China native Jing Zeng joined the first-violin section of the Phoenix Symphony in 2006, having moved to the States at 16 to take part in the Young Artist Program of the Cleveland Institute of Music after winning the biggest violin competition in China.
The Texas Tenors with the Phoenix Symphony
What: The Texas Tenors, who got their first big break on “America’s Got Talent,” perform a mix of country, pop and operatic favorites, from “Deep in the Heart of Texas” to “Unchained Melody” and “Nessun Dorma.”
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, and Saturday, Oct. 27; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28.
Where: Symphony Hall, 75 N. Second St., Phoenix.
Details: 602-495-1999, phoenixsymphony.org.
We caught up with Zeng before the symphony performs with the Texas Tenors this weekend.
Question: You started playing violin at age 4. Was that your idea or your parents’?
Answer: It was my parents’ idea. My parents met in elementary school. They were sent to a farm which was very far from home when they were 17, during the Cultural Revolution. My dad learned keyboard, violin, accordion and conducting. My mom was a dancer and theater actress. They were chosen to be on the Mao Zedong Thought propaganda team of the Cultural Revolution.
After they came back to their hometown, they went to college and had me. They always loved music and arts, but they had to give up on that. My dad became an electrical engineer, and my mom became a newspaper editor. They put all of their passion for music on me. My dad taught me to sing when I was 1.
When I turned 4, they took me to meet a violin professor at the conservatory. He thought my hands were too small to play violin, but he accepted me because I had very good ears.
Q: Do you recall a point at which you felt like “This is what I’d like to do with the rest of my life?”
A: I loved drawing paintings, and I was very good at it when I was young. My artworks were sent to many young children’s exhibitions, even to Japan. I had to give it up because of violin. I hid my sketches, which I drew during school homework time, behind my parents’ backs. One day, they found it and I was punished very hard.
But I still loved playing violin. I had to choose if I wanted to be a professional violinist by going to the conservatory when I was 11.
Q: Was it difficult to move so far away from home at 16 when you were accepted into the Young Artist Program of the Cleveland Institute of Music?
A: It was my decision to leave home as the only child from the family. My parents respected and supported me. But it was a shock after I got to Cleveland. My English was poor, and I couldn’t understand what teachers were saying in class. I learned English in school in China. But Americans talked too fast, and I had to guess what they were saying from one or two words. I was sent to a regular high school for academics in the morning and took music classes at CIM in the afternoon. I remember the first day of homework for English was around 100 pages of reading from the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I had 45 words that I didn’t know on the first page.
Q: You played with several symphonies in Ohio and one in Virginia before you moved here in 2006. What do you think it is about the Phoenix Symphony that you ended up staying?
A: Phoenix Symphony was a full-time professional orchestra, a world-class orchestra. It’s a newer orchestra compared to some other great orchestras in the United States, but it has a bright future just like the city itself. The community here is very friendly and supportive. The musicians are like family, always helping each other. And since I’m getting older, I hate to leave family again.
Q: If you could play any other instrument, what would it be?
A: My hands are still too small for violin. I don’t know if I’m able to play other instruments. I wanted to play a Chinese instrument like pipa or guzheng when I was young.