From Carnegie Hall to Berklee: A Conversation with Dr. Chelsey Green

Mike Lawson • Features • January 10, 2020

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If any of your students have ever wondered what they need to do to perform at Carnegie Hall at the age of 16, point them in the direction of Dr. Chelsey Green.

Raised in Houston, Texas, Green started playing violin at the age of five, and by high school, she was performing solos at the esteemed Manhattan venue – a gig afforded to her largely from dedication to her craft and ample school band and orchestra opportunities.

From that foundation, she’s grown an abundant career for herself; she’s accrued three college degrees, including a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Maryland College Park; she works as associate professor in the string department at Boston’s Berklee College of Music; and her musical group The Green Project has landed on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Album Chart.

In SBO’s chat with Green, she shares from her pools of musical wisdom, from the best ways to encourage and retain students, to effective practice and rehearsal techniques.

You started learning how to play violin at a very young age. Was that your choice or was that your family’s?

Let me start by saying that I have a family of musicians. My father is a musician and was an educator for over 33 years in the Houston Independent Public School District, and my grandfather is a musician. My uncle is a jazz musician, so when I wasn’t even in the womb, my mother had hoped that I would be a violinist. When I was about three years old, we were at what was then called Kinkos and we noticed a lady taping music and she had a violin on her back. My mom just walked up to her and said, “Excuse me, do you teach? Listen, I’d really love for my daughter to start lessons.” She looks at me and she was like, “For this little one? I usually don’t start that early, but sure.” I became her student. We started with the good old paper towel roll and Kleenex box. Then gradually got into the violin, and I loved it, and stuck with it.

When you were growing up and you continued your lessons, were you ever tempted to pick a different instrument? For children, they might think something like a violin is boring. Was that ever on your mind?

Right, well I did want to get into some piano at one point. I attempted it. I wasn’t really great at it, and I was always still drawn to the violin. Then I actually even played flute for a few months and that required so much air and body control. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to stick with the violin.” That’s when I really kind of made my decision to say, “We’re going to keep this going.”

On top of that, what also impressed me was that also you stuck with classical music. I also thought that was surprising because again, I would think that at least from a young person’s perspective, that would be “boring.”

Well, I mean, I was always around a lot of different genres of music. It always made me feel like I was learning how to play the violin with the tool of classical music as a genre backdrop. I always played at church. I grew up playing in church, hymns and other church songs. I always played before the congregation. That was always a regular experience.

When I was about 12 years old, my father even introduced me to jazz. My parents had introduced me to jazz much earlier than that, but I actually went into the summer jazz workshop when I was 12. I got to see them play violin, and learn jazz, and play jazz on violin. I was a vocalist, as well, in the workshop that summer. I had always been immersed in different genres growing up. I knew that would kind of make up my career at some point. I would want to play all types of genres.

When you were growing up, did you have one musical mentor in particular?

I mean, my parents just were always very big mentors and influencers for me because they loved music. They always supported me with my musical endeavors. That was always very special to me. Through all of what I was involved with, with youth orchestras, and doing all types of chamber orchestras, and all regional orchestra, and things like that, I was always introduced to incredible professionals that had such a great rapport with the young musicians. It really made me look forward to pursuing it as a career one day. My first teacher was always a mentor as well because she would invite me to sit in the pit with her at the Houston Ballet’s presentation of the Nutcracker, so I could see everything up close and in person when I was a kid. It was moments like that that really made me see the real life of a musician very young and made me attracted to it.

You were doing solos at Carnegie Hall when you were 16. How did you get to that point so quickly?

My high school orchestra actually was afforded the opportunity to perform at Carnegie that year. We auditioned to play solos with the orchestra. I was granted one of the positions. That’s really how that came to be and it was quite a magic moment. I will say that for sure though, a lot of those things came through school orchestra and youth orchestra opportunities.

How did you handle the pressure of doing something like that at such a young age?

I guess I didn’t think of it as pressure as much as me having an expectation of myself to do well. That’s really kind of still how I approach performances. I want to present my best show and my best artistic voice. I want the audience to receive that. That’s what really resonated with me most. My family was there to support me for that performance, so I didn’t feel quite as nervous about it as I guess I could have been. I really tried to not think about it as pressure as much as just wanting to do my best.

I also really appreciated that my parents allowed me to be in Girl Scouts, and I was in dance a couple of days a week. I really did have more of a well-rounded youth where it was not just the practice room all day, every day. Especially because my family were all musicians, they never really forced me to practice. Their mantra was always looking at myself after a performance. It was like, “Is this how you want to sound the next time you do this?” I would always want to do better than that, so the only way to do that is practice. That was a benefit of the way that I grew up, too.

Now as an adult, you both perform and record, and you teach. How do you balance all those things?

I really have learned how to write a lot of reminders in my phone, let them set a lot of alarms to remind me about things, just because being organized really allows my brain to function at its best. I really need to put my head in the space of what it is I am doing. . . Especially when I have a lot of music to learn in between my teaching schedule and my performance schedule. I organize my practice. I organize my emails and schedule. I organize my phone schedule just so that my mind can function at its highest at every point of the day.

