Fiddlershop's Music is for Everyone Series: Jay Choi

Fiddlershop's Music is for Everyone Series: Jay Choi

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Fiddlershop's "Music is for Everyone" Blog Series: Violist Jay Choi 

Establishing an Active Musical Life as an Adult Beginner

Fiddlershop’s "Music is for Everyone" blog series features interviews with professional, amateur, and student musicians who inspire through their unique musical stories. Their example proves that music truly is for everyone, and we hope after reading, you’re motivated to begin and/or continue your musical journey.

By Jasmine Reese - "I've always known I had a musical soul. But for one reason or another, I never got around to pursuing that side of me."

Jay Choi began viola at 38 (five years ago), finding his instrument on Craigslist and booking lessons within the same week.

The deeper voice of the viola and cello drew him in first and foremost. Traveling on a regular basis for his business, the viola was the more mobile option; he didn't regret his decision. "It's opened up so many doors," Jay said.

And it's true. Despite starting a little later in life, running his own business and working to the point of sleepless nights as a fencing instructor, Jay maintains a highly active musical schedule.

He plays with the Santa Clara University Orchestra, Temple Hill Orchestra, Awesöme Orchestra, and a monthly coached string quartet. He also posts regular videos to Youtube, documenting his progress, mixing his own parts for covers, and collaborating with other musicians.

The list doesn't end there, though. He regularly schedules get togethers with friends to play in his fencing studio. He just participated in an choral-orchestra flashmob on the streets of Palo Alto, CA. He often takes musically themed road trips throughout California. And - oh, I'll just let him tell you!

"I played as part of a 15-band tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," Jay begins.  "I got a taste of what it's like to be a recording artist at the Fantasy Studios as well as live stage show in front of 1400 people  at the UC Theatre, both in Berkeley, CA.

Played in an opera?!  It's a first-of-its-kind, made-for-TV or stream, episodic modern opera.  There's a special place in my heart for playing accompaniment to a singer, especially operatic works.  

Played in a chamber concert made up of pretty strong players. We played the Beethoven's Quartet No 4, and a modern English Horn Quintet; both were quite challenging for me.  But I pulled it off, thanks to the guidance from my fellow players!

Also collaborating with a phenomenal Israeli violinist and a guitarist for a YouTube project of my favorite video game soundtrack.
I've been dabbling into learning to play a violin, by the way!  Strange, because normally you start with a violin, then move onto a viola.  I'm exact opposite.  It's so tiny, and ergonomically easier to play!

I'm also expecting to travel to Los Angeles later this month in order to try my luck on stage of a musical as an actor and singer!  It's actually a very small role."

In addition to what seems like an impossible musical itinerary, Jay runs a successful fencing academy in San Carlos, CA.

"I'm head coach and owner...yes, fencing as in swords!" Jay said. "I've personally trained veteran world champion, Junior Olympic bronze medalist, youth Pan-Am champion, plus many national medalists.  I have coaches sending me their athletes from as far as China and France to study with me in order to augment their training."

So, how does he do it? How does he find the energy and time to fit in viola practice?

"It turns out, because I have 24/7 access to my own 4500-sqft space in an industrial area, I can practice music anytime I want!" Jay explained.  "Especially in the beginning years of my musical learning, I would typically end my work day, grab a quick bite, then practice. Very often, this would continue on until the sunrise!  

 It can be pretty addicting!"

Yeah, sleep is a tad bit overrated.  But, Jay has the right mindset and improving everyday.

"When I started this musical journey 5 years ago," he said.  "I was in a pretty bad shape - poor diet, poor life style,  a lifetime of chronic insomnia, bad shoulder injury from athletic years, etc....

 As my skills and opportunities in viola playing progressed, I realized that I need to address these issues as they became the limiting factors.  

Fast forward to present, I have far better joint mobility over my entire body.  I eat healthy.  I try to sleep better, especially leading up to concerts.  

I also had to make some very tough choices in my personal and professional lives - some of the most taxing struggles of my life.  I believe I made the right choices, though, and worth the heartache.  And I believe it saved my soul.

The journey never ends.  There are news skills to be learned and new opportunities I have yet to dream of!

For me, every moment that I am playing music on-stage is a small miracle.  I'm totally happy - however my playing turns out."

As an adult learner, you've taken part in a lot of high level opportunities. Do you experience self-consciouness when playing with professional musicians?

"Just about every single time I have played in an ensemble, orchestra and whatnot, I am always the lower level musician - if not the lowest.  That's a constant part of the dynamics, and I approach every engagement with that understanding.  I need to do everything I can in order to carry my own weight.  I show everyone that I am extremely eager to learn and improve (not just musical/technical skills, but also many other facets of musicianship). 

So I schedule extra lessons;  I squeeze in extra practice sessions.  I desperately seek out whatever cues being given out by not just my principal, but also other section leaders.  I'm happy to say that I typically show great improvements between each rehearsal.  And also because of this deficiency, I've developed some strong survival skill set and work ethics that's made me a valuable chamber player, which in turn, has made me a better orchestral player!

As for playing with semi -professional level players, I have found this to be true.  Those who are successful are very supportive and communicative in how they approach projects - with an open mind.  And just about every time, they found me to be an interesting project.  And I guess they find joy whenever I can show improvements based on their input.  It's kinda like feeding a puppy!"

Any tips and advice for student musicians, especially adult starters who aren't sure they can be busy and active musicians?

"I think for each and every one of us, we need to look deep into ourselves and figure out what is truly important to us.  That's easier said than done, with all our busy lives, with obligations, expectations and such.  Personally, I made choices that led to some pretty hefty sacrifices in both my personal and professional lives in order to make room for my musical learning.  Obviously, I cannot openly recommend that others do the same. 

But for what it's worth, it was the single most important decision I have ever made in my life.  It has literally saved my life.  It's brought me amazing friendships, love, a purpose, and a voice to express myself.  For me, that was worth everything.

Having said that, the common challenge I see among adult starter musicians is the imaginary wall that they build for themselves.  Yes, our skills and knowledge is deficient.  Yes, our mental and physical flexibility might be limited.  Yes, our responsibilities and real life concerns weigh on our hearts and bodies.  But these are things that can be identified and addressed.  Why not focus our efforts into coming up with solutions, and see the beauty and excitement in that process?  Why build an impenetrable wall before even taking the first steps?

At every major leap in my musical development, I dared to make jumps that were highly uncharacterlogical of me - pretty crazy choices, I'd say.  But without having taken those chances, I would not be where I am today.  And I would be that much further away from where I could be some day.  So jump in now!  Ask questions later!


Do you know a professional, amateur, or student musician with an inspirational, funny, heartwarming, or unique story?  

Recommend them for our Music is for Everyone Blog series. We'll interview them for the Fiddlershop Blog. 

Contact Jasmine Reese at I'd love to hear from you! :)

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