Q&A with Violist and Alumna Sharon Wei, Lecturer at Stanford University

Sharon Wei

Sharon Wei practiced and played the violin through high school, when she abruptly decided never to pick it up again. It was among the best decisions in her life. Today, when on break from performing in the greatest halls around the world alongside major orchestras, Sharon is a Lecturer of Viola at Stanford University and Assistant Professor of Viola at Western University in London, Ontario, as well as a highly-regarded Master Class artist.

Since completing her studies at Western University, the Curtis Institute of Music, and Yale University, Sharon has worked with such conductors as Paavo Järvi, Zubin Mehta, and Kent Nagano (himself an alumnus of The Royal Conservatory). She has appeared as a soloist with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, Stratford Civic Orchestra, and Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, among others.

As guest principal violist, she has performed alongside the Cincinnati Symphony and the Canadian Opera Company, while her recitals have taken her across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, including festivals such as Chicago’s Ravinia Festival and Switzerland’s Verbier Festival.

Co-founder of the award-winning Made In Canada ensemble, named by Chatelaine magazine among “80 Amazing Canadian Women to Watch,” Sharon is also guest principal violist of Ensemble Matheus in Paris, under Jean Christophe Spinosi.

We caught up with Sharon as she reminisced about her early musical training, her views on the future of classical music, and the importance of passion to achieving one’s goals.

How old were you when you started your musical training, and how did it come about?
I was five years old and started learning the cello with The Suzuki Method. After insisting on carrying it around myself and dropping it one too many times, I was switched onto violin. I switched to viola my last year of high school when I tried a friend’s for the first time. It was the only decision in my life that I made so quickly…there was something about the instrument that just drew me right in and I never touched a violin again afterwards.

How has your early arts and music education contributed to your growth and success?
My education in the arts was always a source of joy and didn’t feel like work. I feel fortunate that even after deciding to pursue music as a profession, it remains fun and a passion. What keeps me motivated is the satisfaction I get from exploring music on a deeper level, especially with others. Chamber music rehearsals are always interesting, and the spontaneity of live performance keeps me on my toes.

What advice would you offer students who are hopeful musicians or educators?
Find musicians who inspire you. There is always talk of musicians who begin to view their profession as just a job. The stereotype is the orchestral musician. But I have met orchestral musicians who have been in their job for over 20 years, who are still fascinated by how scores are put together and are always striving to figure out new solutions. Their passion is always infectious to those around them.

I like to tell the story of working with one of my favorite conductors, Jean Christophe Spinosi. I played a run of Bellini’s Norma with his group. When I first saw the rehearsal schedule had 10 days of double rehearsals, I thought it would be a bit tedious. But when I showed up, every rehearsal felt as if it were only five minutes long.  The way he ran rehearsals and explained his view on the music was so inspiring, I couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed. We are always learning at every stage in our musical lives and there are so many incredible musicians to mentor us. 

Have you any preferred pieces to play?
I’ll play anything by Brahms! I go through phases of what pieces I’m in love with. The Enesco Octet is a favorite and I also love the arrangement of the Goldberg Variations for string orchestra.

Can you share a fond memory of learning music using The Royal Conservatory curriculum?
I have many fond memories of Friday nights and entire Saturdays spent at The Conservatory.  It was wonderful to grow up with a group of students who were in the same history, solfège, theory, orchestral and chamber music classes. Mrs. Burashko’s solfège class was amazing and she taught rhythm in such interesting ways. I think anyone who has been in her class will always remember her distinct voice and enthusiasm. I also loved Dr. Toi’s counterpoint classes—he made the music jump off the page.

Do you notice differences in younger generations of violists compared to previous generations? Where do you see the future of the instrument?  
It’s definitely interesting to see what a big part the Internet plays for the younger generation.  For recorded music, it seemed to jump from going to the library to check out CDs, to buying tracks on iTunes, to watching videos on YouTube. This progression happened in just a few short years. For the future of the instrument, I see more access between musicians around the globe. It is so easy to share ideas, performances and new music for this generation’s musicians.

Finally… Your husband is violinist and violist Scott St. John of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Any friendly rivalries when you perform or practice?
Ha ha! No one has ever asked us that before!  We hardly ever practice within earshot of one another as we practice at the University (where we share an office - someone is usually at home when the other is practicing).  It’s been a privilege to have the opportunity to hear the St Lawrence Quartet play in so many concerts over the years…they are great sources of inspiration, not only in their performing but in their work ethic. Scott and I rarely have a chance to play together but I love when we do. Our most recent collaboration was Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. I think that viola part is one of the greatest pieces ever written for the instrument!

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