YeYe Xu

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

I was born in 1995 and lived my first few months at a student residence in Imperial College London, right next to the Royal Albert Hall. No-one foresaw 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. One of my grandmothers was a singer and dancer, another grandfather played the Chinese violin, called Er Hu ( 二胡 ); that was all. 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.

I continued at St Mary’s Music School as a bursary student. Here, I discovered the camaraderie of chamber and orchestral music, and a zeal for writing and foreign languages. After six years, I chose university. I studied Law with European Legal Studies at King’s College London and the University of Strasbourg, dipping my toes into politics, philosophy and anthropology along the way. But, if I wasn’t reading, I was nearly always playing the violin.

Performances have taken me across Europe, China, Canada and the Netherlands. I also led the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in 2016 at the BBC Proms. During my year in Strasbourg, 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 take free vocal and instrumental lessons. It was astonishing to see how quickly the children learned to sing and play their instruments and work together as an orchestra. In four months, we were ready to perform for their families and neighbours – to much delight. Sistema Alsace remains one of my dearest memories. It was a time in which I witnessed how music and teaching can make a remarkable difference to people’s lives.   

After graduation, I worked for the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, predominantly managing its Women Conductors gender equality programme, finances and communications and developing new Membership that was relaunched in 2019. Two fruitful years later, I found my calling to be a linguist and teacher. I’m now studying for a PGCE in European Language with Mandarin at St Anne’s College, Oxford which, all going well, will qualify me to teach in secondary schools.

I cherish being in a position where I can inspire, and be inspired, by young people and colleagues. I use academic research in linguistics and education to inform my practice and would like to develop my ideas through further study. Teaching makes demanding work, but you can be creative with your planning and leadership of a class – similar to playing leader of an orchestra! There are many linkages between music and language, and between performing and the act of teaching. I’m pleased that I can synthesise all my experiences for this vocation and learn new things about language and people every day.

My name, YeYe 叶叶, is Chinese: translated literally, it means ‘leaf leaf’. People in English-speaking countries pronounce it like two Es, but you’re more than welcome to try saying it with Mandarin tones!

What are your favourite things?

Early mornings, writing, reading all kinds of words, grammar…  

How did you first get into music?

By chance! Music was first presented to me like an everyday, out-of-school activity. 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 including Pro Corda. My mother was a wonderful motivating force in my development and took me to concerts all the time. I became aware of so many pieces and artists growing up, and am forever grateful to her for enriching my life in this 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 a series of moments, at which I came to see music in different lights. Nevis is certainly one of these moments. (Listening to Nina Simone, another.) After music school, I knew I would continue playing, carving my own path, so to speak, but not necessarily in following the classical prescription. Having travelled widely and played in both professional and amateur ensembles, I can vouch a simple truth: that music is a unifying force, and that music is story-telling.

As a violinist, I feel the unspeakable magnitude of music’s power, most, when I play in an orchestra. Sound, created by multiplied forces, can reach heights and depths we didn’t think could even exist. An orchestra by nature fosters team spirit, cooperation, and individual responsibility. These are human qualities which I think form the bedrock of any society, which hopes for peace and mutual understanding.

Playing music is also psychologically and physically good for me, like eating my vegetables, or swimming. It makes me feel free and superhuman, and when you’ve captured that sensation once, it’s so very hard to stray away from playing music throughout your life. I hope other people can experience this magic, too, whether onstage or in the audience. And I do Nevis, because it encompasses everything I have just described.

What has been your Nevis Ensemble highlight so far?

Travelling by boat to St Kilda, there’s no doubt about that. Or, making pancakes with Heidi for everyone’s breakfast! 

What kind of music do you like listening to?

Everything and nothing. Silence. All that is sacred.

How would you describe Nevis Ensemble to someone else? 

Colour for the senses. A breath of fresh air. Sweet and generous. Open-hearted.

You can follow YeYe on Twitter @_leafleaf