Indianapolis Competition winner Sirena Huang joins Eric Mrugala on the Violin Podcast to talk about her recent experience in the competition. Sirena also shares her violin tips and how she approaches her practice.
Indianapolis Competition winner Sirena Huang joins Eric Mrugala on the Violin Podcast to talk about her recent experience in the competition. Sirena also shares her violin tips and how she approaches her practice.
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About Violin Podcast The Violin Podcast is a new podcast that was created in early 2020 to be used as a resource for violinists all around the world to hear professionals in the violin world for practice tips, career advice, and adapting to an ever changing musical landscape. VP host and violinist Eric Mrugala interviews violinists from around the world discussing various topics such as practice tips, career advice, entrepreneurship, and more. The Violin Podcast aims to be more than a podcast. It's a community where we can engage in conversation about the violin, and how to navigate as a musician in the 21st century. Our mission is to bring violinists together and create a useful resource for violinists and musicians alike to help them make an impact in music.
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Eric Mrugala: Friends, I have Sirena Huang violinist, who just recently won the Indianapolis Violin Competition. And if you live under a rock, if you don't know what this competition is, it's a famous violin competition, started by Joseph Gingold, and it's a competition that happens every four years, and I have the winner of this competition on the violin podcast as my special guest today. Thanks for joining us, Sirena.
Sirena Huang: Thanks for having me Eric.
Eric Mrugala: So right before we actually got on the violin podcast just recording this interview, you were talking about how you recently were in Carnegie Hall, just watching, the Berlin Phil Harmonic perform their recent concert tour around the US and you got to actually reconnect with one of the jury members, which so happens to be the concert master of the Berlin Philharmonic. Can you share with us that experience?
Sirena Huang: Yeah, it was really great because when I was at Indianapolis, we were not allowed to talk to any of the jury members. And during my whole, what, two or three weeks there, I didn't have a chance to talk to him. But afterwards, after the competition, we were messaging each other back and forth, and he was very, very nice, very supportive of my playing.
And, it was just so cool to get to talk to him because of course, growing up I was listening to the Berlin Phil, and have loved his playing and it was just so cool to be able to communicate with him directly. So then we went to the concert, or I went to the concert and I went backstage to meet him and he introduced me to, you know, just other members of the orchestra.
And, I met some people backstage that I also recognized. So it was, it was a really good time.
Eric Mrugala: So I want you to talk us through the whole process of you deciding to actually participate in the competition to all the way, you know, you getting into the final round. And we'll talk about some of the repertoire that you performed in each stage of the round. Talk us through the decision that led you to compete in this competition, because you have done competitions in the past, right? But I want, I want to get your take on that so that our audience can learn a little more.
Sirena Huang: Yeah, absolutely. So I sent in my pre-screening tape in March. I had thought about and, you know, planned on applying for it since like December or January, I would say.
So this whole process is like a, I don't know, 9 or 10 month long journey. It was actually, because I think what I heard was that this year the application for the Indianapolis was more, they had more requirements than any other year. So they had, okay, let's see if I can remember this correctly. They had Mozart violin concerto, first movement, and they needed two movements from Bach, and I believe it was, one Paganini caprice and then a full concerto. So I think that's it. So that is actually a quite a large amount of repertoire that you need for just the pre-screening.
I think, like what I said, they, this was the first, maybe, the first time that they had so many repertoires required for the application. And also they had the requirement that like, you know, for, for these in, in between the movements, like for Bach for example, or for the concerto, it had to all be done in the same concert, in the same performance.
It's not something you can do a take one day and then do the other movement the next day or something like that. So anyway, the application itself was a lot to prepare and also they had, I think, three recommendation letters that was required as well. But anyway, I finally was able to send it in March and this competition means a lot to me because my family kind of saw this competition like the Olympics; it being held once every four years. And when I was like, I don't know, like nine years old , I would just kind of gather around with my family and we would watch the live streams of this competition. So, I really watched it growing up once every four years. It was actually like more exciting then watching the Olympics because it was violin.
Eric Mrugala: Right. Yeah, of course. It's so funny we're talking about this because the World Cup is happening.
Sirena Huang: I know, right? It's happening, right?
Eric Mrugala: Yeah. In Qatar. And it's so weird. First of all, it's weird that it's like in like November. Normally it's like in the summer, that's weird.
But yeah. But I do very much understand that a lot of violinists that I talk to, you know, competitions and winning orchestra auditions are kind of like Olympics because they don't come around often.
Sirena Huang: No, they don't. There's so many factors that are involved too. I mean, there's just, yeah.
But, as a nine year old when I was like just starting to play sort of watching people that can actually play these repertoire and are ready to perform and all that stuff, it, it was, it was a really cool learning experience for me and when I was young, I was like, oh my God, what if one day, I could just be in the first round.
