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"Simply Sarah!" Spotlight on Classical Music's Sarah Chang

By Spotlight Central

originally published: 07/22/2020

"Simply Sarah!" Spotlight on Classical Music

Sarah Chang is an award-winning violinist who is considered one of the most captivating young artists in the classical music world. Recognized as a child prodigy, Chang’s debut album was released when she was 10, and she went on to record and perform with some of the most prominent orchestras in the USA and around the globe.

Spotlight Central recently had a chance to chat with Chang about a variety of subjects — her New Jersey upbringing, memories of her mentor Isaac Stern, her recollections of her pioneering 2002 North Korean concert, as well as what she’s been up to these days.

Spotlight Central: You were born in Philadelphia and raised in both Cherry Hill and Voorhees, NJ. We understand you’re a Philadelphia Phillies fan, but have you ever considered yourself — or do you still consider yourself — a “Jersey Girl?”

Sarah Chang: I do, I really do — but I’m both, because of those formidable years when you’re going through your teens and every decision really sort of molds you into the person that you’re becoming. I spent my teen years in New Jersey, so that means a lot to me. That’s where I first started dating, that’s where I first learned how to drive — my very first license was a Jersey license — and that stays with me always.

But with my teams, though, I have to say I’m a lifetime Phillies fan, and, last year, I became an Eagles season ticket holder. Weirdly enough, though, when it comes to basketball, I’m a Miami Heat fan — only because the first basketball game I ever went to was in Miami with my brother — so it’s really funny how you can form an allegiance to a team because you have a certain sentimental memory attached to it.

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Spotlight Central: Your parents were both musicians. Your mom was a composer and your dad was a violinist and music educator who came to the United States from Korea. What else can you tell us about them?

Sarah Chang: My parents came to the United States to study. Dad went to Juilliard to study with Miss Dorothy DeLay, who later became my violin teacher. Mom went to the University of Pennsylvania where her composition teacher was George Crumb, and George Crumb was actually the person who named me! Mom was one of his students when she gave birth to me in the hospital and, apparently, before she was about to go home they said, “You still haven’t named your baby.” Mr. Crumb was there visiting, they brainstormed names, and he came up with Sarah — so I get to credit him with my name.


Spotlight Central: We read that your mom taught you how to play one-fingered melodies on the piano at age three, but when you were four, you got your first violin — a 1/16th size instrument. How small of a violin is that?

Sarah Chang: I’m not exactly sure how many inches long it is, but it’s so small it could be a Christmas tree ornament! It’s so tiny, and it doesn’t make much of a sound at all, but it truly is the most adorable little toy — you really can’t call it anything else. I still have all the violins of every size that I ever played, along with amazing memories which are attached to every one of them, and that one is just adorable.


Spotlight Central: At the age of five, you auditioned for Juilliard and after you were accepted, spent your weekends in NYC attending music classes. At age six, however, you started studying outside school with the great violinist, Isaac Stern. In looking back, what do you think is the most important thing you learned from Mr. Stern?

Sarah Chang: What I really loved about Mr. Stern was not just the fact that I started taking lessons with him when I was six years old, but more than that, I started so early and I was the youngest kid at Juilliard who was already starting to concertize and record and travel and tour — and if you’re not careful, you can get a pretty big head pretty quickly because people are telling you that you’re the best thing since sliced bread — and Mr. Stern was the only person who would knock me down to earth! I would go and I would play for him and he would tell me, “Hey, you’re playing out of tune,” and he would really drill the basics into me. Sometimes there were lessons where I would prepare a Brahms concerto, a Sibelius concerto, a Mendelssohn concerto — just because I had all those concertos coming up for concerts — but he would make me play scales for two hours just to bring me down to basics. He was really the only person in my life who took the time to look out for me long-term big-picture wise, and I’m really grateful to him for that.

"Simply Sarah!" Spotlight on Classical Music

Spotlight Central: At eight years old, you started performing with organizations including the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but at age 10, your first album, Debut, was released and started climbing the Billboard classical chart. Do you ever recall feeling overwhelmed recording that album at such a young age, or do you remember it as being more of a positive experience for you?

