More Than Just Teaching


By Susan Tsang

Photography by Kenta Moike

John Yan—an aspiring violinist and an UBC integrated science major—arrived at Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society (VACS) office on a Monday afternoon, accompanied by an electric violin after his practice session. Before his interview, he played a little to show how the electrical instrument differentiates from the traditional violin. He explained that playing both of the instruments are the same, but their sounds vary because the electric violin would only come to life with the amplifier. Even though the electric violin barely made any sound, John could not help but fiddle with it. 

John playing the electric violin mirrored his first experience with the violin thirteen years ago. “I don’t know (why I liked the violin, because) in the beginning, I didn’t even make any sound. I just felt it was pretty cool.” John had embarked on a soulful path with music in a more or less ordinary way: his parents wished that their child would learn an instrument. Under their encouragement, John fell into the embrace of music briefly before piano proved to be a chore. Fortunately, violin was challenging but fun. “Violin is definitely my go-to instrument,” said John. He was grateful that he would have a chance later down the road to share his music and knowledge with other young kids who might not had the same opportunity as he did. His chance arrived when he was going through his toughest time adjusting his lifestyle to the university life during the first year. 

John expressed the challenges of playing violin after graduated high school: “I joined the UBC Orchestra. Since I’m not a music major and didn’t know many people, I felt a disconnection between me and them.” He needed the human connection in the most heartfelt way because his experience with high school had changed his perspective about music. John continued, “Our (high school) orchestra was a really tight-knit group… The first time I played in a group, it was a totally different experience for me, because before I was always practicing at home alone or playing at my teacher’s place.” John emphasized that friendship was a big part of why music was important to him. However, John has been forced back into more of an isolation when he tried to balance schoolwork and music and making connection with other people at university. Fortunately, by chance, John discovered UBC Shine On Music, which became the bridge between John and the joy and friendship he gained through music. “Shine On isn’t a well-known club, but I saw the video of Jacqueline (the president) talking about her experiences being a science student. She found that many students had disconnection between themselves and music like herself, so she created the club for students who love to play the violin.” UBC Shine On was a club that linked the students to the community, where they instruct children violins for free. 

Teaching at Queen Alexandra Elementary School was beyond what John had expected from making human connection: it extended from establishing peers’ relation to reaching out to the next generation. Regarding teaching, John said, “You’re like watching yourself, but ten years ago. One thing I really enjoy is that when (the students) are able to play the piece fluently and you know it when you have a recording (to look back on).” The recordings of the practice sessions were practical and meaningful to John since they were time capsules that kept track of the students’ progresses, in which John and his students could take pride in their improvements. John marvelled that he was not that different from his students though they grew up in different times; they all put effort for their love of music. To make sure that his students’ dreams were realized, John would always set three realistic goals with the students in which they want to “improve in a week.” “Without small goals, you can’t ever achieve big goals.” Music itself was their incentive to get better. John said, “Music is not something materialistic, it builds character in a cultured way.”

Teaching violin was more than just guiding the students to acquire all the right techniques, he was also a role model to his students. John felt that he bonded with his students easily too because they had a small age gap: “The big advantage is that the kids will look up to them (the student teachers) more like big brothers and sisters. And maybe a closer connection and motivation to work harder (will occur) because they could see: ‘Oh, he’s still in his twenties, he’s not that old and he can play violin so well, maybe I can do that one day too.’” 

John’s journey of becoming a role model was not a coincidental one. In John’s life, there were many people who guided him to improve on his skill, such as his fellow student teachers who were closer to his age. Their remarkable recitals motivated him to be better. John was fully aware that like the student teachers to him, he too strived to positively influence his students. John said, “Consciously, I try to make music fun for them, because there are times where I didn’t like violin. I felt that it was just too much work, for a kid especially.” To make the lessons fun, John would ask the students to bring in songs that they personally loved to listen to, play, and perform. “Subconsciously, I will be in their positions sometimes and teach them according to (how I felt when I was young). Sometimes, when you go to the lessons and think they are about music but they are more than that, like connecting with the students as well: asking them how they are doing at school…relating to them on a personal level.” Music was the positive agent that spreaded vertically amongst the generations and horizontally from people to people.  

Being a violinist himself, John was ready to take the next step of his musical journey, such as auditioning to play the violin at the UCLA or any opportunities to play in groups this September: “I’ll see where it takes me, but right now, it’s just really fun playing music everyday.” Besides that, he was excited for the future project that UBC Shine On and Beyond Music have to contribute. Beyond Music was going to be a collaborative program by “VACS, UBC Shine On Music, and the Musqueam Community. It is a free, quality, after-school music program tailored for Musqueam youth.” Despite that John only had a few encounters with the Musqueam community, the first impression that the people had left him was phenomenal. He had felt welcomed by an “upbeat and close-knitted” community. “If we can share our music with them, it definitely will be something that they will appreciate and mesh well with their personalities,” said John. As for the vision and the potential challenge the program will face, John said, “The main thing is to have interest and a committed group of students who are willing to come to lesson every week and practice at home, and have a dedication for music. I think overtime they will enjoy it more, and pursue something more than just playing music and mentor the next generation or younger kids when they grew up.” 

John believed that to promote classical music to the next generations, musicians needed to perform everywhere and made the performances accessible and fun. John said, “I don’t think that classical music is necessary a tradition. You can play classical music anywhere: at home, in a small group setting, it doesn’t have to be limited to only concert halls… With music, the more you listen to it, the more beauty you find in it.” This was precisely the reason why UBC Shine On and Beyond Music exist to introduce the benefits of appreciating music that really links people to people and create a chain reaction. John said, “The past five month, since I joined UMI and Shine On Music, it has been the most fun I’ve had with music in my whole life.”