains how the post-graduate level is where students can really rectify problems. It’s about “always figuring out your limits and how to expand on them, how to meet those challenges, and become a more sophisticated, aware musician,” she says. “You’re never in a box.” In offering examples, Phelps morphs into a diagnostician, explaining how to ferret out issues with fingering or bow control. The uniqueness of this education model is not lost on her. “There was no orchestra repertoire class when I went to school,” she adds. “Now, I teach one.”


Cynthia Phelps playing a string trio with Renchao Yu and Dunbang You
Cynthia Phelps playing a string trio with Renchao Yu and Dunbang You

The Shanghai Orchestra Academy (SOA) launched in 2014, offering professional training along with a master’s degree in music curriculum (from the nearby Shanghai Conservatory of Music). There is a heavy emphasis on internships with professional orchestras. The academy is also a joint effort between the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and Germany’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester. Principals comprise the faculty. The rigorous two-year program is the brainchild of Chinese maestro Long Yu. While SOA is international, its origins are very much homegrown. It rose from a booming classical-music movement sweeping China: In the past 20 years, the number of Chinese orchestras jumped from around ten to 72. Naturally, this proliferation demands skilled players. Maestro Yu dreamed of an epicenter for training the next generation. Students undergo mock auditions and learn how to draft a resume, create audition recordings, and communicate with donors and journalists. Perhaps due to the country’s need of highly trained musicians, the SOA’s employment rate has been 90 to 100 percent. Almost all alumni play in Chinese organizations. While this program arose out of conditions specific to China, it begs the question: Is this the new graduate model? Should it be?

There are many orchestra academies worldwide, with several, like SOA, directly affiliated with long-established orchestras. Yet SOA leaders stress the helpfulness of this experience-based master’s degree. The goal is to show students exactly how an orchestra runs, from a conductor’s way of thinking to how sections work together. SOA players have performed with several foreign orchestras, including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Doug He, SOA’s executive director, underscores that the program hones musicians to be “team players.” Students perform eight to 12 season concerts a year. They face professional expectations and penalties, such as being docked for tardiness. “They get a lot of knowledge of how to be a professional musician—what the standard is,” says He, a classically trained bassist. This kind of experience is particularly useful to Chinese students. He describes classical training in China, which has long venerated Russian virtuosos, as prioritizing solo performance. Conservatory students as a result sometimes graduate with gaps. Thus, making students well-rounded is key.

Stefan Wagner and Rodrigo Reichel playing Bach's Concerto for two violins in D minor with SOA students
Stefan Wagner and Rodrigo Reichel playing Bach’s Concerto for two violins in D minor with SOA students

“It’s a big difference from a student orchestra,” says Chen Li, associate principal viola of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. He adds that the repertoire is broader and more advanced. He recalls his first orchestra job, and its breakneck pace. “This is a very good way for students to channel how to train, how to read music very quickly, and how to join with the musicians,” Li says. “Otherwise, they will be lost.”

Principals from the New York Philharmonic and NDR visit multiple times a year for intensive sessions. There are master classes, chamber-music coaching, professional seminars, repertoire classes, and even conducting workshops. Just within smaller groups or private lessons, there are myriad facets to address. “It’s everything on technically what needs to happen: A lot of details about articulation, sound quality, phrasing, shape, general energy and style, color, you name it,” says Sheryl Staples, principal associate concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. “Probably most, or all, of them have never really approached orchestral music at this level of detail before.” In coaching several SOA violinists on orchestral excerpts, Staples alternates between relating how a piece might play out in a rehearsal or concert, and zeroing in on specific passages. There’s exhaustive feedback on technique. “We’re opening their eyes, I think, to how complex the orchestral music is, even their own individual part and how it fits into the whole picture of the orchestra,” she adds.

One of her students is 24-year-old Renchao Yu. He’s long aspired to an orchestral career. While he describes first performing with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra as a bit terrifying—involving a short solo—he says there’s plenty of guidance. “My teachers may tell us what happens in the whole orchestra, which sections in this part are most important or how we can play with this section,” Yu offers.


SOA Students with NDR principals after concert
SOA Students with NDR principals after concert

Learning to listen to sections beyond one’s own is a central mission. Shanghai Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Li Pei—one of Yu’s coaches—says they both dissect new pieces. They listen to recordings. “We’ll look at the total score and know every section [and ask], ‘What are they doing?’” Pei says.

Besides the musical rigor, there are other challenging aspects to SOA. There are mandatory English classes, as well as cultural learning curves. Students only interact in person with most principals four times a year. Some students have expressed that all of the insights from so many principals is difficult to distill into their own method.

Connecting with different principals, however, helps double bass student Kaixuan Zhang, 24. Zhang has an interesting circumstance. Before SOA, he interned with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and passed both his SOA and Shanghai Symphony Orchestra auditions. He is now a full-time member while attending SOA. “The first rehearsal, I realized that my voice, my sound, is different as a partner in the bass section,” he says. Dynamics, for one, required deeper scrutiny: “For example, what is a forte? Piano?” Focusing on sound quality pervades his studies. NDR bassist Michael Rieber coached Zhang on their March trip. They covered the differences between chamber playing, where each note should be clearly played with intention, and orchestral playing, where a section unites. “I try to understand every note without explanation,” Zhang says. “I try to go inside the music.”


Rieber shared it was exciting to delve deep. “At my time, when I was studying, there was no academy and support like this,” he says. “I had to find it all for myself.”

Amid all the pressure on students to practically shoot out of the gate and into an orchestra seat after graduation, faculty do remind students that they’re just beginning. New York Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey sees their work as part of a long musical tradition. “A lot of teaching is just fostering a kind of awareness or alertness in these students so they can be equipped to teach themselves this stuff,” he says. During Brey’s first orchestra job, sitting at the back of the Cleveland Orchestra, he soaked up lessons on phrasing and repertoire. It’s a kid-in-a-candy-store mentality he hopes to inspire. “We do the best we can to apply a combination of instrumental instruction and musical awareness beyond their little world of their instrument and its technical concerns,” he says. “It’s up to them to integrate all of that in the real world.” 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Strings magazine.