Rachell Ellen Wong is a violinist, pickleball fanatic, and bunny mom based in New York City. She began her musical journey at six on the violin thanks to her father’s influence, and went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin, Indiana University, and the Juilliard School to further her education. Now, Wong has performed with “the Academy of Ancient Music, American Bach Soloists, Jupiter Ensemble, Bach Collegium Japan, Les Arts Florissants,” and more – and is the co-founder of her own ensemble, Twelfth Night! Her advice to young artists? “Make sure you really love your art and that you always have a goal in what you want to do with it.” Read on to learn more about Rachell Ellen Wong and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Rachell Ellen Wong
Heritage: Part Chinese, my dad is from Hong Kong
Hometown: Lynnwood, Washington
Current City: New York City
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
My favorite project currently is actually running my own group, Twelfth Night, with my co-founder David Belkovski. We started our ensemble last year and have had a lot of success so far! David and I met at Juilliard while we were in the historical performance program, and it was clear from the minute we started playing that we needed to continue making music together. As a new ensemble, we have been lucky to have a decently full schedule, playing in multiple places throughout the USA, which in part has been because of the support of our friends and family. Our next concert will be in Arizona, with a program for violin and harpsichord, and after that will be a performance of Handel’s Aminta e Fillide in NYC.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Make sure you really love your art and that you always have a goal in what you want to do with it. That goal can change of course, but always planning and envisioning what you want is extremely important! I say this because being a musician is so much more than practicing and performing. There’s so many things that you have to learn to be able to do on your own – a lot of it is not taught or even talked about in school. There are many ups and downs, and it can be hard. Oftentimes I find myself frustrated with the amount of work that isn’t practicing or performing. I just have to remind myself that it’s all so that I can play music and share my love of it with other people. The other thing is to never feel ashamed to ask for help, from your mentors, teachers, friends, or family if it is available.
How did you get your start?
My parents started me on the violin when I was six years old. I think I was always inclined to music and dance when I was young, but I think it was my dad’s choice for me to specifically play the violin. Thankfully there were great local teachers who lived nearby who gave me a great start and foundation. I am so grateful to my parents for bringing me to all the lessons, concerts, competitions; anything I had, they were there.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
One of my favorite moments was performing with the Seattle Symphony in the fall of 2020. It was pretty much the first performance I had after the start of the pandemic in March and it was my first time getting to direct and perform the entire Vivaldi Four Seasons. I had missed performing a lot, since all I had done for months was play in front of a computer. The orchestra was so nice to experiment with my different ideas and it was such a fun week.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
I think the greatest challenge in my career so far has been taking care of my health, especially my physical health. Playing a musical instrument is extremely taxing on the body, and taking care of yourself is so important. I think this is something that should be taught immediately when you first choose to play an instrument! After much trial and error, I’ve figured out what I need to do – massage, acupuncture, active stretching, etc, but it’s still a challenge to do all this when you are on the road all the time.
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I have always loved being Asian. When I was 7, my grandparents moved to Washington to be closer to us, so I have wonderful memories of my grandmother cooking Burmese and Chinese food for me, and celebrating holidays like the moon festival and the lunar new year. They were kids during WWII and to hear their stories of what they endured during that time gave me so much appreciation of our culture. Outside of my family, I went to a predominantly white school, where I felt awkward being a minority. I was bullied for being Asian and it really affected how I viewed myself for a long time. At the same time, I was also in a weekend Chinese school, where I was bullied for being only part Chinese, and so I felt very out of place and not accepted anywhere except my home. It took me a while to start being proud of my culture. In high school, I had a tight knit group of friends, and we all came from different backgrounds. They helped understand why being different is a gift and to embrace our diversity.
Do you have any organizations or non profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
One person I would like to highlight is pianist and founder of many organizations, Audrey Vardanega. She is also part Chinese like me, and I have found her vision for the arts, especially promoting young musicians, so inspiring. She also happens to be a world class pianist who I love playing with, and we are planning to play a lot together. She’s the co-founder of Arium TV, the Autumn Salon, and the artistic director of Musaics of the Bay. I highly recommend checking her work out.
Do you have any other “special skills?”
My friends make fun of me that I never stop talking about pickleball, and somehow I always slide it into conversations. I would consider playing pickleball my special skill and I always try to play whenever I can. I also put my paddle in my violin case and travel with it. It is a great sport which happens to be growing quickly. On a free day I can play for 7+ hours, no joke. I’ve started getting my friends into it, and am going to start playing in tournaments whenever I can!
If you come from parents who aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the business?
