Violinist Rachell Ellen Wong grew up in Seattle, but during her career as a musician, she has had the privilege of touring internationally, as well as returning home to perform with the Seattle Symphony. This autumn, Wong has numerous concerts scheduled both online and in person on the West Coast.
Music has been a part of Wong’s life since the beginning. “My first memory of music was my mom singing to me so that I could fall asleep,” she said. “My mom is a classically trained singer, and when I was little she would read to me before bed time and would make up songs to accompany the story.”
This was a great foundation for Wong’s study of music. “When I started the violin at age six, I think having heard my mom sing helped me to develop the way I hear the tone of the instrument,” she recalled. “I wanted it to sound like her voice.”
Wong remembers her parents practicing the violin with her and accompanying her to all of her lessons and concerts. “Their priority was that I always enjoy making music and they never forced me to practice if I didn’t want to,” she said. “That gave me a very healthy relationship with the violin, something I don’t take for granted.”
But music wasn’t the sole focus of Wong’s childhood. “My family has always valued time in nature and so the Pacific Northwest was a great place to get outdoors and appreciate the beauty,” she recounted. “Some of the most spectacular views I have seen in my life have been when I have been around the big mountains, like Mt. Rainier or Mt. Hood.”
These sensory experiences nurtured her violin skills. “To me, performing is telling a story, and you need a strong picture in your mind in order to relay these images to your audience,” she said. “I use these pictures in my head to get specific sounds out of my playing.”
For Wong, the visual is linked to the aural. “If I need to create a certain color in my sound, I can think about the different settings,” she described. “For example, when I want a blue color to come out of my violin, I like to think of the very specific blue of the water in Deception Pass, or then if I want a more muted sound, I think about Heather Lake when the fog rolls in and everything is slightly grey.”
Wong ultimately left Seattle to study at University of Texas at Austin, and then Indiana University, before earning a Master’s in Music from The Juilliard School in New York. “I have learned so much from being in different cities and countries, meeting new people, and also trying new foods!” she said. “Just being open to these new experiences always makes us more well-rounded, and I think this is something to prioritize in life.”
She finds this is true even when the circumstances are difficult. “Even if I don’t speak the language of the place I am visiting, it fulfills me so much to see how music can cross that barrier,” she said.
This satisfaction also helps mitigate the other challenges of life as a musician, including that of maintaining physical health. “Many people don’t realize that what a professional musician does is so much like an athlete,” Wong said. “We might use different muscles compared to a soccer player, but we use them just as much and yet we don’t have trainers or people telling us how to make sure we don’t injure ourselves. It’s something most of us have to teach ourselves with trial and error.”
Financial hardships, Wong says, also test the commitment of musicians. “We work so hard and sometimes when things are tough, it can be difficult to see why we are doing what we do matters,” she said. “It’s seeing the joy that music can bring to people that reminds me that what I do still matters, even when things seem tough.”
The routine challenges of the music world have only been greater during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Back in March 2020 when it all started, all of our concerts were suddenly canceled and we were very unsure when we would be able to perform and make a living again,” Wong remembered. “I am very fortunate that my family has always been supportive, and after moving out of New York, I had places to stay.”
Wong’s devotion to music motivated her to expand into leadership roles, including recently leading the Seattle Symphony from the position of the violin for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “When it comes to leading a big group of musicians, it’s important to be strong in exactly how you want the music to go,” she said. “If you don’t believe in your own interpretation, the other players aren’t going to be convinced.”
Despite the limits imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wong found the experience exciting. “With limited rehearsals, you have to be as efficient as possible,” she explained. “All the musicians of the symphony were so fun to work with and were game to try new things and give input as well.”
Wong is also trying new things, including using social media to share her music while continuing to perform live and online. “It has actually been extremely rewarding to have social media and reach people that I probably wouldn’t have,” she said. “I love to give to people, and giving music is the best way I know how.”
Wong next performs in Mozart & The Genius of Love on November 14, online.