A Violinist’s Professional Journey

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“As a professional, I started a little late,” says Karen Zhu, a 2019 Central Michigan University Master of Music Performance graduate, as she reflects on the direction of her young career. She started playing at the age of four but didn’t decide to move toward becoming a professional until the end of her high school career. She says that, “You can’t, however, fake the passion” it takes to achieve professional success as a musician. Originally from Taiyuan, Shanxi, China, Karen completed her bachelor's with the Xi’an Conservatory of Music under the guidance of Professor Qihua Li. 

She was drawn to Central Michigan University because of a connection made during her experience at the conservatory. Her principal violin teacher at Xi’an Conservatory was also a mentor to the School of Music’s esteemed Assistant Professor of Violin, Dr. Fangye Sun. Karen’s graduate assistantship at CMU created an excellent opportunity for her to grow as an employee and further hone her professional violin skills. 

While working toward her MM, Karen assisted Dr. Sun with the Strings Tech class. She begun this experience to make connections with American students, which gave her a great opportunity to get to know American culture better along with learning what makes a good instructor. After two years studying for her masters, in which she learned how to be a professional orchestra player, she was hired from her first audition with the Midland Symphony Orchestra. 

If Karen Zhu were speaking to students looking to move into the professional world of performance, she would have a few suggestions. First, an aspiring professional must connect with a good teacher to mentor and challenge them. Second, she suggests that exercising is paramount for building a strong body for any performance as well as presenting oneself well for the audience. Third, she says that score study is necessary for players to understand their music. One must follow the scores carefully to be able to understand and communicate what the composer wants over one’s own feelings. 

 Joining the Midland Symphony Orchestra was a great opportunity for Karen to gain experience as a professional orchestra player. Now studying for her Doctor of Musical Arts in Performance at Michigan State University, Karen is focusing on improving herself to the extent that she begins “to establish a recognizable style and sound.” She sees her next move to be likely auditioning for larger orchestras. Additionally, she is interested in performing music written for a wider variety of ensembles. She looks forward to trying styles as diverse as video game soundtracks and film scores. Karen Zhu knows this is just the first step on the professional stage, and her passion for the violin and desire to always improve will continue to propel her forward as she continues on this journey.