It would be really cool, just to participate in some way. And the last couple of times I like the, four years ago, the previous time, I wasn't able to apply. I had concerts at that time, so, the timing never really worked out. This was my first time applying for Indianapolis.
And I really wanna do it because I think this would be one of my last times because they had an age limit. I'm 28, so it's like . I was like, I this, I gotta try this. You know, this is my last shot.
Eric Mrugala: You're like, I'm getting old.
Sirena Huang: Yeah, I know.
Eric Mrugala: Basically getting old these youngsters, that's, that's amazing.
let's dive into some of this repertoire, because when I was watching your recordings, you had Brahms second violin sonata, which is a dear favorite of mine because that's actually one of the first Brahms sonatas I played with my wife in school.
Sirena Huang: No way!
Eric Mrugala: She's a pianist yeah, so I really connected and actually when we were, when I was prepping for this interview to talk to you. I was like, oh wait, she played Brahms second violin sonata now. Okay, let's check this out. And then she was like, oh, my wife was like, "oh well, wonderful colors. Oh, that's so great. Oh, , I love this." Right? .
Sirena Huang: Oh sweet!
Eric Mrugala: Yeah. And then, and then you also played Bach C major, which I definitely wanna touch upon also, cuz that's like a gargantuan fugue.
I know how difficult that fugue is, but I want, I can see the stress on your face already, just like, just reminded of that fugue . But I, I do wanna talk about , the repertoire, do you select the repertoire or do the jury members, like once you finish the pre-screening, do they like, select the repertoire for you and you kinda have to present it during the competition?
How does that work?
Sirena Huang: Yeah, it's a good question. This is actually quite standard for most competitions. Uh, so the pre-screening, even the pre-screening, they have pretty standard , specific repertoire they require. but once you get to the competition they are quite specific about what they want.
Sometimes, so most of the time, actually, I should say, let's say if you're playing Bach, they give you a list of Bach that you are allowed to choose from. And Paganini is different. Paganini, you can just choose any Paganini, and I think you could also choose last or the summer by Ernst and also Milstein's 'Paganiniana or something. But, either way, most of the time it's, okay, here's a composer, and this is a list of, repertoire that you're allowed to choose from. So in the second round, let's say Brahms Sonata, it was the romantic Sonata category, I believe. So it was a list of romantic sonatas that you can choose from.
And I chose Brahm Sonata number two. And you could choose, the list probably, I would say is like, I don't know, 10 sonatas or something. And you could choose from that. Again, same thing with the final round concerto. You could choose, they give you a list and the Mozart concerto. So, , it's in a way, there is freedom, because they give you many, many options and you choose the one that speaks the most to you.
Um, but. at the same time. It's not like you can just play anything. There's also a certain amount of time that they want you to play. There's also a maximum where you're not allowed to go over that certain time. So it's freedom in the sense that you can choose, from what piece from this particular composer they require to play from.
But, um, yeah, you, it's not like you can just decide your own program completely either. So I think this was actually quite a good balance in terms of the freedom to choose what I wanna play and also the kind of composers and works and styles that they want to hear. But I think that's typically pretty standard for most international competitions. Think I know maybe one or two competitions that are half an hour of whatever you wanna play kind of thing. But typically it's more like this kind of procedure.
Eric Mrugala: Yeah. So there's definitely certain . Parameters to the competition. It's not like, yeah. , you know, you're kinda like out in limbo.
You have to kind of choose whatever. I, I kind of like that, you have the options. You've given the list. This is what the jury wants to hear in this competition. And then, you said 10 sonata, so that's a healthy selection of what you can do. It's not three or four and everybody has to play the same thing. Which I appreciate because, it's not so much about like the technical ability and like trying to micromanage the musicality of like one or two specific sonatas that the competition, you know, finalists choose. It's like, okay, yeah, I have options, which is really nice.
Sirena Huang: Yeah, exactly. And also they talk about, remember Jamie Laredo when he's the head of the jury, he was talking about they chose this repertoire because they want to see different, sides of you as a musician. So because let's say they say, okay, play anything you want for 30 minutes, you could play 30 minutes of one style, but they wanna make sure that they hear all sorts of different styles, different periods of time, different composers.
So that's why they have, okay, here's a romantic sonata, here's a classical sonata, here's, you know, all of that kind of stuff. . Yeah.
Eric Mrugala: That's awesome. And I, I wanna dive into, we just talked about Brahms, but you also, we have the three bees that you perform. Beethoven. Beethoven. You performed the Brahms and then the Bach, right?
Sirena Huang: And Bartok!
Eric Mrugala: And Bar. Ok. Yes, of course. Yeah, of course. The Bartok. Yeah. So Four Bees, . Yeah, there you go. Was that, that was probably not a conscious decision, right? ?
Sirena Huang: I, well, you know, I used to, when I was young, I. Always like talk about like the four B composers, and these were the four. So I guess it's not really a, a conscious decision, but these are like my favorite composers, so Of course.
