From China’s Anhui Province to Los Angeles, California, by way of Indiana, Ohio and Alberta, Tao Ni has meticulously molded himself into one of the most talented cellists of our time. Now at home with the L.A. Phil, Tao is a virtuoso in his own right and as versatile as such young talents tend to come.
Tao was kind enough to make time in his busy schedule mid-season to be the guest of Viva Virtuoso’s second episode, adequately dubbed Hell o’ Cello. His debut jazz piece, after just a few hours of rehearsal, may very well become one of our rare gems on the show. After the few days of fine tuning, a couple of strolls with host Warren Peterson in the Marina, and an eventful afternoon shoot in November, Tao stated, on the record, that playing on the Viva Virtuoso show was “more fun than playing the Walt Disney Concert Hall.” Though we’ve never played that particular venue, we can agree that Episode 2, both production and post-production, was a blast.
We sat down to talk to Tao Ni a few days after the shoot about music, performance, purpose and life in general. Hailing from Anhui Province’s Pearl City, some of this musician’s words are truly pearly of wisdom. But before you read on, don’t forget to swing by our YouTube channel and hit “subscribe” to follow the equally wonderful lineup of guests waiting for you this year.
Viva Virtuoso [VV]: Tao, unsurprisingly, our first question is about where you come from. China has been expanding and changing in so many ways over the past twenty years or so and is perhaps now more exotic to us in the West than ever. We’d like to hear more about where you come from, both musically and geographically. Your life and career began in the city of Bengbu, Anhui Province, China – also known as Pearl City?
Tao Ni [TN]: Yes, I was born there, as were my parents. I moved to Shanghai when I was about 10 years old, where I was enrolled in the Shanghai conservatory preparatory division. The preparatory division starts at grade one, so you have to audition prior to even starting. I auditioned when I was nine and, fortunately, I was able to get in and grow up in one of the most prestigious music schools in China.
I have to say, and this goes for the whole of China, it has totally transformed in the last fifteen to twenty years, in the time since I left. Two years ago, I was able to go back for the first time in seven years and I couldn’t recognize most parts of the city. The place where I used to live has been completely transformed and the whole downtown area of the city has blossomed.
But, while I was growing up there, it did have a strong cultural influence and was known to be a traditional part of the city. It had a strong tradition of its own and its own food, and people were hungry. It was a very good place to grow up.
VV: Speaking of childhood and growing up, what was your first contact with classical music? Do you remember the first classical music or classical piece you’ve heard?
TN: There wasn’t much exposure, because in Bengbu there were very few concerts of the time. There were hardly any classical concerts, so my dad would show me a lot of these western music videos. We still had VHS at the time and he played Yo-Yo Ma’s concerts, and Rostropovich, also a famous cellist, and that’s pretty much how I was exposed to classical music at a young age.
I started by playing electronic keyboard prior to cello with my father, who is also a cellist and now a popular cello teacher for kids who are mostly 12 or 13 years old. I started for about three months on the electronic keyboard before I switched to cello at the age of nine. A year later, that’s what got me into the Conservatory of Shanghai.
VV: You mentioned that your father is a cellist and that he sort of led you into a career in classical music, but you also mentioned in a previous interview that “in the beginning, it was rough.” That he made you put in a lot of hours of practice and that you didn’t necessarily love every minute of it. Tell us a bit about that relationship – with your dad as a teacher, as a fellow musician, and a father. How did that work?
TN: Well, it started pretty much as it does with all kids – dreading the work and the discipline their parents try to put on them. I was a bit forced into practicing and had trouble staying focused, but I was forced into having him as my first teacher, who then set me up so properly. It was highly demanding, constantly reminding me to practice, he forbid me to play outside, and to keep up with the same amount of practice hours, day to day. For the first few years, it was very difficult, and probably the reason I left China at an early age.
VV: But do you think you inherited any of his style? Are you still influenced by him as a teacher?
TN: Because he was always so aware of what the primary issues were, like some of the things I still struggle with, I still remember things he reminded me of. I wish I had fixed these earlier. It has become a long-term thing I need to be aware of. So, I wish I had listened to him more earlier. He was an excellent teacher, very much so.
In fact, when I was in the Tchaikovsky competition two years ago in Russia, probably the biggest competition I’ve taken part in in my life, the only two cellist who were selected from China were myself and another cellist who studied with him. That’s something to be said about his teaching skills.
VV: One thing that Viva Virtuoso host Warren Peterson particularly noticed, while sitting behind you in rehearsals, is a very steady focus, attitude, and breathing. Warren described it as ‘compressive’ and ‘striking’, so we’re wondering how you developed that?
TN: The breathing has always been a part of my cello playing and it was a very essential part. From time to time, I would diminish the way I play or change the way I’m breathing. When I was younger, I used to recognize this inhaling sound through my teeth and I’d bite down. I can’t describe it. It’s something through your teeth, with my teeth sometimes pointing out. It sounds almost like you’re choking yourself. So, I’d remind you to recognize the sound, as it can distract the audience and bring tension to your playing. If you breathe properly, it can be healthy to your cello playing.
VV: Lovely. Playing at this top professional level, you’re always being indicted with new works, from classical, traditional repertoire to very contemporary stuff and you must be able to tell us a few of your approaches to new music. How do you conduct your practice to get new music under your belt, to keep pace with the level and rate it comes at you?
TN: Ever since I’ve started playing with orchestras, I feel I’ve learned so much about different styles in terms of reading specific instruction, on the sheet of music. My first job playing in an orchestra was when I started in the Cincinnati Symphony in 2008 and then I moved to L.A. to start playing with the L.A. Phil in 2012. In the past ten years, I’ve just learned so much. You start identifying new bow techniques, new bravados, to express music in more specific ways, and certain things I’m not supposed to do to offend a style. I’m really grateful that I have so many tools I’ve learned over the years by playing the orchestra. And I’ve been really made different by it.
