Chien-Kwan Lin (b. 1972, Singapore) has appeared as soloist and guest artist with the United States Navy Band, Eastman Wind Ensemble, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, New World Symphony, Beijing Symphony, Singapore Symphony, Boston Philharmonic, Sichuan Philharmonic, Thailand Philharmonic, and Rochester Chamber orchestra.
Mr. Lin is currently Professor of Saxophone at the Eastman School of Music, where he is also founding director of the Eastman Saxophone Project (ESP). He holds degrees from the New England Conservatory (BM, MM) and the Eastman School of Music (Performer’s Certificate, DMA). His teachers have included Ken Radnofsky and Ramon Ricker.
What inspired you to take up the saxophone?
I started playing the saxophone at 16. As a teenage boy, I was first attracted the looks of the instrument. Later on I was inspired by the saxophone solo in the song ‘Careless Whisper’ as well as Kenny G’s playing on the soprano saxophone.
Fast forward to today, where you teach at the prestigious Eastman School of Music. It must have taken a lot of hard work to get where you are today.
Of course. I came from a country (Singapore) during a time when there was no instruction available on the instrument. So I had to figure many things out for myself. Later on, when I finally had the opportunity to come to the U.S. to study the saxophone, I remember being so hungry for knowledge that I ate up everything I could, and literally hitting the practice room every chance I got.
But as I got older, I started having a more balanced approach to it. The saxophone is just my individual voice in the larger musical world. I love it every bit as much as I did when I was a teenager, but it is no longer all-consuming in my life. I get more efficient at practicing and I am still improving. Some things just need time and the mental space to settle into our heads.
Over the years, have you ever considered quitting or doing something else entirely?
I never thought about quitting, but neither did I think saxophone was going to be the only thing I could do in my life. I just kinda went with the flow. I have hit countless roadblocks along the way in my playing, but I was always confident that things will sort themselves out as long as I kept at it. I also take plenty of breaks from the saxophone so I never got burnt out.
It sounds as though this more “balanced approach” as you put it has served you well.
This sounds cliché but it’s true - ultimately the most important thing in life is to be a good person. I am competitive in what I do, but I always remind myself there is a bigger world out there, with many other players better than me. Things don’t have to be cut-throat, and there’s a place for everyone. This attitude has served me pretty well, because I can get along with people better when stakes are not as high, at least in my mind.
As a result, I got calls for gigs and other opportunities, and people are more willing to work with me. As long as I put in the preparation and do the job in a professional manner, opportunities will keep coming my way. People skills is the key.
What advice do you have for young musicians reading this interview?
If you have the passion for something, go for it and give it your best shot. Get advice and instructions from the best teachers, but be willing to receive their honest (not sugar-coated) comments too. Find opportunities to rub shoulders with the best so you know where you stand. Listen to and try all kinds of music. Be willing to skin your knees even if you’re not good at certain styles of music. Keep an open mind so you do not pigeon-hole yourself when you’re still young. Most importantly, try to be the most balanced person you can be.