Eric Mrugala: Yeah. Yeah. , I wanna dive into this Bach C major because Yeah. Yeah. Normally, on most competitions, they don't require you to perform the entire Sonata. They normally as, like, if it's a sonata, it's just like the first movement and then the fugue. And for those of you who are not familiar with the Bach Sonatas and Partitas highly recommend that you, that you listen to them.
I know we have some beginners who listen on the violin podcast, some amateurs and also some professional violence, and teachers. The Bach C major is very dear to me because, I remember back in school I was, my teacher told me, you're gonna memorize this. See major fugue. Do you have a good memory?
You're gonna perform it? I go, wait, this like seven, eight pages long? What are you talking about? ? Right? Yeah. God. , and, um, I know how difficult it is. So, and not to mention if, if I read correctly, um, you also had covid during the, during the pandemic. Yeah. Uh, not the pandemic, but during the competition.
Yeah. So you played the boxing. With Covid and recovering from Covid. So talk us through what was going on when, when you found out you got the test result of Covid and you have to perform this competition. Not to mention this fugue, which is just Aine movement.
Sirena Huang: Yeah, no, um, , it was, I mean, this whole journey was just so crazy.
Um, . So I never got covid this entire time when this whole pandemic started. Um, and the first time I get it would be opening ceremony day of a Indianapolis. Of course, , um, . Yeah. And I mean, I don't know, it probably got it at the airport or something, even though I was wearing my mask and being cautious the whole time.
It just, you just, you just don't know what these things. But anyway, um, yeah, the day before I tested, I started getting, A scratchy throat and I was like, well, maybe it's cuz I had spicy food the day before and I was like, there's, yeah, probably that's what happened. Just, it didn't even cross my mind that this could be a possibility because I know I was being cautious and I don't know, just I haven't gotten it at all.
So I just, I just didn't think about it. Um, and then on opening ceremony day, we all, cuz there was supposed to be like a, Gala and, um, we were all supposed to get dressed up and go and have a nice dinner with everyone. But, um, and early that day, I was supposed to rehearse with my pianist. Um, this was on a Friday and first round begins on Sunday and goes all the way to Wednesday just to give you a little bit of a reference.
Um, and on Friday, . I was like, wait, I felt really warm last night and I think I might like, my temperature probably rose. So I was like, let me just double check. So I took the Covid test and um, and yeah, lo and behold, , I was positive and I freaked out. I mean, I was, my, the first thought that came to my mind was whether or not I just have to go home now because, um, there's, yeah, I.
My worst nightmare would be like, okay, I had prepared like nine months for this competition and I get covid and then I have to go home. Um, so I called the executive director Glenn Qu, and I said that I have Covid. And I was like begging. I was like, can I please still play though? Like please don't send me home.
Um, and so this was Friday and he said, well, you just basically made the cut because you need a five day quarantine. . Um, and so Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, oh, sorry, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Wednesday was the last day of, uh, first rounds. So he basically moved me to the last participant.
Um, of everybody. So I played Wednesday night at like 7:00 PM um, and so that would've just fulfilled a five day requirement. And ,
Eric Mrugala: that must have been mentally exhausting for you for, for, I can only imagine that you have all this, you know, pressure of getting ready for nine to 10 months and then you're like one of the last participants of the first round man that it just shows how you have to be mentally fit for these kind of competitions too, because anything can go your way. And that's something that I teach my students, Sirena, that one day you're not gonna have the luxury of warming up.
I want you to speak to the student. I want you please, I want you to speak to my students right now, how important it's to be prepared all the time. , because , this is like proof.
Sirena Huang: Yeah, no, no, no. This is, uh, actually a really good point because, um, preparing, especially for this first round, cause I know personally I felt that this first round was in many ways, the most demanding round.
I mean, playing. The two movements of the Bach and the Paganini two Paganini and the Mozart Sonata. You know, and also I included a short encore piece, uh, but it was mainly like the unaccompanied works back to back. That was like with no rest at all. It is just like, it's so demanding and you need so much concentration in order to prepare for it.
I woke up at 8:00 AM or 9:00 AM , for the week before the competition and without warming up, just playing through the entire first round. The point of that is to not warm up to play and to see where you're at because that's where your real like level is. Because when you warm up and your violin sounds good after a couple hours, like that's not as accurate.
It's like, okay, if without warming up you can sound like this, uh, and you try to raise that bar, then you know that when you're actually performing with a little bit more adrenaline and you probably would have warmed up a little bit. Then it's only gonna add from there. But to always raise that bar to know where your, like basic line is with these pieces, I tend to find it very helpful to just run it through, run through these pieces, es especially before like a big performance, run it through and in a situation , where it feels very uncomfortable.
And if you can play. . Well, under those circumstances then you'll be okay. You, you, it's also, it builds your, you know, confidence with these pieces too. Um, then, you know, , you know that at, at a competition or at a big performance or something, you're gonna feel a lot better because you've already put yourself in these uncomfortable situations.