Sarah Chang: I remember this: I was nine when I recorded that — and by the time they had edited and released it, I had already turned 10 — but I remember I was nine when I recorded it and I was still using a 1/4-size violin because I was a small kid. I remember the recording company, the producers, the sound engineers, my parents, and my teacher all having a meeting and saying, “Listen, she’s gonna change into a 1/2 size violin next year, so should we wait to record the album?” The 1/4 size is such a small instrument — not that a 1/2 size is that much better, but at least with a 1/2 size they were thinking you could capture a little more substance in terms of the sound. So they were discussing, “Should we wait until she’s a little bit bigger and her hands are a little bit bigger and she can switch up to a 1/2 size violin?” and it was decided, “No, she’s ready to go now. Let’s do it now with the 1/4 size.” But they had never miked a 1/4 size violin before, so I remember we spent loads of time just getting sounds — testing sounds and getting levels — because nobody had ever recorded a 1/4 size violin before.

And so, yes, I remember that, but I also remember doing the recording itself. That recording was done in New York with piano accompaniment — and it was all repertoire that I had grown up with and that I had chosen because I was so comfortable with it — and I remember the whole experience as just being a lot of fun.


Spotlight Central: Even though you had such success as a young musician, isn’t it true that as a child you wanted to be a gymnast?

Sarah Chang: I did! I was on the gymnastics team in school, and my first TV appearance, actually, wasn’t with the violin. I was, I think, five or six and there was a BBC program that came to my school to film the gymnastics team because we were doing well —and so, yes, my television debut was actually with gymnastics, not the violin.


Spotlight Central: You attended high school in New Jersey and, of course, went to college at Juilliard in NYC. In 2002, however, you traveled to North Korea where you participated in a joint concert featuring musicians from both North and South Korea. You referred to that experience as being both “frightening and exhilarating at the same time.” What did you mean by that?

Sarah Chang: That was my very first time going into a country which, to be frank, is very much a closed-up country and there wasn’t, and still isn’t, a lot of information known about it. Pretty much everything I’d heard about it, aside from some brief CNN news footage, involved stories my grandparents told me. Back then, my grandparents had relatives in the North, but they were living in the South and, literally, the border went up one day and that was it — all contact was over after that — so I had heard these stories growing up. And, also, before you even go to North Korea, as a US citizen you have to register with the US State Department and let them know you’re going. And the first thing they tell you is, “Hey, if you get into trouble, we can’t even help you because we don’t even have a US embassy in North Korea!”


Spotlight Central: So now we understand the “frightening” part of your quote!

Sarah Chang: Right! So you go to North Korea where you know there’s no US Embassy and you’re really on your own and then, on top of that, after you land they go through your stuff and they take away your laptop, your cellphone, and anything else you have which would enable you to communicate with the outside world. I remember them taking everything away from me and saying, “You’ll get this back when you leave,” so you literally have zero way of contacting anybody back home. And then, they also have armed soldiers stationed outside your hotel room. They tell you it’s for your protection, but everyone knows it’s so you won’t go out and wander by yourself. It’s just a completely different world.


Spotlight Central: But it was “exhilarating” too, because you got to do something which has so rarely ever been done?

Sarah Chang: At this point, actually, it had never been done before. These were the pre-New York Philharmonic touring days — I know Maestro Maazel went there, but that was a little later — so this was before any sort of effort had ever been made to have a joint North Korea/South Korea concert on stage. And for someone who is a US citizen with South Korean parents, standing on a North Korean stage with a joint orchestra was the very first time I really understood the magnitude of what music could really do. This wasn’t just a concert. This project had so many layers — political layers, musical layers, artistic layers, creative layers — interwoven through it that it was truly something special, and I’m very glad I could be a small part of it.


Spotlight Central: In an interview, you once described different kinds of violinists in words — for example, you mentioned “passionate” violin players, “shy” violinists, and “elegant” violin players. How would you characterize yourself as a violinist?

