A native of Tai Yuan, China, YaoGuang began his musical pursuit at the age of three on the violin, switched to the clarinet seven years later. He studied at the China Central Conservatory in Beijing, the Idyllwild Arts Academy in Idyllwild California, and then the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. YaoGuang was instructed by many distinguished clarinetists, including: Yehuda Gilad, Donald Montanaro, Ricardo Morales and Joaquin Valdepeñas.
Currently, YaoGuang Zhai is the Principal Clarinetist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He continues to perform solo and chamber music around the world.
How did you get started on the clarinet?
I started learning musical instruments when I was 3 years old, on the violin. My father loved classical music and wanted me to become a professional violinist when I was born. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy practicing the violin but was forced to practice for 6 hours a day. When I was about 10 years old I thought I was big enough so I told my father that I did not like playing the violin. He was shocked. But a couple months later he came home with a different instrument, the clarinet! I fell in love with it immediately, I loved the sound, the tone color and everything about it! I always enjoy when I play beautiful music on the clarinet, in orchestra, solo or chamber music.
And now you’re the Principal Clarinet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It must have taken a lot of work to get where you are.
Yes, definitely. I think I learned this from my old violin teacher. He was very tough on me and if I made more than 2 or 3 mistakes in the lesson I needed to go home to relearn everything. It is not easy, but I do believe that hard work will eventually pay off.
Along the way, did you ever consider quitting or doing something else?
Yes, my first two years at the Curtis Institute were very hard. Every student was already a wonderful musician and I had a lot of pressure. I thought about quitting but then I realized clarinet was still my strongest skill and I just need to keep it going. Fortunately, I started figuring it out in my 3rd year and was able to enjoy the clarinet again.
What memorable opportunities or experiences have you enjoyed over the course of your musical journey?
I have been very fortunate to have had some good opportunities. I was able to study at the Central Conservatory in Beijing when I was 12 years old from a small city in China. Then I had the opportunity to come to the U.S and to study at the Idyllwild Arts Academy in CA where I met my first teacher in the U.S Yehuda Gilad and later at the Curtis Institute to study with Donald Monataro. Coming to the U.S changed my life, and all of my wonderful teachers helped me to catch my dreams.
There have also been memorable performances. One of my favorites was a BBC live broadcast at Royal Albert Hall with a really large and excited audience. We performed Shostakovich 5 and played 2-3 encores. The audience was so close – it felt like a rock concert!
It sounds like it has been quite a ride! If you could share some advice with your younger self, or any young musician for that matter, what would it be?
Follow your heart. If you really commit to something, then work your effort to one hundred percent. Always smile - on stage and off stage - and be positive. Everything will be just fine.
I would also say to make sure to make friends and be more social. I wish I focused more on this during my early years. Relationships are so important. So, be more open and be sure to learn from your friends and people your age, not just your teacher.