Is there anything different about teaching music in this time period than it was when you learned growing up?

Yes. I mean, 100 percent. There’s so much more access to visualizing these instruments online and just on social media and sites like YouTube, SoundCloud. There’s a lot more tangible ways to see young performers. And while I love how that is encouraging students everywhere to really embrace live instrumentation and learn how to play these instruments, I really am committed to making sure my students have a solid technical foundation. Because I feel like techniques can really allow you to thrive in any time that you wish to pursue.

And so I think that you have a lot more content available and a lot more music is at your fingertips, especially at a university like Berklee, where I’m teaching. The students, they are learning everything. They’re learning jazz skills. They’re learning the Carl Flesch scale. They’re learning classical pieces. They’re learning rock. They’re learning jazz standards. They’re learning folk and Americana. Some students want to sing and play violin. It’s really focusing their technique. And they’re exposed to these different styles that it really comes to the forefront at a time like now, as opposed to when I was growing up, it was very classically-centered and it was very traditional.

You have your own band and projects, and you’ve charted on Billboard before. What do you teach your students about making and releasing their own music for the industry?

That is a big part of the lesson too, because they all have kind of their own mind of what they’re considering for now. One of the biggest things I always think people need to know is that, “for now may not necessarily be for always.” So, you want to be prepared to have a lot of options. That is what I’m trying to teach them. I try to give them nuggets of music business advice as well as things that are going to make them successful. It’s kind of a little blend of all of what I do, in my own career, is what I share with my students.

It is hard because everybody’s attention span, I mean, it’s saturated, first of all. A lot of people are doing a lot of stuff and so a lot of students are wondering, “Well, how can my thing get through and how can my projects make it?” And they’re focused on trying to find ways that they can push through. And I always say that you have to stay the most true to your own personal belief. That’s what you have that no one else has is being uniquely yourself. That is what is going to draw an audience to you and or your music because they see you and your person through your art.

Is there a common issue that you see amongst students these days?

What I see a lot of, right now, that I am focused on especially for my freshmen or incoming students is making sure their technical setup is working for them. Like, their chin rests, shoulder rests, how it’s resting on their shoulder, how they’re using their jawbone or how they’re using their neck to support. Does it look natural? Does it seem uncomfortable? Are you tense in holding the instrument in your left hand? Are you supporting it with your left hand? Because if you’re holding the instrument with your left and you’re not able to use your fingers to play the instrument correctly [then that’s an issue]. So I really think and look closely when I first start working with a student about technical setup. Because I was injured once and I know what it’s like having to go through therapy to get back to playing. And I would hate that to happen to any of my students or anyone playing an instrument.

Especially because I go back and forth between viola and violin so regularly, it’s really important that I’m aware of how I’m holding each instrument, how it’s situated on my body so that I can have the most ease and comfortability while playing.

That’s really one thing that I think a lot of students should focus on more, is technical setup and approach to even holding the instrument, holding the bow. Because that’s huge. I always say one of the biggest differences between a student and a professional is how the player uses their bow. And also, it’s just when you have the bowing exercises under your hand and you have that versatility in your bow and you can support your instrument well, then your playing opportunities are endless, because you can do whatever you want with very much ease.

What advice would you give to other teachers?

It’s just to always encourage your students to have fun. Always encourage your students that we’re doing these scales for a reason. There is a means to an end. Just to always keep them seeing that light at the end of what they feel is a tunnel. I feel like sometimes our students feel like, “Oh I didn’t want to learn this piece. I don’t want to learn this piece right now. I want to play this,” or, “I saw so-and-so play this on YouTube. Now I want to play this.” I really have to keep reminding my students that we’re working on this now so that we can get to that later. There is a progression and there is a reason that I don’t want you to tackle that just yet. I think it’s always important to communicate those reasons with the students so we don’t lose them or lose their interest.

Does the model that your parents used on you, of not forcing a certain amount of practice, or homework, come through in your teaching?

Well, I do ask my students to record themselves and video record themselves regularly. That’s a regular part of what I expect them to bring to me the following week, is a series of recordings of the exercises and pieces that we’ve been working on. Because if I’m in a lesson with them and we only have a limited time, and I’m giving you this information in an hour, I know that it’s difficult sometimes to grasp all of what we taught playing, as the student, in that one hour. When they’re able to record it and then view it the next day, it almost is like a reminder in real time of, “Oh, this is what she saw. This is what she was seeing when I was playing.”

That is why I do think that my parents’ model is so great because it still works, even for the college students. Yes, they do have to have a certain amount of material learned or practiced by each lesson, but I still encourage them to record themselves so that they can actually see, in real time, what I’m saying. As opposed to them just always listening to what it is that’s coming out of my mouth and not really getting that connectivity of, “Okay, well she just said to do this so I’m going to do it.” But now it becomes real. They can become their own teacher. That’s really the goal, is for you to be your own teacher when I’m not able to be with you in the practice room.

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