Erika Lee, Concertmaster for BU’s All-Campus Orchestra!

It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Boston. A herd of spectators make their way in the Tsai Performance Center of Boston University, where the All-Campus Orchestra will be playing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G-minor, also called “Winter Daydreams.” After a few minutes spent flipping through the pages of the concert’s program, the spectators turn their attention to the stage. The lights soften and the concertmaster comes on stage with her head facing the floor, in a humble fashion, followed by the staccato beat of her low heel shoes echoing in the concert hall. Tonight Erika Lee is wearing a fitting black shirt with embolstered sparkles, with a black cardigan over top and black jeans. Her long straight hair is arranged in a loose ponytail and parted in the middle; she has her glasses pushed up her nose.

The orchestra welcomes the conductor by beating the ground with their feet, all in unison. As the conductor makes his entrance, he shakes the hand of concertmaster Lee and bows to the public. He lifts his arms up and gives the concertmaster a signal to start playing the symphony. Lee lifts her chin up, locks the violin between her hand and her neck, and holds her instrument confidently. Her response sparks a chain reaction that travels from the first stand of violins to the last. Arms rise up in an elegant wave and the magic begins. She presses the bow against the strings with a firm hold and a soft look in her eyes. Constantly adjusting her posture to the melody, she rocks back and forth in her chair, while regularly checking on the other musicians.

As concertmaster and violinist for Boston University’s All-Campus Orchestra (ACO), 19-year-old student Lee oversees the string section and plays a complex, varied, and pivotal role within the orchestra. 

According to an article from the Berklee College of Music, in addition to being excellent players with deep knowledge of orchestra repertoire and fantastic abilities as a soloist, concertmasters must also cultivate superb leadership, teaching, and communication skills, as the job involves giving direction, offering guidance, resolving problems, interpreting direction from the conductor for musicians, and vice versa. Lee’s task is not simply musical, but also emotional and interpersonal. In order to lead the orchestra, she needs not only technical knowledge but also extraordinary sensitivity and communication skills.

A few days after the concert, Lee agrees to a sit-down interview right after her two-hour rehearsal with ACO. Sitting on a bench in the College of Fine Arts, I listen to the faint sound of music coming from the concert hall. A couple of minutes later, the music stops, and a flow of students rushes out the door. Lee walks towards me, her head down and violin in hand. Physically drained, she breathes heavily. “Give me a second,” she says, frowning, arranging the messy, dark hair falling over her head, and scrambling through a pile of sheet music.

When Lee heard she had been chosen as concertmaster for the orchestra as a freshman, she was “pleasantly surprised.” Whereas some orchestras emphasize seniority, BU’s orchestra chose “the quality of the music over the image of the orchestra” and cared about “bringing better leadership more than it did about pleasing its members.”

When asked about her advice for being a good leader and guiding the orchestra, Lee explains that being concertmaster means being a liaison and a mediator between the conductor and the rest of the orchestra. “You need to connect the two, but you can’t be complete with one of the two,” Lee said. “You have to guide the orchestra and the conductor towards each other without forcing anyone because that’s not going to make good music.”

Lee points out that handling things in a very “polarized” way is dangerous for leaders. She says, “Some care too much and some do not care at all,” before adding, “You have to care, but you also can't be micromanaging the group because we are supposed to work as a team.” Being a good concertmaster is all about finding that balance. “You can’t correct every single bowing that is wrong, but you also need to know when to be assertive,” Lee said.

Lee explains that as a mediator, the concertmaster should get to know the musicians personally through casual conversations, but also to represent them professionally and take the lead in communicating with the conductor. “It’s the job of the concertmaster to care about the little details that other people may not notice,” Lee said. “Usually, these things are not a glaring alarm in how we make music, but working on specifics is what makes the piece better in the end.”

Lee’s advice for fellow musicians playing in orchestras? “Spend time with your partners inside and outside of rehearsal because you cannot make good music with people that you don’t know.” Lee feels that music is a form of communication and can be compared to a conversation. “It feels easier to talk to your best friend than to talk with a stranger. Not being scared of expressing yourself makes all the difference in the quality of the conversation,” she said. “The same goes for music.” She says that while “not everybody becomes friends," knowing someone and understanding their intentions makes it easier to forgive them when rehearsals are frustrating or issues arise.

Knowing the people in the orchestra is not only vital to the concertmaster; it is also an important part of the conductor’s job. "If you don’t know the person individually, you can't give tailored powerful advice,” Lee said. “The conductor should appeal to the personality of the player and not simply how they play the instrument.” Lee believes that it’s crucial to know if the player needs encouragement to empower them or if they need technical advice.

