Making Music in China
Moving to China after graduating from college, 2007 Durham Academy graduate Terence Hsieh’s life is immersed in music — from directing the jazz program at the International School of Beijing and releasing his debut jazz album, to leading a pop cover band and playing keyboards, trombone and trumpet with some of China’s biggest pop singers.
Q — What have you been up to since graduating from Durham Academy?
A — After I graduated from DA, I attended Oberlin College and Conservatory, where I studied in the double degree program, majoring in East Asian studies with a concentration on Chinese language, and completed honors coursework and jazz trombone performance in the conservatory.
During my time studying Chinese, I had the chance to go to Beijing to study abroad, where I met many of the local jazz musicians and formed friendships with them — and I ended up moving there after I graduated. When I arrived, I worked as an intern and then an editor at The World of Chinese, a bilingual Chinese culture magazine. After I left The World of Chinese, I became a full-time musician, teaching part-time at the International School of Beijing as the director of the jazz program there. I also founded the Blue Note Beijing Jazz Orchestra, the house big band at Blue Note Beijing, and acted as music director and house arranger, leading the band on several notable shows with some of my musical heroes, including Mark Turner and Jaleel Shaw, two amazing saxophonists, and Conrad Herwig, one of my heroes on trombone.
In 2014, I released my debut jazz album, Multiplicity, featuring some great friends from Oberlin who came to China with me in 2012. It also featured my teacher, Robin Eubanks, and Miguel Zenon, a saxophone hero of mine.
Q — What are you doing now?
A — I’m now focusing more on pop music. I play keyboards and trombone and trumpet with Chinese pop music singers on their recordings and tours, arranging and performing in their backing bands, as well as in the backing bands on TV shows like The Voice of China.
I also lead an instrumental pop music cover band called The Spice Cabinet that plays my funky jazz arrangements of Top 40 tunes. We’ve just recorded an album and are negotiating the release of our new single. I continue to teach at the International School of Beijing and play small shows around town with my quartet and with other visiting friends and musicians who end up in Beijing.
Q — Why do you do what you do?
A — Music was always a huge part of my life — although when I was in school, I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to do professionally. I realized, sometime in my first year in Beijing, that I couldn’t do the 9-to-5 desk job, and I had so much going on in my head that I had to practice, play and get out and do things with the music that was in my ears. I didn’t really have any particular clue as to how to do that, but I knew that whatever my life was going to be, it had to involve music and my jazz music background and training, somehow.
Q — What DA experiences influenced you or helped you get where you are today?
A — Languages are by and far my favorite things to study, and music, I find, is just like another language. In my senior year at DA, I was taking both Spanish with Ms. [Margarita] Throop and AP Latin with Ms. [Edith] Keene. To this day, I still can remember some of the poems we memorized in the works of Catullus and Vergil. Learning how to grapple with a foreign language in which concepts and feelings may be entirely different was a skill that I learned in the classroom with all of my Spanish and Latin courses. Mr. [Patrick] Obregon, Ms. [Liliana] Simón, Ms. Throop, Ms. Keene all showed me that by understanding a linguistic paradigm properly, you can really get to the emotional core of what someone is trying to say, instead of just the words that we assume are carried over in the translation.
My English classes with Eric Teagarden and Jordan Adair also taught me how to understand my assumptions about the world and how to escape from them. Questioning the fundamentals of my identity and maybe even my own reality became a huge part of my search as an artist and composer in later years: “How do I deliver an emotion that I feel, when hearing a certain sound, or a repeated motive, to an audience?” That’s a very tricky question.
Q — What are your interests away from work?
A — Honestly, because I live a freelancer’s life, work-life balance becomes difficult, especially when I travel so much, but also because I really love what I do: I compose music for a living! How could anyone see that as “work?” In my spare time, I suppose, I’ve taken up mid-long distance running, which would probably surprise Coach [Dennis] Cullen, and cooking is a close second. And as much as I hate to admit, I’ve become a coffee junkie, so I spend a lot of time searching for the perfect cappuccino. Beyond that, I try to catch up on sleep when I’m not on tour and to balance my life a little more when work isn’t raining down on me.
Q — What’s on the horizon for you?
A — I’m always grinding new music out for new artists, so I have several artists I’m working with to put out new music. I serve as the horn director in the band for Karen Mok, one of the bigger pop singers in Greater China, which has been a huge honor, and that tour continues through December 2019.