Um, cuz a lot of times in, in like a practice room, like no one's there judging you. Uh, no one's there listening to you. If you sound bad, it's okay. You know, like you're, you're super comfortable. .
Eric Mrugala: But actually it's funny, I actually, I had a question. For you, did you have lessons or did you have a specific coach in preparation for this competition? Or half all you, guide us through that.
Sirena Huang: This time was a little different. Because the previous competitions that I had done, I were, I was all, I was in school through all of those. This is the first competition I did that I wasn't in school. And during the pandemic and everything, it was difficult for me. You know, find a place and time to see my former teachers as well. And so basically this competition, I had to do everything on my own. . I had to prepare everything by myself and there were definitely challenges to that because I had to be my own teacher and that was such an important learning experience for me, uh, to know that, to have my own standards right, to, to know what I think is good enough. Not what my teacher thinks is good enough, but what I think is good and if I find an issue, I have to figure out how to work it through, how to find a solution to it, and not be dependent on somebody else.
And a lot of times actually, I thought about what my teachers had taught me and I often think that's what like great teachers do, right? They teach you to become you're best teacher. And, I think my teachers had given me so many tips and tools and ways of looking at music in a way that when I was on my own, I put all of those ideas and thoughts and tools and techniques into my mind. And I picked and choose.
I was like, wait, I remember when we worked on this in. I don't know, in a Mendelssohn concerto. And then I was like, I'm gonna apply it for this, you know? So I was putting all of these, this knowledge that I learned from school together and making it my own. so this was my first time, uh, you know, preparing all of this repertoire, uh, on my own.
Of course, there were some pieces that I had. Played before I had learned when I was back in school. So there are, uh, some influences from teachers and things like that. Uh, but there were also pieces, for example, the Brahms Sonata number two, I learned completely on my own. I had no lessons from beginning to end.
Um, so that one was like really, really, uh, all the musical styles and stuff was. Just formed by me, basically.
Eric Mrugala: So that was, that was a pure Sirena Huang interpretation. Like that's something that you started .
Sirena Huang: Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course.
Eric Mrugala: No, but no, I really, I really admired that Brahms because, you actually challenged me while I was watching. I'm like, oh, she did such a unique bowing there. I'm like, I think I might wanna do that too. I think that's also the point of competition, just to see what's possible and to use like an old classic and to, you know, how does this piece sound in 2022 back compared to, how does this piece sound back in the 1950s?
I think that it's an evolution of our interpretation. As we gain more knowledge, we get more scholarship towards these pieces.
So I want us to talk about the tips and tools and tricks for violin playing towards the end of the podcast. But I do wanna dive into some of the other things that you have worked on in your professional violin career, such as, the TED Talk that you've done many years ago.
I want you to share with us what this TED Talk was about and why this particular topic really inspired you to do this TED.
Sirena Huang: Yeah, definitely. Um, so, wow, this was many, many years ago. I was 11 years old, uh, and when they invited me to, um, give a talk at Ted and, um, at that time as an 11 year old, I.
Had no idea what Ted talk was. , I have to admit that. I was like, okay, so I'm gonna go there and perform, I guess. Um, but , but then I realized that like, oh wait, people like actually talk here. Like you don't just play, you have to say something also. Um, so you have to sound smart. Yeah, it sounds smart. I was like 11 years old, so I was like, I don't know what's happening,
Um, and so I was kind of talking it through with my dad and I was like, all right, these people are smart. what can we offer on the day? so we thought about what TED stood for. It was technology, entertainment, and design. And I thought that it might be fun to relate violin and violin playing to these three aspects.
So we kind of, came up with a little speech. Like the first paragraph was, , was technology, how the instrument works, and the next part was the entertainment. What we were trying to convey when we were playing and the design, which is how the instrument itself is designed and how the performances are designed and things like that.
So I was just trying to make these connections and stuff. And I also did some playing. And this was the first time I ever spoke in front of an audience, really. I had no skills with public speaking whatsoever. But I will say, um, when I was, when I got on stage and there was like, I don't know.
1500 people, , in the audience.
Eric Mrugala: That's intimidating for an 11 year old.
Sirena Huang: Yeah. I was like about to pee my pants. Like I was like . I was like, what is happening? No one told me this is what I signed up for. .
Eric Mrugala: Oh my gosh. That's intimidating for an 11 year old. Yeah.
Sirena Huang: Yeah. But at the same time, I remember after like I feel okay playing in front of all these people, but then I gotner like worried about speaking in front of these people.
Cause I didn't have that op like that experience. but. . I remember after my first piece, people were like, cheering and I was like, wait, they like me . And then I got like super excited and I forgot that I was like going to be talking to all these people. So anyway, it became, actually a really fun experience and I ended up not feeling nervous a couple minutes in, which is good.
