April 3, 2019

PU Senior Shares Musical Knowledge With Trenton High School Students

CHARISMATIC CONDUCTOR: Princeton University senior Lou Chen spends Saturday mornings leading the Trenton Youth Orchestra in rehearsals at the University’s Woolworth music building. The ensemble, which he founded, has changed the students’ lives as well as his own. (Photo by Nick Donnoli)

By Anne Levin

Lou Chen’s love affair with music has always been as much about empowering others as it has about the music itself. For the Princeton University senior, conducting an orchestra is a tool for community service.

Chen was awarded the Pace Center for Civic Engagement’s prestigious A. James Fisher, Jr. Memorial Award last November for his work with the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO), which he founded during his sophomore year. In the two years since, the ensemble has grown from six to 20 players, most of whom are students at Trenton Central High School. Joined by some fellow Princeton students, Chen meets with the Trenton musicians at the University’s Woolworth music building on Saturday mornings, giving them private lessons and rehearsing them for concerts.

Testimonials on the TYO website attest to the impact of the program. “To say that I had an experience in the Trenton Youth Orchestra would be an understatement,” said student Grace Mitchell. “From the day I joined, I felt at home. Every practice brought something new to the table. TYO has changed my life in no way other than for the better, and has shaped me into a new person I wouldn’t be without it.”

“My time in the Trenton Youth Orchestra and the day of the concert are my favorite memories,” said Melki Garcia-Perez. “The concert gave me the confidence to play in front of crowds even if I mess up. Basically, it gave me what I needed to keep moving forward with music.”

Up on the podium, Chen gets as much out of the experience as his charges. “It’s easy to become jaded with music at Princeton, because there is just so much opportunity,” he said recently. “But these are beginning musicians. They are seeking artistic guidance, so they are more receptive than more experienced ones might be.They are always listening. There’s a reciprocity that is so invigorating. They energize me.”

Music has been a part of Chen’s life since he can remember. Growing up in San Bernardino, Calif., he was exposed to the classics early on. “My mother says I used to grab a chopstick and conduct whatever music they were playing,” he said, laughing. “I always loved to conduct.”

Chen studied piano and violin. “I was one of a very few students whose parents could afford private lessons,” he said. “I was in the school orchestra, and through my interactions with other students I was made aware of how privileged I was.”

He insists that as a player, “I was genuinely not that good. I really wasn’t. It was conducting that I loved. When I was applying to Princeton, I actually wrote my essay about how conducting was my secret hobby.”

Once accepted, Chen’s plan was to major at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and minor in music. But one semester in, he changed his mind. “I thought what the heck, I’ll be a music major,” he said. “Cut to the chase.”

Chen immediately set about finding what opportunities existed in conducting. During his freshman year, he became music director of the Princeton University Players. And he began to observe Ruth Ochs, who leads the Princeton University Symphonia and is assistant conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra. Ochs soon invited Chen to become assistant conductor of the Symphonia. A few weeks ago, he conducted Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture as part of two programs by the University Orchestra.

Of Ochs, Chen said, “She’s a wonderful, inspiring mentor, and I owe a lot to her.” Ochs is equally effusive about Chen. Recommending him for the Fisher award, which is given annually “to a graduating senior who demonstrates an entrepreneurial spirit, zest for life, love of people, and loyalty to Princeton through their work in the realm of civic engagement,” she wrote,

“Lou Chen has been the single most remarkable undergraduate entrepreneur and service initiator in the realm of musical engagement whom I have encountered during my 16-year career at Princeton University. In fact, as someone who grew up with a strong belief in and somewhat of a track record in service, Lou’s achievements blow my mind.”

It was during his freshman spring semester that Chen began exploring the idea of starting a  youth orchestra. At Trenton High, he saw that Joseph Pucciatti and Norberto Diaz “were doing great work,” he said. “But they said the challenge was that the students just don’t get individual instruction. So I proposed the idea to the Pace Center (at Princeton), and they approved it. With some friends, I started the group and we began meeting with the students once a week.”

The program continued while Chen took a year to study at the University of Oxford, during which he volunteered at a homeless shelter and played in a homeless orchestra. “We actually wrote our own songs,” he said. “We had a final concert for the homeless community. These were not trained musicians, but somehow, we were making music together. It was wonderful.”

Chen has found time to serve as a political intern via the Woodrow Wilson school. “I witnessed the Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court. I was actually in the hearing,” he said.

The 2018-19 year has been especially frenetic, due to the University residency of famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel, himself a product and proponent of bringing music to underserved communities. The opportunity to watch Dudamel in action and work closely with him has been invaluable.

“This happened to coincide with a big expansion of TYO,” Chen said. “So Marna (Seltzer, director of Princeton University Concerts) folded us into the residency. We have performed for him, and in January I served on a panel with him. He’s remarkable — energetic and open minded about classical music. He has real warmth, especially with kids. It can be really hard to establish that with kids, but he did it in a matter of minutes. He’s so authentic.”

After graduation, Chen hopes to find a job in music outreach in New York or Philadelphia. “I have to be somewhere where I can continue overseeing TYO,” he said. “I will commute back every Saturday. I have to be able to keep doing this, because it is so important. I have no intention of abandoning them.”