Sarah Chang: I think, overall, I’m a very confident player. I love the big Romantic concertos, so I think a lot of it has to do with the repertoire. One can’t play Mozart the same way you play Brahms, and you can’t play Tchaikovsky the same way you play Beethoven. So part of it is having to be a chameleon — while keeping your own personality and your personal style — but also honoring the composer, and being adaptable and flexible enough that you realize you’re here to be the composer’s messenger more than anything else.

"Simply Sarah!" Spotlight on Classical Music

Spotlight Central: We talked about your 1/16 size violin earlier, but the full size violin you play these days is a 1717 model which Isaac Stern helped you choose. You’ve told a story about trying out a bunch of different world-class instruments at Carnegie Hall along with one violin which Mr. Stern took out of his safe for you to try, and that’s the one you ultimately ended up choosing. What was it about that particular instrument that made it the right one for you?

Sarah Chang: Instant chemistry with the instrument! I loved the fact, even back then when I first laid my hands on it — it’s a Guarneri, so it has this really deep, powerful, dramatic lower two strings, but somehow it also has this really sweet almost angelic quality on the upper two strings — so it’s like this amazingly beautiful blend of a Guarneri and a Stradivarius mixed into one instrument that you rarely ever get. And I also loved the fact that Mr. Stern knew me — he knew me better than I knew myself — and he just collected that violin and took it to Carnegie Hall. You know, he had all these instruments laid out on stage for me and I didn’t know which was which and I was just playing all of them, but he just knew in the back of his head that this one was going to be a good fit for me, and it was.


Spotlight Central: When you play, we’re told you use a variety of violin bows — you don’t just use one — so, for instance, maybe you’ll use a certain one when you play Mozart and, maybe, a different one when you play Brahms, etc. You once even said that a bow is “even more personal than a great violin.” Why is that?

Sarah Chang: Because the bow pulls the sound — every nuance, every finessed note — everything that you pull from the violin. Literally, the right hand is as important as the left, if not more, so you’re right: I change bows all the time depending on what I play. I have my trusted, sturdy — what I call — “war horse concerto” bows which can range from several Peccatte and several Sartorys that I bring out for playing Brahms and Tchaikovsky, to some slightly lighter French bows for Mozart. And then I’ll use a slightly lighter one for playing Beethoven and a really different one for Bach, one that’s a little bit wider than the others. So it’s very personal. With a great violin, I could give you my violin and you would sound amazing on it…


Spotlight Central: You’re being a little too generous saying that!

Sarah Chang: [Laughs] No! Anyone would sound great on that violin because it’s a great instrument. But the weird thing about bows is that a bow that works great for you — with your arm pressure, your elbow height, your arm length, your finger technique, the lightness or the heaviness of how you hold the bow, the balance that you have, all of that combined — what sounds amazing for you, could sound horrible for me. So it’s extremely personal; a bow can really make or break everything.

Spotlight Central: Now that live concerts have been postponed for the time being, what have you been up to?

Sarah Chang: I am loving spending time with my dog, Chewie, and finally having a regular routine with him — I’m really enjoying that! And I’m spending a lot of time with my family, too, which is a great thing, but we’re all still trying not to kill each other. Plus, I’m trying to learn how to cook, which is something I never got to do because I was always living in hotels and never had a reason to learn, or even had the time to. So I’m slowly learning. This pandemic might not be the right reason to learn all that stuff, but we’re all trying to make the best of the current situation.


Spotlight Central: Do you have any words of wisdom for music lovers who are missing live concerts these days?

Sarah Chang: That’s a great question. We are all in this together. We’re all wondering when we’ll be able to go back to concert halls, and to be on stage and play — not just with our colleagues — but also having that interaction with an audience. I miss that. We’re seeing all these online live-steaming video concerts — which are wonderful and really great — but, as a performer, it’s not the same as having a live audience where you’re sharing this live electricity with all the people who are there with you. So we’re all waiting and hoping that we’ll get back to some semblance of normalcy very soon, and I think that when we all do finally get back to the concert hall, it will just be that much sweeter.

"Simply Sarah!" Spotlight on Classical Music

To learn more about Sarah Chang, please go to

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