But, and I was so surprised by how many views this video ended up having after I did it. Cuz to me it was just like I was just doing a performance and I had to talk, but I didn't think. like the setting or like what I was performing on like this, like what TED talk really meant. But cuz I mean, was 11 years old.
But I did also attend some other talks that year before my turn. Like I went to Al Gore's, um, talk about global warming.
Eric Mrugala: Oh yeah that's a classic one.
Sirena Huang: I was there in the audience like, whoa. Probably like question marks all over my mind, but it's still like, I was like, wait, that's Al Gore. That's crazy. . Yeah. Um, so anyway, I, I did attend some of the, uh, the talks and stuff.
Eric Mrugala: You touched upon a lot of things. Oftentimes musicians forget or don't want to do, like public speaking, you know? Yeah. I find myself doing a lot more public speaking, especially having so many students you're talking to parents. You have to make sure you present yourself with knowledge, and you have to know the piece. And I always mentioned that to my students, that you have to be able to understand where this person, where this composer's coming from. Like at least know the basics of like where he or she was born, where in the world was this composer located at? These like those basic minimums because what's so great about music is that music and music history really tie in together, and that's something I'm passionate about. My wife is a theory person. I, I remember doing like Shankarian analysis in. grad school, and it's just like, she's, she's the one to do that.
But I, I thrived in like my Mozart Haydn and Beethoven seminar. So that, that was my thing. So, I always talk about and you know, embarrassingly when, teachers ask, when students ask me, oh, can you teach me? Like, you know, like, what the chords, I'm like, I can do like the basics.
I teach where like I have to is like five. You know? You know, and then like, you know, you have like these students who. You know, during the why phase, like why, why, why is that? I'm like, I need like an hour to explain this concept before I do that concept. ,
it's like, like scared and cringing every time. They say why?
Like, don't ask why for this one. I don't know this one, but .
Yeah. Like, I'm just like's like sweating a little bit, you know? Yeah. Yeah. My wife, what do I do? . But, um, no, it, it's fun.
Do you actually, do you teach at all, um, outside of your performance engagements?
Sirena Huang: Um, oh, normally. For these concerts, uh, for concerts that I've been doing.
They also schedule master classes. Um, and so Oh, nice, okay. I've been doing that, uh, quite a bit, um, in the last couple of years. And I have given some private lessons, but not like a regular studio that I, that I normally do. Um, and I, I'm well aware that masterclass teaching is completely different from private lessons teaching.
Like I just thinking about, I. I mean, private lesson teaching is so difficult. Masterclass. I can just like, okay, here is 0.1, two, three, work on it yourself. Bye. You know, like , hey things, bye. Yeah. Yeah. It's like, I dunno. Half an hour per person. Just say whatever and they leave and you know, they have a good life.
know, it's not whatever. It's just, it's your, it's Serena Hong's advice. It's valuable advice
you like. and, and for private lesson teachers, like, you actually have to work through these issues, um, and it's in a long period of time and have a good plan for your students and things like that. I just admire you guys so much for doing it.
Um, that's something that takes a lot of experience, I'm sure. So, yeah,
I, I feel like 50% of it is actual teaching. I feel like 50% of it is actually just like managing how the student feels on a particular day and how to manage where they are in. And try to continue encouraging them. You know, some, some years are rougher than others and some days, and some pieces are rougher than others, as I'm sure you know.
Right. And I think all of us as teachers try to, you know, try to cater to the needs of the student. And I think that's really, that's really important for us as teachers. And for any teacher who's listening to violent podcasts right now, I know we have to continue to be reminded, especially in. In this crazy world that we live in.
Right. I think it's always nice to be reminded that like, oh, this person, this student, however old, like my youngest is five, right? Like she's a pre Winkler. Yeah. And she doesn't know what's going on in the world, . But like I know that I can teach her like, you know, You know, having a bendy pinky makes a beautiful twinkle sound.
Yeah. . So it's like basics, right? Yeah. And, um, but I do wanna dive into now like some of your philosophies to, you know, the violin, your approach to the violin, how you practice, and how do, how does Sereno Huang practice? You know, like what, what are some of the things that, um, you have done in the past or something that.
Actually changing as you get older. Like, tell, tell us about that.
Um, yeah. Wow. That's a, that's a big topic. Um, I think, so when I was younger, I had a teacher that. , he kind of practiced with me, so he built a lot of technical foundations for me, which I am like eternally grateful for because I think these foundations really affect how you play basically every note on the violin
Um, So we did the Carl Flesh Scale system. We went through a bunch of sev chick books, like the Sev Chick Double Stops and The Shifting. Love it.
Yeah. All of every student listening. Yeah, do it. I told you so
It's kinda like eating your veggies, no one really loves doing that.
Eric Mrugala: Yeah. For anyone who's listening, my hands are in the air
Sirena Huang: yeah, no, I mean, , I'm not just saying that. I mean, I truly, truly think that, especially when you're younger and you are developing, uh, you know, you're fundamentals for playing the violin, you're building such a great foundation for your future life in music.
