We had the good fortune of connecting with Mann-Wen Lo and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mann-Wen, have you ever found yourself in a spot where you had to decide whether to give up or keep going? How did you make the choice?
We probably have all heard motivational quotes along the line of: “Never give up!”, and other quotes such as “know when to let go!”. The question of whether to keep going or to give up is one that really depends on each specific situation and individual. The older I get, the more I come to realize that many questions are like in a philosophy class – it is more important to ask the right question than to find a clear answer. It is the life-long process of searching for an answer that we are living, and through the very process that we grow. Life doesn’t happen according to a manual, and very often the truth is not black and white.
I remember my first major struggle during my late teens to early 20s; when no matter how much I tried and how much I practiced, nothing seemed to stick and it even felt like the practice was hindering my playing. I came to the States when I was 14 to attend an arts high school in Boston. I was attending music programs back in Taiwan where I was born, and I had a relatively smooth ride. My parents were opened-minded and gave me the freedom to choose what I wanted to do. I started taking violin lessons because two of my cousins were learning to play, and it seemed fun to me. I was winning competitions in Asia and performed as a soloist twice at the national concert hall (the equivalent of the Carnegie Hall in Taiwan) by the age of 11. The journey continued to be relatively smooth at first after I came to the States; I was fortunate to perform at the Carnegie Hall multiple times by the age of 16. However, there were many unexpected difficulties and challenges I encountered adjusting to a new language barrier and culture. In addition, I felt extreme pressure from people back home with their high expectations and constant comparisons between other young musicians and me. I was having trouble in my personal life, and I didn’t have anyone to whom I could talk openly and feel understood. I began to doubt myself more than ever, and I started holding extreme tension mentally and physically when I play. I also started trying different bow hold and violin set-up, hoping to come to a breakthrough, but it backfired. At one point I felt as if I didn’t know how to play anymore. I was holding way too much unnecessary tension. It took me several years to realize and accept that my emotional toil had projected onto my playing, and that I had to sort my inner state of mind out first. My mind was so clouded that I would have sudden extreme low emotional points without knowing why for years. I was practicing a lot, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. It wasn’t that practice and trying hard was harmful, but according to my mentor Masuko Ushioda at the time, I was trying “too hard”. It was a long and painful process; I developed carpal tunnel and took some months off from playing; I had countless breakdowns and sought professional help. I wanted to give up many, many times. I eventually learned how to relax and figured out which things caused me to tense up, and that I held on to the excessive and ultimately inefficient practice sessions as an emotional safety net.
I think the key to answering the question: “how do you know whether to give up or keep going”, is how well and how honest you are with yourself. When making big life decisions, people who have a stronger core within themselves, and are able to be the most honest with themselves tend to have less to no regrets when they look back. I wanted to give up when I was struggling a lot, and I wasn’t getting the outcome that I thought I wanted. I started doing yoga and meditation; both just like music, require lots of practice. Through the process of practicing other things that for me didn’t come with emotional burdens, I started to strengthen my mental and emotional state by allowing myself space and time to simply breath and observe. I realized that when I wanted to give up, I was really running away – I love playing the violin and I love music; being able to communicate through music like birds communicating using bird songs is so beautiful and so direct; heart to heart. I decided that music was something I could never live without, and I would never give it up. Having gone through this experience in an earlier part of my life helped me find my center when Covid escalated in March last year in the US. Concerts and performing arts activities were halted indefinitely. A significant number of my talented musician friends left the field of music and moved on to something else as their primary career. But I know that, although I do enjoy many other things as well; I am the happiest when I can connect with others through music.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I wouldn’t say things were easy for me; definitely not all the time. Since I have shared a little bit about my challenges in the last question, I will tell with you a little bit more about me: I am a concert violinist, and I have been playing as a leading violinist with the American Contemporary Ballet. My next engagement with them is to play Bach’s solo violin partita in multiple performances. I also frequently with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Pasadena Symphony.
I have been featured by the Da Camera Society on their concerts during the 2015-2016 season. The series presents chamber music concerts at the Doheny Mansion and other historic sites throughout Los Angeles. I have been invited to join the now professor of UCLA, Brian Chen with the concertmaster of San Diego Symphony Jeff Thayer and professor of UCSD Charles Curtis to perform Beethoven String Quartets at their concert series in San Diego – Camera Lucida.
I received my Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music in 2020, with an outstanding achievement award from the strings department.
During 2020, I taught masterclasses at the German-Polish Festival for Young Musicians. The festival usually takes place in Bremen, Germany, but due to the pandemic, it was online instead. Since Covid escalated, I have been exploring online concerts; I have performed multiple times on New Asia Chamber Music Society’s online series “Music on Air”, a few times on Quarantine Concerts, and started my own concert series “A Collage of Violin Music” on Groupmuse. It has been refreshing and very informative learning about the production side of concerts – recording techniques, online streaming set up and camera works. I was a part of a CD recording project: “Mana Music Quartet – Queen Liliuokalani” with Eric Silberger (winner of the XIV Tchaikovsky Competition), Joshua Nakazawa (Hawaii Symphony) Duane Padilla (Punahou Faculty/ Hawaii Symphony), guest artists Jake Shimabukuro (ukulele), Benny Rietveld (bass player from Santana), and Greg Sardinha (lap steel guitar). The album is currently a finalist for the Na Hoku Award (the Grammy of Hawaii) in multiple categories. The winners will be announced later this year in 2021; fingers crossed!
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Disney Concert Hall, Hollywood Bowl, LACMA, and the Getty Center are all iconic and great places to visit! Cliftons in DTLA is really cool to visit at night – it has multiple floors and during the weekend they often have live music on each floor, all different genres!
Seven Grand, also in DTLA, is a stylish bar and often has live music as well.
Koreatown – if you like Korean food, you have to visit Koreatown in Los Angeles. Many of my Korean friends tell me some places are even better than they could find in Korea!
Santa Monica beach is very nice, but I may prefer Venice beach a little more. Make sure to visit the Abbot Kinney Blvd as well!
Restaurants like Faith and Flower (American), Messob (Ethiopian), and Sushi Gen (Japanese) are worth checking out.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My parents: I’m grateful for their support; I would not have been able to study in the US if they didn’t make some significant sacrifices for me. (Also thankful that they are not stereotypical scary Asian parents).
Mr. Glenn Dicterow – Simply put, he is the boss. He is incredibly supportive and inspiring. His recording of the Barber violin concerto is my all-time favorite of the piece.
Ms. Syoko Aki – An amazing thinker, and an extremely insightful teacher. I look up to her philosophical approach to life and music. She is my Yoda.
Ms. Masuko Ushioda – I wouldn’t be who I am now without her; she has a very deep influence on my playing. She helped me develop my taste and style in music and in life. Her recording of the second movement of the Bruch concerto is incredibly heartwarming.