My approach to quickly getting things down now is in learning to be spontaneous and having quick reactions. The key to go through week by week of learning different music is also listening. The most important thing for any musician, in general, is to have sharp ears, where you can quickly pick up when you’re playing with a pianist or a big assembly.
VV: What are the unlearned pieces that are still high on your list? That handful of pieces still on your bucket list that make you think ‘Hey, one of these days, I’ve got to play this’?
TN: The first thing that comes to my mind, and probably the first thing that comes to a lot of cellists’ minds, is six Bach Cello Suites. Those are the Bible of the cello repertoire, just something momentous for your lifetime. To be able to play them, and not just publicly, is a blessing for me. I would definitely say that’s top of my list. And there are some conciertos, like the Dvořák conciertos, which are always special to play with the orchestra. Then Beethoven’s sonatas, along with other great sonatas, like the Brahms sonatas. They’re always wonderful to work on, especially if you’re working with a good pianist.
VV: As a teenager, you went to a musical boarding school in Indiana and then ended up in Alberta, Canada. From there, the Cincinnati Symphony, now LA, and too many top-level competitions to mention in the meantime. You have a very international experience with many influences. You mentioned diversity, giving yourself room to play and learn, so do you think that all of it put together has influenced your style?
TN: I would say that it certainly did. Actually, particularly over the last few years, through different orchestra tours, as well as the competition in Russia, I had some European culture which adds to the way I play, and every time I meet musicians from Europe, I always say that there are many wonderful players out there and I skip the strong cultural passion and every time I feel like I play differently while I’m there, and when we play in those special concert halls and they add to something different, in a very special way.
VV: But these are a lot of influences to take in. Would you recommend this to others or would you first recommend that they build their own style and then go on to experience that much diversity?
TN: I would say that, at the earliest age, it’s always a good idea to stay focused and, wherever you are, as long as you have a good teacher, a teacher that cares about you, a good school where you are surrounded by a good environment – I think that that would be the most important thing. But, eventually, I think it would be nice to go around and explore different cultures on your own, so that you can keep having the artistic style, choose your. That could really affect your playing in a really positive way, also as a musician.
VV: How much do traditional Chinese music, your cultural heritage, and all the other influences you took in growing up influence your playing and your life today?
TN: That’s a very good question. Now you’ve got me thinking of some of the things that people are complimenting me for doing because of that strong Chinese culture, such as the sink, even the vibrato. That didn’t always work, but certain things have applied really well. And you always have music like Debussy or Riedel, they have really strong Chinese and oriental influence and, in certain areas, they can’t be really effective in that sense.
VV: Performance and classical music, in particular at the level at which you play, are known to be extremely stressful. You opened up about a very intimate topic in previous interviews about having strayed in the wrong direction at one point, under all of that pressure. You mentioned depression and heavy drinking. Did that stress come from outside influences, was it you stressing yourself out, was it others, and how do you, when all is said and done, deal with it?
TN: I would definitely say that the stress comes from the peer pressure, from myself and my parents, and all the certain expectations I’ve tried to meet. Perhaps those things are still very much in my mind and are mostly not true anymore with people who support me and love me in that way. But I would definitely think for everyone who needs that kind of experience to figure out a better way to move on with life and find a different way to approach things, to learn from the past and your mistakes, and move on in a healthier way.
While I was going through depression and the things that I did in the past that I’m not proud of, that’s the time when I discovered Christ. They always say that God has perfect timing. A few years ago, my sponsor supported me throughout, since I left China and through the college years. He came to visit LA in 2014 and brought me a Bible in both Chinese and English, combined into one New King James book. For the first few months, it was all new to me because I was never exposed to it before. I really had the spirituality with me and I was able to find Jesus that year. That has completely changed my life. Doing my best to go to church and attend every week. And that’s the top priority for me now.
VV: Has that new step, that new phase in your life improved your playing and brought something new to it?
TN: I think it has completely changed my playing, for the first time in my life, I feel — you never feel completely free, but I feel as though a certain door that has been opened, there are certain things that I’ve been able to let go. The whole attitude has changed, again, this is not fighting for myself, and trying to contain myself through the music. It’s about communication, about how I good I play music so that it brings to others in the most effective way this feat. This new attitude is something I’m starting to strive to everyday and trying to get better.
VV: The discipline that you’re father had instilled in you, that you seem to wish he had instilled more of, versus that freedom and creativity – how that does that work? What’s the right measure of that, and space to play? What do you think is the right measure for every musician and for yourself to find the right or the best way of playing for themselves?
TN: I think the first thing that we have to overcome, is what I mentioned about not playing for yourself and I think that in a way, you have to find your own voice. These days, kids who start music, who have all this technology on the Internet to watch YouTube, and they can find 30 – 40 versions of the same piece, played by all these great players, but in the end of the day, they’ve lost their identity, because they’re trying to always copy, and try to take from here to there, without trying to figure out what they want in music – and I think it’s so important to have your own voice, and to develop that idea that you should be confident in what you are doing, with your instrument or your voice is something we always must keep in mind.
VV: Some of the names that you have worked with, like Robert Chan, Itzhak Perlman, Joseph Silverstein, James Dunham, and many more. What was some of the advice that you got from these people, and what was the advice that stuck?
TN: All of the things I’ve learned about while playing with them is actually something outside of the plain or the music, it’s about these little things in life, about being professional and organised at rehearsals, being on time. Having an open attitude towards criticism or any suggestions that we make throughout the rehearsals, and those are the things I will always remember, and the things that are most important things in life.
Watch the full episode here.