My mom is actually an artist herself, she was a professional tap dancer and singer. She stopped performing a lot when she had me, but her entrepreneurial spirit continues. She has always excelled in whatever she has chosen to do, whether it was making pretzels at Auntie Anne’s, or most recently coming up with skin care plans for women over 50! (She sometimes gets mistaken for my older sister, so her skincare routine really works!) I’ve gotten some of her entrepreneurial skills, which has translated into working on my social media presence which I have found very helpful, but I’ll never be as good as her! My dad is a visual artist but went to school at Caltech for mathematics. He never stopped creating art though, and also now works for the arts department in the city that I am from in Washington state. You can visit his artist page at www.nonactionpainting.com. My dad has taught me many things, but the most important is never to give up on what you want, and to never settle. I have been privileged and lucky enough that my parents have supported my choices even if they were risky, like moving to NYC without any contacts to pursue my dream. I always knew I didn’t want to be in an orchestra, and that I wanted to form my career around what I love doing most, solo and chamber music repertoire. There were many times I could have given up because things didn’t seem like they were going to work out. I am so grateful that I have always followed his advice to strive toward my goals, and it’s definitely paid off.
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?
One skill that I have been thinking a lot about is being able to manage the music world as a younger BIPOC woman. Many challenges have come up, but I am learning how to navigate them. As a younger Asian female often in a leadership position, it’s easy for people to initially put me in a box, it’s very easy to tell when that happens. I have had many experiences of people trying to walk all over me, and learned to quickly shut that down in a kind way. Though I have found that once I start playing my violin, no one tends to question me anymore 🙂 (Also, being smaller height wise doesn’t help. Just because I’m short, doesn’t mean I am any less ferocious.)
Where did you study at?
I studied at three different schools: the University of Texas at Austin, Indiana University, and the Juilliard School.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
I think I am most proud of being the first and only historical performance specialist to win an Avery Fisher Career Grant. I have always dreamed about the award since I first heard about it, but never really thought I would receive one. I am also proud that as the first winner, I can represent BIPOC women as well.
What do you love most about what you do?
Getting to perform is what I love most about being a musician. I can’t describe too well in words the feeling of being on stage getting to do what you love most. It is a rush of so many emotions for me. I love the music I play and love to share it with people. It’s the most rewarding to hear from musicians and audience members that they’ve had a new experience because of you; maybe you’ve changed their mind to love a certain composer, or know that they want to come back to a classical music concert. I love pushing the boundaries of what classical music concerts can be – in one of my last concerts, we included acting in our recital and the audience loved it!
How do you deal with performance anxiety?
The best stress relief for me is spending time with my friends and family. I love getting my friends together to hang out, and I’m lucky I have a close knit group. We often go to board game bars and learn new games or go to the park to walk around. My family is the same way, we are very active and like to go hiking in the PNW, where I am from. Being outside refreshes my entire being, and every time I get to experience that with someone I love is very special to me. I also have three bunnies – nothing can come close to experiencing love from a bunny. They also sleep with me and lick me when it’s time for me to wake up to feed them :)
Are there any habits you have that have shaped your playing?
The strongest habit that has shaped my playing as a violinist has been participating in sports. I started playing soccer in the first grade, the same year I started the violin. I was playing on competitive soccer and racquet sports teams even past college and a lot of the things I worked on I can translate into my playing. I find that music is just like a match - you never know what your opponent might do, and it’s the same thing for live performance. You can never perform a piece of music the same way twice, so being flexible and able to change anything in the moment is so important, in my opinion. It’s evident in chamber music as well - depending on what your colleagues say, you must respond in kind to them. Having competed in a lot of tournaments gave me a great view on healthy competitiveness, and the realization that the only person you ever compete with is yourself. When you’re playing a singles tennis match, the game is really mostly mental. If you’re inside your own head, there’s no way you can win points. The same goes for performing – how can you communicate on stage if you are only listening to the voice inside your own head?
What other instruments have you played or learned to play besides your main instrument?
I started learning cello in elementary school and got to participate in the school orchestra with my friends. It was a good choice because it made reading bass clef easier, when I had to learn piano in my undergrad. I also took a year of classical guitar in middle school, because I saw a video of Andres Segovia playing and wanted to play like him. I stopped because learning guitar was hurting my wrist and I couldn’t play violin for a couple weeks. I also was pretty advanced on the recorder back in elementary school, and have recently picked it up again!
Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?
I love rabbits. I have lived with rabbits since I was 9 years old, and feel like they have influenced me greatly in how I live my life. Rabbits are very loving animals when they have reason to trust you, and are amazing performers. When they are super happy, they run around as fast as they can and do jumps up to 3 feet high called binkies. I think rabbits are the ballerinas of the animal world.
To find out more about Rachell Ellen Wong, please visit her at:
Social Media: @rachellviolin
Twelfth Night: www.twelfthnightensemble.com
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