Married couple Hai Xin Wu and Zhihua Tang are a combination that one does not often find.

Both are extremely accomplished musicians — violinist Hai Xin is the assistant concertmaster for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and Zhihua is a performing professor of piano at Michigan State University.

As partners in both music and life, Hai Xin and Zhihua have contributed to the musical arts not only in Michigan, but throughout the world.

The War Memorial’s Brandon Faber spoke with this storied couple, gaining insight into minds of these outstanding leaders of the performing arts.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you both meet?

Hai Xin Wu: Well, you can’t really call us high school sweethearts, because we actually met in elementary school. I was twelve and Zhihua was eight.

Zhihua Tang: Hai was organizing a competition that I was involved in at the Shanghai Conservatory, so we knew of each other. Then we both left China for the United States, and met again in Michigan after Hai started with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Hai, winning an international audition with the DSO was what brought you to Michigan, but Zhihua, what made you want to come to Michigan?

Z: Michigan has always been special to me. I first came to study at the University of Michigan, and for a little bit at Eastern Michigan University. I also went to the University of Indiana for my master’s degree, and then I returned to Michigan to get my Doctorate of Musical Arts degree from Michigan State University. I’ve now taught at every university in Michigan. Whenever I leave, I always come back to Michigan. It’s such a very special place for me.

Hai, what was it about the DSO that made you take the audition and ultimately the job?

H: When I first heard of the DSO, I was so impressed at how well they played — they were and are of the top orchestras in the country. I was excited to audition, and when you get that kind of job, you just take it! There’s no picking around.

How did you both choose your instrument, presumably when you were very young?

H: (Laughing) I remember very vividly how I chose my instrument. My dad picked up a violin, gave it to me, and said, “Play!”

Good thing you said yes! Was there another instrument before, or was it always the violin first?

H: There was a guitar. I played that and my older brother got the violin, but I always wanted his stuff, like siblings do. But there was a bigger story as to why I got the violin.

At that time, it was the end of the Cultural Revolution in China. And if there were a second child in the family, the national policy was that when that child was about fourteen or fifteen, he would be sent to the countryside to be a farmer, basically for life. They wanted to control population in the cities. The first-born would stay with the parents, but the second could be sent to any remote place. My parents figured that I would face some unforeseen challenges. So they thought to give me some kind of skill that would help improve my future. I used my violin to an advantage, and that’s also why my brother did not get to seriously pursue an instrument.

It worked!

H: Yeah, somehow!

Zhihua, do you remember choosing your instrument?

Z: I think my family wanted me to learn the violin — and I said no! My mother was a pianist, and so there was always music around. I wanted to play; I studied hard and my dad was very strict. I was five years old and started playing on an old German piano.

Hai, how old were you when you started studying violin?

H: Five years old.

“Nothing replaces the excitement in a student’s eyes when they’re inspired by art, or so moved because it’s brand new to them.”

Hai Xin Wu

Hai, we’ve worked on many projects together at The War Memorial, and you’ve always demonstrated that community engagement is of great importance. How did you realize that community engagement would be a part of your central work?

H: Two things come to mind. For a big part of my life, I have basically been a nomad. I left my hometown very early and have always bounced around a lot. Even though I was in one town as a child for fourteen years, I could never really consider that my home. And I didn’t know my birthplace well. After high school, I came to the United States, and continued to bounce around, with five years in New York City — but living there really is a love-hate relationship! To me, Michigan is my home because it’s the one place I’ve lived the longest.

Zhihua and I both took roots here and I love Michigan. This is my home and everything feels good here — even the air. Because this is the place we feel most comfortable, we want to give back. We feel that we have a special skill, and want to use that to give back to the community.

Art is such a treasure. Somehow in art we have the best thing that was ever created, and we need to keep that alive for the kids that are growing up here. I’m not sure that I want to create a bunch of professional musicians, but kids need to have the joy of getting excited by great art.

Nothing replaces the excitement in a student’s eyes when they’re inspired by art, or so moved because it’s brand new to them. And unfortunately, many kids aren’t getting that kind of experience. It’s harder still because it’s not like kids can just play a recording and get right into it — it’s an acquired taste. It takes time to learn what is good and what is bad, and when you learn what’s great, that’s when it gets truly exciting.

Z: Working with kids, it’s almost like planting a seed for later. It’s so important to connect with people and share what you love. If the bar is always so high, then it excludes people. It has to be broadly accessible, but you have to give people the good stuff.

H: When something magical or amazing happens on the stage, then we get excited, but so does the audience. They just know something very special is happening.

“When I looked up in that beautiful hall, the lights, a great conductor, and an amazing orchestra, I just felt that I had a glimpse of something like — I could say — God. Nothing could get better.”

Zhihua Tang

What was the hardest or most challenging musical project that you ever worked on?

H: In the late 1990s, when Charles Burke came to the DSO to lead the youth Civic Orchestra, it was on the brink of extinction, with only 50 kids. We had a couple Civic music directors, and they were all very good young conductors, but their career goal was not to be the conductor of a youth orchestra. They are trying to be the next Toscanini, and that is a very big problem. I can’t take too much credit, but I helped coach that group, and one could see how it grew from nothing. Any kind of community outreach needs to have excitement cultivated. It’s not going to happen right away. It’s a kind of two-way street. You have to present to the community so that the community trusts you. At a certain point, they know your name means quality, and when that person does something, it’s going to be very respectable. That kind of trust takes a long time to build.