So, finding the time to dedicate yourself to, figuring out what an octave feels like on the violin on every position. Cuz on the violin like intonation, is like lifelong, right? Something you just work on all the time. But if you have a good sense of, for example, what the octave feels like in the first position versus in the eighth position, um, and learning how to shift in a way that seamless, effortless. How to play in a way that's effortless that is gonna help you when you're older. For sure and being able to play scales. I mean, , a lot of these pieces, all of the difficult passages, they're just made up of scales. They're just different scales put together, honestly. ,So if you can play scales well then you can play probably half of the difficult passages well too, and double stops to, learn how to have good hand shapes and hand forms. I remember the first time I had applied double stops to a piece was when. Playing Praeludium and Allegro, that last page.
Eric Mrugala: Man, you're speaking, you're preaching to the choir.
Sirena Huang: Yeah. No, it's all about hand frame. Yep. All about hand frame. Like all that cadenza. With all of those double stops, basically. I mean, you're playing them as single notes, but like your hands should not be like all over the place. You're playing double stops. Like you should be able to see different groups of hand, hand shapes and stuff. So that, you know, that kind of stuff. Practicing technique and having designated time for it.
I think it's so important. So when I was, I would say let's, I'm trying to think about like the age range where I really focused on technique. I would say 9 to 16, I would say ish. Yeah. Of course I continued practicing technique after that too, but those were the years. , I really, I would spend maybe two hours, doing scales and etudes and working on my vibrato, doing vibrato exercises, all of that kind of stuff.
I went to a summer program called Encore and this was in Ohio. I and I went there since I was nine years old. And those summer programs, they have it, it feels kinda like bootcamp cuz they have this thing like where we have performance class at 8:00 AM so .
Eric Mrugala: That's rough.
Sirena Huang: Yeah. So, one you can't warm up, but before you play your piece, you have to play the entire arpeggios, like the entire circle of fifths.
Eric Mrugala: Ooh, that's an idea.
Sirena Huang: Yeah, from C Major through everything, all the way to G Major, so like all the keys in between. So, we had to perform that in front of people.
Eric Mrugala: I, I did that in college. I don't know if I, if I were a professor, I don't know if I, maybe if I, if I do that.
Sirena Huang: But yeah, that's the only thing I had to do that like, you know, performing in front of people, but that. Like, when I think about my experience at Encore, that was like a very deep impression in my memory cuz it was like so unique to that particular, uh, summer festival.
But, anyway, my point is It's, scale is very important. , I guess I'll just say that.
Eric Mrugala: Yeah. Okay, great. I, I love that. And, for all the books that, Serena mentioned, I'm gonna leave links down into the description below, so make sure you go to the podcast notes, click on those links for you to get those copies.
I'm a b I'm a big believer in Sefcheck. I actually love the Opus One, the very first book for dexterity in the left hand. That's like a great left hand exercise. And it's also really cool, like sometimes the scale books can be really intimidating. Like that Carl Flesh is not from the beginning.
Sirena Huang: It's like a sea of like black dots.
Eric Mrugala: Right. . Exactly. And then there, even the parents, they're like, "wait, we have to enforce this upon our child?" . So , I'm like, in time. In time. So, I have other scale books that, that I recommend, of course. Right. But the Sevcik for me is great because if you're not into scales entirely, one day they, it is like a scale like passage.
So you are working on broken thirds, you are working on bys motion and first position. Second, third, fourth whatever the case may be. Yeah. And then you start working on, you the, like the double stops and then you start, you know, moving the other fingers. Yep. So I'm, I'm a big believer in that also.
I think even when I practice that with my student, I've actually, I've felt that I've become a better player because I'm practicing with my students. I had a performance, just two days ago, I performed like a orchestra concert choir.
I was principal second, whatever. And I was telling my students, I just had two rehearsals for this, you know? Yeah. And, you just have to know, you walk in, you do your thing, you do your business, and then you walk out and then you know, you live your life and then, whatever happens out of life, you just have to continue to stay focused.
Sirena Huang: Exactly. Yeah, and actually speaking of technique , there's one more that I would like to add. And this is something cuz you asked, um, if technique is, , you know, something that's ongoing or if there's anything that I'm still working on now and I thought I just wanted to point out, like actually several months ago.
So actually before I start the way my fingers are, my pinky is like extra short.
Eric Mrugala: Oh yeah. Oh man. I'm sorry. .
I know, right? Like, you're so sorry. Like, I'm the opposite. Like my, I mean, if you, if you, I'll leave a link of the YouTube interview, like down in the podcast below, so that way you know, anyone who is just listening, you can click it.
But I'm the same. I mean, my, my Pinky's a little bit, a little bit higher than yours. Yeah. You like I have, I have big hands, you know, I'm like six one, so I have like, Pant hands. Okay. Yeah. So, but what's great about your fingers is that they're like, they're long and they're skinny ,they're long and skinny.
