YeYe Xu

Nevis Photo

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your life, not necessarily music-related

I was born in London in ’95 to Chinese parents, and lived my first months in the student halls of Imperial College, right next to the Royal Albert Hall. No-one foresaw that in 17 years I might return to perform on that stage with a symphony orchestra. When I was little, we didn’t have much money, and nobody in my family played a ‘Western’ classical instrument. My grandfather used to play the Chinese violin, called the ‘Er Hu’ ( 二胡 ), but that was about it. At the age of four, having moved to Edinburgh, I auditioned for the City of Edinburgh Music School, singing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. Miraculously, I was accepted, and studied there for seven years.

It was a state school, which meant I didn’t need to pay a penny to receive quality music tuition. I had piano, violin, music theory and aural classes every week. This gave me a rich musical and intellectual foundation, without which I would not be the person I am today. It saddens me now to see music education falling further into the gutter due to public spending cuts. The losses this entails for children, the profession and wider society will be huge, and I hope that policy-makers will recognise them and provide solutions to fill these gaps.

I continued my studies at St Mary’s Music School as a bursary student. There I discovered the camaraderie of chamber and orchestral music, and a zeal for writing and foreign languages. After five or six years, I decided I wanted to attend university, but not to study music. I did something completely different: Law with European Legal Studies at King’s College London and the University of Strasbourg. During these four years, I took classes in law, politics, philosophy and anthropology, and found true enjoyment in academic research.

When I wasn’t reading, I was nearly always playing my violin. I was a Principal in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (2012-14), and Leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in 2016. I performed in China, Canada, the Caribbean and the Netherlands. During my year in France, I helped establish a Sistema project in Alsace with François and Emmanuelle Dardant, based on the Venezuelan model, where children from different religious, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds could receive free vocal and instrumental lessons. It was incredible to see how quickly they learned their instruments and worked together, and how the enterprise harmonised the entire community. That year was definitely one of my most treasured memories, for I witnessed how music can make positive social change in the world.

Today, I advocate for gender equality at the Royal Philharmonic Society in London as manager of its nationwide Women Conductors programme. Along with Artistic Director Alice Farnham, we run conducting workshops specially for women at both beginner and more accomplished levels. We do this because there are too few women on the podium at present, and we want to change the status quo by encouraging women to see themselves as leaders and pursue careers in conducting. In a world where men are still taking advantage of women, where women don’t believe they’re as capable as their male counterparts, we need more female role models to show girls what they can achieve, and teach them how to stand up for themselves and other people. It’s an issue to be addressed not only by the music industry, but by other sectors too like law and finance. I’m optimistic that the situation is transforming, but nonetheless gender equality and fair treatment are an every day fight, and there’s still much work to be done for their entrenchment.

Outside office hours, you’ll probably find me playing violin, researching, or at a language class. In the long-term, I’m looking at a career in International Law – so watch this space! Finishing with some fun facts: my name, YeYe 叶叶, is Chinese and translates literally as ‘leaf leaf’. It is pronounced like two Es.

How did you first get into music?

I sang pop songs in the car and in a girls’ choir. I took part in children’s orchestras, like NCO, and chamber music programmes such as Pro Corda. My mother was a fundamental motivating force in my development and took me to concerts all the time. I became aware of so many pieces and artists that way.

What made you decide that music would be an important part of your life?

There has never been a single definitive turning point, but several memorable moments, at which I learned to see music in a new light. After leaving music school, I learned there is no one way to do music or be a musician. You don’t have to follow the classical prescription; you can carve your own path and play what you want to play, with people from all walks of life.

I’ve travelled a fair bit, playing in both professional and amateur ensembles. Music is the same for everyone. It is a unifying force, and it is story-telling. As a violinist, I feel the unspeakable magnitude of its powers most, when I play in an orchestra. Meanwhile, the orchestra as an entity fosters team spirit, cooperation, and individual responsibility too. These human qualities are essential to the workings of any society which strives to achieve peace and mutual understanding. Playing music is also psychologically and physically good for me, like eating my vegetables and swimming. It makes me feel free and superhuman, and once you’ve got that sensation, it’s so very hard to keep it out of your life.

I hope others can experience this as well, whether onstage or in the audience. Now I have an acute sense of moral duty to make music for the good of humanity, which is crystallising more and more as I get older. It’s what gets me up in the morning to practice violin at the office before work and on weekends. It’s the reason why I do Nevis, for I believe this ensemble is an emblem of what I have just described.

What has been your musical highlight so far?

There are far too many to choose from, so I’ll give four in quick succession!

On my 18th birthday, I performed with NYO at Buckingham Palace for Her Majesty’s Coronation Festival, sharing the stage with Katie Melua, Eric Whitacre, the English National Ballet and other stars. When I was 21, I played a solo at the BBC Proms on an exquisite Ceruti violin worth double my student loan, which I’ll probably never see again. Practising at home and hearing my little half-sister singing along in the room next door. And finally: realising I didn’t need a shoulder rest on my violin. I live by the sponge.

Who are your favourite composers / artists / musicians?

Leonardo da Vinci, Gustav Klimt, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Strauss, Ravel, Mozart, Carole King, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Janelle Monae, Laura Mvula, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Chris Thile & Brian Mehldau, Nederlands Kamerorkest/Gordan Nikolitch, Scottish Ensemble, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Grayson Perry, David Hockney, Bjork, Kazuo Ishiguro, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde… To be continued.

What do you anticipate for Nevis Ensemble? 

Having led Nevis since its birth in 2018, I’ve been astonished by what it has created thus far. Thanks to Jamie, Judith, Jon, Holly and Duncan, we have an orchestra which not only brings music to people in cities and the remotest communities in Scotland. It’s a group in which the musicians themselves can be challenged in ways that are overlooked by mainstream education. Unusual performance spaces, multi-genre repertoire, public speaking, concert curation, writing pieces, standing on the Players’ Committee – opportunities such as these help us to develop valuable skills, which can be transmitted to, and enhance other parts of our lives.

Nevis is breaking the traditional orchestral mould and will be growing in years to come. I anticipate old music being played to new audiences, and new music played to the old. I want us to go international and show the rest of the world what an orchestra is capable of achieving.

You can follow YeYe on Twitter @_leafleaf