Chicago Symphony Orchestra violist and CMPI faculty member Danny Lai vividly recalls the moment when he decided to make classical music his career choice. He was playing in a high school honors orchestra in Boulder, Colorado. Dr. Larry Livingston was leading an inspiring performance of the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony. “I experienced a completely new feeling of belonging and empathy and realized that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”
Danny’s introduction to the viola was also a memorable occasion. “As a 10-year-old, I attended a recital by older students in my middle school. I happened to think the girl who played viola was quite cute, so I convinced my parents to let me play viola instead of their preferred instrument, the violin.” Whatever fortunate incentives prompted Danny to become a professional musician, the choice proved auspicious. Danny studied at Northwestern University with Dr. Roland Vamos, while taking orchestral repertoire classes with Principal Violist of the CSO Charles Pikler. After graduating with degrees in both economics and music, he joined the viola section of the Colorado Symphony. In 2014 Danny was appointed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by Music Director Riccardo Muti.
Teaching has been a part of Danny’s life since high school. It began as a process of sharing his accumulated musical knowledge and experience. Over time the concept of teaching has evolved into a philosophy that Danny views as “helping students acquire the mindset and tools to be able to become their own teachers.” Danny believes that aspiring musicians must take responsibility for their own learning, with the teacher providing the framework for technical improvement and repertoire guidance.
“Everyone is unique in how they understand music and how they practice. The person they spend the most time with is themselves. The practice room is where 90% of all improvement comes from. If my students learn how to practice effectively, then I consider my job well done.”
In 2013 Danny’s mission to share the universal language of music took him on a unique journey, far away from the concert halls and music studios. As a founding member of the humanitarian mission Music Heals Us, Danny traveled across Israel, West Bank, Jordan, and to the refugee camps near the Syrian border, sharing the joy of collective music-making with communities living in difficult circumstances, displaced by ongoing armed conflicts. Witnessing the thrill of young children and their families experiencing musical performance for the first time left a lasting impression on Danny and informed his teaching and performing practices.
Danny believes in the mission of CMPI and champions the goals of the program. “I believe the classical music world would be much richer artistically with the inclusion of more people from different backgrounds. Music is all about connection and expression. Without a diversity of voices, we lose important pieces in the expression of the human experience. While classical music itself is for everyone and non-exclusionary, the institutions have historically mirrored and reinforced society’s own segregation and injustices. It is important that we work to correct some of these historic injustices, not only because it is good for the music, but because it is the right thing to do.”
Danny notes that CMPI has connected him with “some incredibly talented and hardworking people who are passionate about helping the next generation of musicians.” The program has provided him with the resources to support students of diverse backgrounds and be of special help to those who may have otherwise quit because they lack the means to continue doing what they love.
For the young musicians about to embark on a career in classical music, Danny has this advice about practicing, performing, and professional relationships:
Make sure every moment you spend in the practice room is intentional and accomplishes a specific goal. Take the technical exercises and etudes seriously! Practice technical routines until they become automatic, like breathing. Technicality and discipline are crucial to freedom and expression in performance. You can’t write a poem if you don’t know what the words mean.
Life is too short to spend it complaining and focusing on all the things that went wrong. Practice graciousness and pass it on. Surround yourself with positive people. Remember why you are part of the musical community. Connect with other people who love music just as much as you do.
Make a performance as enriching for yourself as for an audience. Love the music, experience different sounds. Don’t stay in your comfort zone. Challenge your ear and your soul!
Danny Lai headshot photo credit: Todd Rosenberg
Other photos: Danny Lai teaching