Sirena Huang: Right? Right. But like my pinky is like super short. It doesn't even reach this line here. So it's like kind of short. And then my middle finger is actually very long and I don't know, it's just, yeah, it's. Like when I was young, like for example, like C on the A stringing is always high or F on the D string.
Like my, every time I put down my second, my middle finger, it just like creeps up high. So intonation was like a, I mean, always. It's a tricky, yeah, I know. All musicians can say that. I mean all string players, I mean. But um, anyway, my point is, Just several months ago I was like, okay, I gotta do something about this pinky because I have, I had this like bad habit where that whenever there was like a high note, an important note, I would use my third finger to go for it to add that nice vibrato and you know, really milk it and things like that.
Extra juice. The finger pad just like gives it the extra thing that Right. But I was also thinking like, wouldn't it be nice if I could just play these nails with my pinky so that I could still stay? like, because if I have to play a high no with this, then I'm basically, my handshake is like this, right?
I'm stretching and this would be so much more comfortable. So then I found this, um, pinky exercise by Garr love, and I can, I don't know if you're familiar with it, and I can send it to you if you wanna link it later. There are six pinky exercises in that set and, um, Basically, I would just really go for it.
I would play through all six exercises and that takes about, uh, between 15 to 20 minutes to play through it. And it's basically the whole exercise. It's like you're practicing pinky independency and strength, and you're playing scales with like 3, 4, 3 4, 3 4, 3 4, like that kind of stuff. Um, and. , after you play through all of it, you realize like this muscle right here, it's very sore,
Eric Mrugala: Oh, yeah. Like, yeah. If I, you know, you compared to like, this man is like, you know, it's like, you're like, body is like your body building, lifting with your left hand. And I actually, it's, it's funny you, it's funny we're talking about this because I, I emphasize that like one day when you practicing that pink. you know, the fourth finger, you're gonna have a lot of more muscle here. I mean, you, you look at like Yuha Wong's hand and you see like the massive muscle that comes outta your . It's like, I know. Wow.
Sirena Huang: Yeah. Yeah, I know. Really It's like bodybuilder fingers. I know. Um, yeah, totally. So, and, and after doing that for about a year now, I would, or yeah, about a year I would say.
it's helped me tremendously in the sense that my hands are so much more relaxed because in my pieces now, my, my fourth finger is so much more just, it's just a lot stronger. Um, and even when I, even if it's not like a high note, but even if it's just like a fast run or something, I feel like. , my other fingers can relax a little more now that we're sharing the load, right?
With the pinky, everything is evenly balanced. My hand is more balanced, my vibrato is a lot more, is looser. And that it, you know, it helps in so many ways. And also it just feels so much more effortless. And I think with violin technique, you should always go for whatever feels more effortless. That's always the better route to go.
Eric Mrugala: So, uh, I want to add on top of that, you know, not to kind of like, you know, put an asterisk, but like you there, of course when someone say to play with zero tension, that's also not possible, right? There will be some sort of tension, right? But I mean, the idea, I guess, you know, correct me if I'm wrong, but the idea behind what you're saying is like, make the extra effort to prepare that pinky.
So when you just have a lot more variety, more options. So that way the technique and the, and the musicality can really be in sync. So you're not like suffering one from the other, right?
Sirena Huang: You don't ever want the technique to keep you from expressing something musically. You actually want the technique to be your best tool to express all of these things.
Um, and. For me personally, this might not be true for everybody, but for me, because my pinky is short and weak, uh, strengthening that put my hand in balance, I could do so many more things. Um, so that was a really cool discovery that I recently, um,
no, that's, that's awesome. . Yeah. I think it also just goes to show that even like professional violinist, like you and even violinists who have been on the performance circuit for many years, they're still constantly trying to.
Oh my God, aspect. Lifelong student here. It's a lifelong student.
Yeah. And like, like intonation, right? Like intonation, . I always tell my students that like if someone says they have perfect intonation, they should just leave and they should like, don't, you know what I mean?
Eric Mrugala: Don't get me started. Right.
But because. because the moment you start getting comfortable with the idea that you are good in intonation is when you start declining.
Sirena Huang: Yeah. That's when you stop listening. That's when you stop listening intently. Right. Yeah. And I, you know, like you said, like your, your teacher played with you, you know, growing up.
Eric Mrugala: Yeah. I play with my students too, because all the time. Yep. Because it's just like trying to help them understand what a tarini tone is. How is the reson. Supposed to sound, unlike a third finger on a, like, why is this finger not ringing? You know? Right. Like, I'm trying, those are some of the things that I teach and some of the things that I teach on my YouTube channel as well.
And also leave a link down in the podcast notes just to kind of help students, you know, get the most value out of this podcast. But as we run out of time stream, I wish I could nerd out for like another hour, because this is so, I'm all about it. . Yeah. But I do wanna, um, help our audience out to leave with some practical tips. After today's interview.
