Senior Elena Chen’s cello playing experience

Elena Chen describes her path to becoming a member of the National Youth Orchestra

Senior Elena Chen performs at Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall during the National Youth Orchestra program.

Photos used with permission of Christopher Lee

Senior Elena Chen performs at Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall during the National Youth Orchestra program.

Claire Wen and Tyler Cho

From her vantage point on stage, senior Elena Chen had a view of the entire audience in the Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall. She could identify her parents in the crowd, and seeing their faces was a humbling and proud moment for her.

Influenced by her dad, who has been listening to classical music since he was a college student, senior Elena Chen has grown up loving classical music. By second grade, Chen was already playing the piano but her brother then started the violin. Her mom suggested that she play a string instrument as well, so Chen chose the cello.

“Looking back, I realize [that] the cello is the closest to a human voice,” Chen said. “It can go through a lot more registers.. The lowest tone’s a deeper sound and even the highest tones, it can go into violin-ish range. I just liked the cello more because I thought the sound was nicer than the violin.”

Chen further pursued her love for the cello by joining the California Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (CPYO) in sixth grade. Every year, there are competitions held by CPYO for a chance to perform a concerto as a soloist with the entire orchestra, and Chen has been a three-time soloist since middle school. 

“I guess you could say that I take cello really seriously because it is my main extracurricular, that is what I spend all my hours doing,” Chen said. “At some point I just had to make the commitment. This is something I’m going to do for [the] long run and this is just something I’m going to start committing to with all my practice and all my hours.”

When Chen had many upcoming competitions, she averaged around two hours of practice a day, in addition to extra lessons and rehearsals with the accompanying pianist. That, on top of the time it took to commute to and from her teacher’s house, added to her schedule. Orchestra is also a large time commitment for Chen, with three hours of rehearsals weekly and four concerts a year. As a fellow cello player, senior Catherine Choi is able to empathize with Chen’s situation.

“I think we got really close because of cello too,” Choi said. “For example, if there’s hardships that I’m having to deal with because of cello, she understands and she can relate to whatever I say.”

Choi has seen Chen’s dedication to cello, and sometimes when Chen has a lot of homework, she’ll finish that and start practicing cello at 1 or 2 a.m. Last summer, Chen was accepted into the National Youth Orchestra (NYO), a summer program that requires an extensive audition process and accepts only eight cellists in the nation. The program consists of a two-week residency at Purchase College in New York, followed by performances in the New World Center in Miami and Carnegie Hall.

Senior Elena Chen performs at Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall during the National Youth Orchestra program. Photos used with permission of Christopher Lee

“The chances of me getting it was honestly pretty low,” Chen said. “I was in bed when I found out and I was like, ‘LOL, this is really funny.’ I was really happy, of course, but also really surprised.”

Leland High School senior Edward Jung also attended NYO. At NYO, Jung got closer to Chen and his other friends as a result of spending three weeks together playing music.

“At the very least it’s a very eye-opening experience,” Jung said. “You really can’t experience that kind of stuff anywhere else. It’s pretty incredible.”

Jung feels that Chen is not only a well-rounded player, but is also a good leader as the principal cellist, or the leader of the cello section, in NYO.

“I think leading any sort of section requires some basic leadership skills,” Jung said. “Getting people together, building a community with your people and the most important thing is trying to get them to listen to you or the conductor.”

Chen’s most memorable experience playing cello was the performance at Carnegie Hall as part of the National Youth Orchestra. As the principal cellist, she was in a position that gave her a full view of the entire audience in the hall. 

“It was so cool to [see] everyone in the audience standing up and applauding,” Chen said. “Because it was one of my last years of high school, getting that experience was the culmination of the decade’s worth of work, all leading up to that one moment.  It was like a dream that my dad and I always talked about since I was a child [but I never thought I would] be able to get to that point.”