One of the challenges of being concertmaster? “There’s a lot of added pressure — that sometimes comes from yourself — to care about what you’re doing more than the people around you are comfortable caring about,” Lee said. Although these responsibilities can be overwhelming, she feels that being concertmaster is “incredibly rewarding” in the end. “I think after the concert I feel that feeling of accomplishment more strongly than anyone else,” Lee said.

Lee says her favorite piece that she played with the orchestra was Tchaikovsky 1. “It required a lot of maturity and endurance,” Lee said. She explains that the orchestra didn’t tackle this piece in “the most conventional way” as it took time to “accept the piece and make it our own.” Lee says that before exploring “all the wonderful things that aren’t written on the page,” the orchestra had to learn all the notes and become comfortable with the music first, which she believes only happened in the last rehearsal. “It’s that exponential growth that is dangerous but also exciting,” Lee said.

As for her favorite composer, Lee confesses, “I’m such a romantic, so I would have to say, Tchaikovsky.” Tchaikovsky 4 was the first symphony she played with COYO. The orchestra took the piece all over China the summer after Lee’s freshman year, playing in 4 concert halls in 10 days. Although Lee loved playing abroad, Severance Hall, Cleveland’s concert hall, remains close to her heart. “It is sensitive and allows for great acoustics and a lot of detailed expressions that other concert halls can’t pick up on,” Lee said.

Lee explains that her mother played a big role in her music education. She recalls moving memories of violin lessons as a child, with her mother by her side. Lee remembers that, during every lesson, her mother would come in with a notebook and take notes of the music professor’s advice, even though she had no prior music background. Once the lesson was over and it was time to practice, she would read the notes she had taken to her daughter.  “It’s very inspiring to look back at that,” Lee said. “She did not know what this information meant but she committed herself to sure that she did as much as she could.”

Most people don’t know that Lee quit the violin at the end of middle school, before coming back to it. “I got distracted, lost focus, and derailed with other passions,” Lee said. “I forgot the relationship that I had with violin and what it had given me.” Along the way, Lee realized that it was the pressure to be the best at her instrument that was keeping her from enjoying music. She realized she wanted the violin to be a part of her life again, even if that meant not exceeding every high expectation she had set for herself. “Quitting is an extreme way to take the pressure off, but it helped me rediscover my connection to violin and I came back healthier,” Lee said.

Lee’s coming back is quite a success story. With the mindset that she had “nothing to lose,” she decided to audition for the renowned Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra (COYO) and got in. “Not feeling the pressure to be good enough when I auditioned made all the difference,” Lee said. “I came in with an open mind and performed better.” COYO gave Lee a new community and networking opportunities with older musicians “immensely committed to their instrument.” She says, “I was able to let go of all the expectations that I had for my instrument and that people had for myself.” Following this experience, Lee also became concertmaster of the Strongsville High School’s orchestra in her sophomore year.

Around freshman year, Lee acquired more tangible leadership in music through teaching private violin lessons and serving as a residential counselor at the Baldwin Wallace String Orchestra Summer Camp. She is convinced that mentoring younger musicians helps her reflect on why she herself is making music. Lee loves telling her story to children that are unsure if they should stick to music or not. She says it’s a way for her to remind herself of how much she loves her instrument. “It’s hard to convince these kids why they should play the instrument and show them how much you believe in your art if you don’t think it is important yourself,” Lee said.

Lee has found inspiring role models to look up to throughout her career in music. Among them, she cites Brett Mitchell, director for COYO, as “one of the most influential people” that made her “open (her) eyes to music.” Before every concert, Mitchell gave a 5-minute inspirational speech to remind the orchestra of what their attitude toward music should be. “All the technical details are driven by the bigger picture — that is, the people that are with you during the journey,” Lee said. One of the biggest lessons Mitchell taught her? To play not with each other, but for each other. Lee explains that Mitchell told the orchestra not to play for the audience that fills the seats, but for their colleagues. According to Lee, Mitchell also stressed that one should not be in an orchestra to be “the spotlight,” but to support and grow with their friends. “It’s easy to want to be the diva, but if you want to make good music, you need to be selfless and collaborate,” Lee said.

Aside from her passion for music, Lee is a woman of many talents. She says she can clear 40 lines in two minutes when playing Tetris. We’ll hold her to that! Most importantly, Lee is on the university’s fencing club. You can find her practicing at FitRec and participating in tournaments in colleges nearby during the weekends. Because she lives in West Campus, Lee loves to explore the Coolidge Corner and Allston areas. She suggests trying the Dolphin Bay Taiwanese restaurant on 72 Brighton Ave.

We wish Lee the best of luck in her future endeavors and can’t wait to see her play at the next All-Campus Orchestra concert on April 30th!


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