When we think of movie score composers, we tend to picture those promotional photographs of someone like Hans Zimmer or Trent Reznor, looking all sophisticated in front of literally thousands of dollars worth of pianos, keyboards, and analog synthesizers.
Composers seem somehow removed from specific instruments. They write music for dozens of different instruments, and when we see them conducting a studio orchestra, it’s even easier to separate them from the actual playing.
But most, if not all, professional composers started out by playing one or more instruments. There’s a level of expertise and intimate knowledge that can only be achieved by playing a particular instrument for a very, very long time.
When composers know one or more instruments in this very intimate way, they can get even more creative with their compositions.
This brings us to Pei Hua ‘Cynthia’ Lin, a professional composer originally from Taiwan who is now based in the United States, where she received the Georges Delerue Memorial Scholarship Award.
Her work spans both composition and live performance, including composition work for short films like “Leave No Trace”, “Place We Won’t Walk”, and “Paracusis.”
She is also a member of the composer collective Les Femmes Cinq, which features five trailblazing female composers.
Lin’s first instrument was the violin, and though she and the instrument went through some challenging times, the effect violin has had on her compositional work is undeniable, and this was the focus of our conversation.
Check it out below, and if you’re a composer or songwriter yourself, let us know how your first instrument affected your work.
You’ve been playing the violin since you were very young. Was there something about the instrument that you enjoyed more than all the rest?
Lin: I really enjoy playing the violin in any type of ensemble. The sound of the violin is attractive and it has many possibilities depending on how and what emotion you try to express when you are playing. However, I didn’t like playing violin this much at first. The parents in Taiwan always want their children to learn instruments, at least piano, when we are young.
It was a very long and boring, noisy process to practice violin before you get better. When other children were playing in groups, I could only practice violin and piano alone at home, study music theory, and music history. It felt unfair back then. But after a few years of training, my skills improved and I could really put emotion into my music instead of just playing notes. This made me love playing violin more and more, not only playing alone but also playing in small ensembles or full orchestras.
Violin is a very hard instrument to play, but it is also a very lyrical instrument that requires a lot of your time. I love violin not only because it can play the most melodies, but it can also blend very well with other acoustic instruments and synthesizers.
Do you think that playing violin has informed your compositions? Do you have a better sense of how string instruments should be used?
Lin: Definitely. Playing violin is one of the most important influences on my compositional inspiration. I started playing in classical orchestras when I was eight. After I graduated from college majoring in Violin Performance in Taiwan, I came to Berklee College of Music. At Berklee, I learned other musical styles such as jazz, country, gypsy, etc., and I started exploring and composing with more contemporary techniques.
Each instrument has its own range and advanced techniques that only the musician knows after playing for several years. As a string player, I know string instruments very well. My colleagues and I usually help each other by checking each others’ scores and sharing our experiences playing our own instruments. This helps to improve our writing skills.
Do you still have the chance to play violin often, or does your work make this difficult?
Lin: Compared to when I was a student, I definitely have less time to practice the violin. One important thing about playing violin is muscle memory. After you stop playing, you lose muscle memory gradually. Besides recording sessions and performances, I still try to find time every day to play at least scales or some melodies that I like.
When I really have difficulty finding time to practice, I will practice in my brain! We have a group called Les Femmes Cinq, which has five women composers. We write music for a string quartet or string quintet with flute, and we just held two concerts in February. It’s a great way to keep producing music and practicing our own instruments.
Would you consider learning another instrument from the very beginning?
Lin: I was too little to choose the instrument when I started my music education! In Taiwan, many parents want their children to play “common” instruments, so their children will have more chances to play in an orchestra, which is why my parents chose the violin and piano for me.
Although it takes time to get better, I am very grateful that they made this choice for me. Learning the violin now would be much more difficult.
Learning instruments is very interesting for me. After I started composing, I tried to play other instruments as well. I always know how to write music for certain instruments after I’ve played that instrument. It helps me understand the instrument better, and it changes my approach when I am composing.
When looking for a new melody, do you usually find it on the violin or just think of it?
Lin: It depends. When I don’t have an instrument with me, the melody always comes to me with a specific instrument first and I play it on piano with harmony. On the other hand, sometimes new melodies just come out while I am playing violin or piano.
When I have a hard time coming up with a new melody, I like to research the musical histories of different countries. When I look at their history and culture and think about the people who lived there back then, it brings me inspiration.
Do you enjoy performing live? Is it something you still return to?
Lin: Yes, music is my career, both composing and performing, those are the things I will keep doing for the rest of my life. Performers and audiences share the same emotion in the same space, and that’s something special.
When I was little, I could only tell which pieces sounded good or bad after I listened to a live concert. However, after I played solo performances, I realized how much I wanted to share with audiences.
I wanted them to feel the passion of each note and how much effort I put into the preparation. Most importantly, I wanted to bring the meaning and the beauty behind the pieces.
When I listen to a live concert, I am always touched by the music and the performer’s enthusiasm, and I hope my audiences feel that while I am performing as well.
How often do you listen to your older work and compositions, if at all?
Lin: I seldom listen to my older work. However, from time to time, a couple of composers and I get together to share our recent work and share our thoughts.
We talk about the composition, orchestration, musical styles, mood, color, and also the mix. Everyone has their own backgrounds, characters, and approaches, and that makes music sound totally different.
When I listen to my own music, I always remember working on it. But on the musical side, it sounds slightly new and different every time I listen to them again.
Do you have any advice for young violinists who may have lost interest in learning violin?
Lin: Don’t give up! It can be easy to lose interest. Take it slow. It’s fine if you still have no interest in violin for now, take a break and maybe you’ll want to pick up the violin one day in the future, even if it might take more effort and time to start over.
When I was fifteen, I wanted to stop playing the violin, after having played for seven years. I felt I just wasn’t good enough and had no reason to continue playing, but I am very glad now that I didn’t quit.
Persistence was the key. After long consideration and discussions with my parents, we decided I would continue for three more years. After I made this decision, I realized that practicing is a bit dull and lonely fort every instrument. If I wanted to keep learning music, violin would still be my first choice.
I found ways to make practicing violin more interesting and set short-term and long-term goals for myself. When I started to feel tired from practicing, I thought about how much joy I could create by making beautiful music.