About St. John’s College
Santa Fe Tutor Profile: Christine Chen
When Christine Chen was in school, music was her “alternative life.” Her proclivity for music became evident when she was quite young: her instrument of choice was a Quaker Oats cereal box and her bow a ruler. “It was in the key of granola,” she said of her makeshift violin.
Equipped with a more responsive instrument, she soon embarked on a thirteen-year journey through the intensely competitive parallel universe of adolescent classical musicians. Under the tutelage of Eudice Shapiro at the University of Southern California School of Music, Chen seriously considered a career in music. “I thought long and hard about conservatory, but I decided I’d rather have a liberal arts degree,” she recounted.
Yet practicing and performing remained part of her life. She played in the first violin sections of the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Her teachers included Nancy Cirillo of the New England Conservatory and Sidney Harth, former concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony and professor at the Yale School of Music. While in graduate school abroad, Chen helped found the Rusalka String Quartet, which is based in Cambridge, England.
Chen was pursuing graduate work in Russian studies in England when she saw an advertisement in The Chronicle of Higher Education for tutor positions at St. John’s College, and thought “this is really perfect for me.” That was more than three years ago, and Chen has successfully brought music to her academic career. Weaving in the musical context during seminar discussions is “a way of connecting disparate parts of learning,” Chen suggested, adding with a laugh, “I probably [do it] to an annoying extent.”
Relatively new to the College, Chen has discovered that a surprising number of tutors play an instrument, including a group that regularly plays blue grass. Ensemble playing involves the “necessity of being better attuned to the other musicians,” she observed.
Along with other tutors including David Bolotin, Chen played the violin in the 2007 performance To Strike the World, the first time tutors and students mounted a show on this scale (see article in the Winter 2008 issue of The College). Bolotin introduced her to a 70-year old cellist in town, which led to the formation of an all-female string quartet with seemingly unbounded energy for music. In addition, Chen will soon appear with The Serenata of Santa Fe, a professional chamber music group (she admits to missing being part of an orchestra).
In a setting where the emphasis is on the mind, it is refreshing to be able to step into the realm of music, Chen observed. She thinks it is especially beneficial for students to see that “tutors can also devote time to and be passionate about creative pursuits.” The College, she adds, has given her the encouragement and support to do this in addition to teaching. “Music reminds me that there’s something else besides what I’m doing,” she reflected. “It is deeply important that a college has a sustained musical life.”