Meet the Musician: Assistant Principal Clarinetist Ben Chen

Where did you grow up? Did you come from a musical family?

I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. Although there are no professional musicians in my family, they have always been so supportive of my musical aspirations - especially my dad, who studied the erhu (a Chinese two-stringed violin) in high school. He would drive me to every single lesson, rehearsal, concert, and audition, and he never missed filming any of my performances growing up. Any time I was playing the clarinet, my dad was there.

When did you start playing clarinet?

I started the clarinet at age 11 in public school band, although I had started piano lessons at age 7. The kids interested in joining could try mouthpieces of all the instruments, and for whatever reason the only instruments I could make any sound on were the oboe, clarinet and tuba. My mom was concerned about the high cost of an oboe (what if I turned out not to be interested in band?) and the prospect of me lugging around a tuba, so clarinet it was. Her foresight saved me from a lifetime of having to make oboe reeds ... or headaches traveling with an instrument.

What is your position in the orchestra?

In a section of three members, the Assistant Principal needs to wear several different hats. Much of my work is playing second clarinet, and I will play the first clarinet part when our principal clarinetist is out or when we split programs. I'm also responsible for learning both the first and second clarinet parts as well as the pieces I'm not playing so I can cover in the event of an absence. Last but not least, it's up to me to play the E-flat clarinet - the smallest, highest, and perhaps the most dangerous instrument in our section!

Describe your auditioning experience with our orchestra.

My audition for the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra was my 30th audition. Although that's a lot of auditions, it's sadly not uncommon to see many musicians take that many or more given the high number of applicants and high level of competition. I remember very clearly when I worked as a stage manager in school, one of the staff pianists who played a lot of the student recitals casually asked me how was I doing. When I told her I had taken several auditions recently and was feeling down about not advancing, she told me not to worry, responding very succinctly, "it all adds up."

In preparing for this particular audition, I used a new method to help me organize my work complete with index cards, daily self-recording, and various mental exercises. I think that in taking so many auditions, it's important to keep the music and your approach fresh. I also happen to really like the excerpts for clarinet from the opera repertoire, so I thought of this audition as an opportunity to work on those really lyrical moments since pit orchestra auditions don't come up as frequently. I tend to find that things go better for me when I'm focused on being immersed in the music, both in my preparation and on stage, rather than external outcomes.

Where did you go to college/complete your musical studies?

Attending the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities for the last two years of high school really ignited my desire to play the clarinet professionally. It's a special place, where students live on a beautiful campus and receive not only specialized training in their major, but also exposure to a broad humanities curriculum across all artistic disciplines - completely without tuition or room and board costs. Before enrolling, I had been diligent in my study of music but never thought about attending a conservatory for college or a pursuing a career as a clarinetist. My instructor there, Kyra Zhang, was so encouraging in helping me reach my goals and shaped my playing in a way that I was accepted to the music schools where I wanted to study.

Ben with his teacher Franklin Cohen

Once I started college, I continued to have incredibly dedicated teachers who were always generous with their time (regardless of how busy they were) and provided me with many eye-opening opportunities. I worked with Franklin Cohen, principal clarinet emeritus of The Cleveland Orchestra, for six years at the Cleveland Institute of Music. While at CIM, I accumulated enough freelance work for me to stay in the area, so studying with Richard Hawkins at the Oberlin Conservatory seemed like the perfect next step. Even after I left school, both of them continued to help me tremendously in preparing for auditions and opening doors for me.

Ben with teacher Richard Hawkins

What are you most looking forward to this season?

I'm excited just to be in the pit! Since starting here, I've found that there's nothing like the big, rapturous moments in opera - especially when you are part of that sound. Tchaikovsky's music has always struck a deep chord with me, so I'm especially looking forward to Eugene Onegin.

What do you like to do when you are not playing clarinet? Any interesting hobbies?

My husband, Dean Zhang, and I enjoy traveling and trying different restaurants. Our goal this year is to visit every Korean barbecue establishment in town. Dean is a fabulous pianist, so it's also a great joy for us to perform together as the Edgewater Duo - we've played all over the world in recital, which combines our love of exploring new places and making music.

Ben and Dean