Zhihua, because so much of studying the piano is solitary, tell us about your draw to and experience with chamber music performances. How do you enjoy solo versus collaborative performance?

Z: It is very different. As you said, pianists spend so many hours alone working on their art, which can be very lonely. We are very self-sufficient, for good or bad. I find that collaboration with people is very rewarding. The repertoire is full of gems and only then do you really get to work with wonderful musicians. Often they do something interesting in performance, and with so many different activities going on in a group at one time, it just becomes very interesting.

H: You have to give up some kind of control! As you said with pianists, they have total control over a solo performance. But with other musicians, you have to give something up and communicate with other musicians. It’s a kind of an unspoken give-and-take, and you have to be willing to experiment together.

Both of you are outstanding educators and doing great work to inspire youth while also being amazing performers. Why do you feel some musicians become phenomenal performers or amazing teachers, but not both? What stops some great performers from becoming great teachers, too?

H: Some very gifted performers are naturals. We joke that they’re reincarnated from a past famous performer. Normally we call someone like that a genius. And because of that, they never really encounter any kind of musical performance problem. I’ve asked some of my teachers, “Hey, how do I do this?” And they respond, “Simple, just like this!” They easily demonstrate the performance, but that doesn’t solve my problem. He can do it, but I can’t!

I’m not that kind of gifted person. I have to work out things on my own, and I went through some tough learning curves in study — some good and some bad. In many ways, I’ve been through a lot of musical hardship, and I’ve encountered many problems that have taught me to see when students might be going towards a problem. I have a lot of empathy, too.

One problem is that eventually young, great musicians start to think. People sometimes say that a musician played a piece so much better when he was twelve years old. That’s because he wasn’t thinking about it the same. It’s a curse to overthink things. The natural goodness stops. Some people get over it and can rationalize everything and then they become even better as they get older. But others, because of how they’re wired, they’re the naturally gifted person and thinking becomes a problem. But for those students, you don’t really need to teach them. You just need to guide them through the music.

Do think that anyone can learn to teach?

H: Well, they’d have to be a “people person” first. I’m still working on that! You have to be willing to explore and take the time to find what works; throw things on the wall and see what sticks. Some things take a long time to stick! But when they do, it’s so great. For me, that’s what gives me pleasure is finding ways to solve the puzzle, and it’s a different puzzle for each student. It’s always mentally challenging.

Do you have a particular vision or wish for the role of classical music in society?

H: I just like to introduce people to the arts. And then let them decide what it means for them. A lot of people don’t have that kind of opportunity. I just want to give people the chance to experience it. I don’t often talk about technical stuff to an audience — I talk about what’s really good in the music. Everybody draws meaning from music differently, but if it is good music, they will be able to take away something. I think as a community, there is always the need for classical music.

Z: It’s all about sharing. And by sharing, I want to make music accessible to people.

H: I think of the El Sistema project in Venezuela. Those kids were pulled off the street and given an opportunity at a different life through music. And they get great training, making them able to be a professional musician anywhere. Those kids, their lives are so fragile. There is only a small window of time when something like music can mold them, and when you miss that window of opportunity, it’s gone.

Thinking of your performances over the years, do you have a memory of a personal favorite performance?

Z: Yeah, actually! When I did the Emperor Concerto performance with Charles Burke, about four years ago. (Smiles and laughs.) Charles conducted the DSO Civic Orchestra and it was a wonderful experience to perform that piece Orchestra Hall. In the second movement, when I looked up in that beautiful hall, the lights, a great conductor, and an amazing orchestra, I just felt that I had a glimpse of something like — I could say — God. Nothing could get better. I was so lucky.

H: There was one concert at Central Michigan University where we performed the Schumann quintet — Zhihua, Yoonshin Song, Robert deMaine, and me. It was the first performance we had with the new DSO Concertmaster, Yoonshin, so we didn’t know what to expect. But something really clicked. The director of CMU, who is a very good musician, heard us play; she said that there was this unifying synergy — so much so that you could feel something bigger than five musicians playing.

The same can be said for amazing conductors. You get the right connection and then you want that concert to be so much longer than it is. There is something to be treasured. And tomorrow, you could play the same piece and it wouldn’t be the same – it wouldn’t be as good. It doesn’t happen all the time.

What about music today makes you the most nervous?

H: People might not know how good classical music is. People sometimes have such short attention spans that they may not have the patience to sit down and really listen to a full piece. Because for music, you have to dig a little bit deeper, and you need time for that. We’ve all become so busy, but people can’t lose the time for great music. For great music, everything has to come together from so many different directions.

The War Memorial can provide that. If the audience can forget about itself, if they’re willing to go and try that, then they can experience something truly great. When people do that, there’s a new story after every concert, and it’s unique and fun. So just come – come see us and give us a chance!


Hai Xin Wu and Zhihua Tang in performance along with Yoonshin Song (violin) and Wei Yu (cello)