So what are some practical tips that any violinist of any of any level can take out of this, you know, take out of this, um, podcast and like apply in a practice room today?
Sirena Huang: Sure. Um, practical tips. I guess I have several that I could think of right now. Um, I think when you're practicing always quality over quantity, so, um, Let's say you want to do four hours of practicing.
Um, if you are not feeling focused at all, then let, then it's more effective to do two hours of really concentrated work than four hours of not concentrated work. Um, because when you're practicing, you. Reprogramming your brain. So whatever you repeat, whatever you do. , um, that's gonna stay in there. So if you are practicing four hours kind of mindlessly, you are building a lot of bad habit, um, which will take even longer to unlearn.
Um, so you'd rather practice the right way, but a shorter amount of time. Um, and I will also say it's helpful to kind of break up your practicing in a way. I mean, not like okay, five minutes. Five minutes, but like it may be one. and then take a break and then another two hours or something, you know, so that you can stay focused.
It's not just make sure that you're not ever really practicing just for the sake of putting in the hours, but you're practicing because you want to play better. That you are programming your brain in a way that, uh, is the right way, is the way that, um, yeah, it can really affect your playing when you're performing.
Um, so that's kind of like a. A practice tip that I have learned over the years that this is really important. You know, if you play, I would, I remember when I was younger, like if a passage is out of tune, I would just play it over and over until it's in tune, right? And then the first time I get in tune, I'm like, Hey, great, I can move on.
But then what happens is like you play this passage five times, four times four of the five times is out of tune, and the fifth time is in tune. You move on. But what happens with your brain is that you actually are repeating the bad, unsuccessful times more times than when it was. , you know, so you wanna try to overwrite that and, um, repeat the successful experiences more so than the failed experiences.
Eric Mrugala: I love the word that you used. I love, I love how you said experiences. Yeah. Like the experience of feeling the passage in your hand, the experience of what it sounds like in tune. I think that's a great word.
Sirena Huang: Absolutely. It's practicing is really about experiencing and feeling. What everything you're doing really is about, it's taking it apart a little bit.
Um, and I think my other tip would be for those of you that maybe experience nerves when you're performing. And I will say that this is something that I always, always feel like now, today, if I were to perform, I will feel nerves. Like it doesn't matter how many times I've performed in my lifetime, uh, nerves will.
Will always be there with me. But one of, uh, so my teacher, Zach Pearlman, when I was studying with him at Julliard, my favorite advice that he gave me was that, when you're nervous, let the music be your distraction for your nerves. So instead of thinking about, oh my God, I'm nervous, and you keep like zoning in on the fact that you're nervous and you can't focus on the music.
Think about when you're on stage and you're feeling shaky and you're feeling nervous. Try to be as involved as you can in the music itself. Try to play the most beautiful phrase you can think of, and the more into it, like music will actually help you get less nervous because the less attention you give the nerves, it just kind of like paces out a little bit, at least, you know, or it just lessens a little bit.
So, um, the more, uh, involved you are in your music, then um, you. , it's gonna feel a lot more natural. So let your mu let the music be your distraction for nerves is another really great advice for performing, I think. Yeah.
Eric Mrugala: Friends. I want to, uh, thank Sirena Huang for being on the Violin podcast, for sharing her wisdom, sharing her, her experience with the, with the Indianapolis Competition.
And for people who want to get to know you a little more, outside of this podcast, where can people find you?
Sirena Huang: Yeah, you can find me on Facebook and Instagram. Instagram is just, my name's Serena Hong, and Facebook is, I believe is Sirena Huang Violinist. Or you can just search me on Facebook.
Eric Mrugala: Yeah, and of course I'll leave, um, links in the podcast, shown notes for people who want to get to learn more, a little more about Serena.
So Serena, this has been awesome. I wish we can have this interview in person one day. Yeah, that's great. Um, you know, that's, that's my goal. That's my goal with all my guests that we can have like, You know, maybe like a round table of like violence geek out about stuff. in person, play .
Yeah. Well, yeah, I don't wanna overwhelm our audience too much, but, this is amazing.
Thanks so much. I really appreciate your time.
Sirena Huang: Thank you, Eric. Thanks for having me.
Violinist / Soloist
Sirena made her solo debut with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra in 2004 at the age of nine, and, since then, has performed in seventeen countries across three continents. She has been featured as a soloist with more than fifty prestigious ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, the Symphony Orchestras of Cleveland, Baltimore, Shanghai, Russia, and Singapore, and the Staatskapelle Weimar in Germany. She has appeared as a guest artist at the Verbier Music Festival, Ravinia Music Festival, Aspen Music Festival, Eastern Music Festival, Sarasota Arts Series, Albuquerque Chamber Music Festival, “The Great Music for a Great City” series in New York City, and many others.
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