For classical violinist Ray Chen, one of the hardships of traveling alone is the isolation he feels when it comes time to practice. “Practicing music by yourself is usually a lonely experience,” Chen said from Taipei, where he spent the holidays visiting family and friends. “The positive feedback loops are few and far between, and frustration can set in long before you get a chance to perform on stage.” This feeling was exacerbated during the pandemic, when lockdowns and quarantines became the norm. It was during this time that the Philadelphia-based violinist co-founded Tonic (https://www.jointonic.com/), an app designed to help musicians virtually practice together. Tonic will celebrate its international launch on iOS and Google Play on Feb. 6. For more information on Chen, his music and Tonic, check out his website (https://www.raychenviolin.com/).
Q: I remember watching your practice videos from around the world. Did the positive response back then encourage you to develop Tonic?
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A: There was definitely a lot of interest from musicians of all levels, from beginners to professional colleagues who wanted to access a music community. To test my early thoughts, I created a Discord server (in March 2020) and repurposed it into a sort of music space, complete with a set of practice rooms. It was really cool to see people flock to the server, especially during the pandemic. Some wanted to be less lonely while practicing, others would only feel motivated when they saw others working. Some folks just wanted to hang out and make friends. For the first time in my life, I finally felt like I understood the power behind the phrase “music brings people together.” There was always a need for more connection between people learning music, but the pandemic certainly brought that to light more clearly than ever.
Q: What is the biggest challenge of practicing on the road?
A: My own mental state. I find it really difficult to get myself in the mood for practicing. Even back when I was a student I would always find it easier to practice at school rather than at home. Realizing now that it's not the physical space that's important but where your mental space is, has helped a lot.
Q: How much do you travel for work?
A: Pre-pandemic travel was absolutely nuts. I was performing over 100 concerts a year, and most weren't repeats, either, so I had to travel from city to city for each one. Life was just constantly on tour all the time and I got to spend maybe 20 to 30 days of the year at home. Now, it's much more balanced and I perform maybe half the amount of shows I used to do. Looking back, I'm grateful for the experiences I received during the pandemic that taught me how to be creative and how to live.
Q: What was the first trip you took as a child?
A: The first memorable trip I took as a child was when I was eight years old. I was invited to perform at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Japan. There was so much excitement in my body I could barely keep a handle on myself. It wasn't just the music part though, it was everything else. … Getting to stay with a local Japanese family – we're still in touch with each other to this day – tasting delicious Japanese food for the first time, seeing snow for the first time and having a snowball fight. It was a dream that my mother pointed out could keep recurring if I practiced the violin.
Q: Where are your favorite weekend getaways?
A: Since my work takes me to so many places, I'm usually happiest just staying at home, playing video games and maybe grabbing a bite with a friend. On the odd occasion when I'm feeling adventurous, I'll whip up a spontaneous trip to Playa del Carmen or Las Vegas.
(Jae-Ha Kim is a New York Times bestselling author and travel writer. You can respond to this column by visiting her website at www.jaehakim.com. You may also follow “Go Away With…” on Twitter at @GoAwayWithJae where Jae-Ha Kim welcomes your questions and comments.)