2020-2021 International Grant Winner (Doctoral Category — Performance): Alicia Choi
Congratulations to Alicia Choi, winner of the 2020-2021 International Grant Writing Competition for doctoral students — Performance
Violinist Alicia Choi received $11,000 towards her doctoral studies for her grant proposal, "The String Quartet Seminar: An Underutilized Course Format in Higher-Education."
Curious to learn more about Alicia and her research, we asked some questions over email...
What led you to this particular topic?
Before moving to Montreal, I was in a professional string quartet for four years. During that time, I performed and taught through our university residency, as well as other schools, higher education institutions, and festivals.
While chamber music in general has always been and continues to be one of my big passions, I do have a special love for string quartets. Apart from its tremendous repertoire, I was always struck by how the quartet is, in the words of my former teacher Robert Mann, “a world in itself”. It is a study in both personal and professional relationships, as well as a perfect, composite educational means in its way to combine individual and group technical demands and interdisciplinary aspects of music performance.
I wanted to pursue more opportunities in higher-education teaching, so when I applied to the doctoral program at McGill, I listed Associate Dean and Professor Douglas McNabney as my reference. He called me up and shared his vision for starting the String Quartet Seminar at McGill, so after my first year here, we worked together in designing and shaping the course for its first two years of inception from the fall of 2018 to spring of 2020.
What are the practical implications of your research?
My hope is that more higher education institutions will offer their own version of string quartet seminar, if not explore the various possibilities of chamber music pedagogy approaches and methods. On a personal level, I would love to teach this course myself!
How does your research add to what was already known?
The string quartet seminar class is a relatively new pedagogical method: to my knowledge, Eastman, Juilliard, and McGill are the only higher-education institutions in North America offering versions of this required course for first-year undergraduate string students. So, there is no, if very little, literature on the string quartet seminar class. I hope that my research adds a new dimension to the prevalent pedagogical methods of and research on teaching chamber music.
Were there any findings that were particularly surprising?
The most surprising finding that in retrospect shouldn’t have been that surprising, was the huge range of responses to the survey of former students of McGill’s MUEN 565 String Quartet Seminar course from 2018 to 2020. I was the TA for those years and was deeply involved in the building the curriculum, organizing the logistics, and teaching some classes. Save for one occasion, I was at every single Monday night class. So, through observations and teaching, I experienced what I thought worked for the class, as well as aspects that could be improved. However, needless to say, there was a variety of opinions! The results of the survey reminded me that every single student will bring unique experiences to the class, and each student will have unique experiences through the class. I think it’s important to valourize each student’s experience to create an inclusive educational environment. At the same time, the results also reminded me that this is difficult to achieve for every single student in what is supposed to be an introductory survey class.
Why is it important, and who is going to benefit most from your research?
Although there are so many positive implications of the course’s interdisciplinary and overarching qualities, I’m currently fixated on the collaborative and social aspect of the class, both for its students and teachers. All the first-year string students got to know each other through classes and projects; they also got to play with one another in every possible quartet formation throughout the year. This was a unique opportunity that didn’t officially exist before at Schulich. The way the course was first set-up at McGill also provided an opportunity for various faculty, not only string but also conducting, jazz, piano and theory Schulich faculty to come together and work with the students. There were also several visiting quartet performers and instructors, and even an acting instructor! This collaborative environment also exists in the analogous courses at Eastman and Juilliard in that they are team-taught. I wonder if this two-pronged benefit would help create more connected and integrated communities in educational environments.
What are your next steps?
One of the next steps I’m very much looking forward to is my final McGill recital with dear friends and colleagues on September 20. The program is called “A Counterpoint to the Canon: The Reimagination of the String Quartet Literature Used in the String Quartet Seminar Curriculum.”
This program was inspired by the combination of aspects of my main research; my pedagogical interests in chamber music by women composers; my involvement in the MUEN 565 String Quartet Seminar at Schulich; and my personal interest in curriculum and syllabus development.
One of my contributions to the String Quartet Seminar curriculum was the use of the class presentation as one of the main second semester assessments. Pairs of students gave in-class presentations covering national schools of Bohemia (Dvořák, Janáček, Smetana), Russia (Borodin, Glinka, Tchaikovsky), France (Debussy, Fauré, Ravel, Saint-Saëns), England (Elgar, Vaughan-Williams), as well as early 20th century composers Bartók and Shostakovich. This progression of literature followed that of the first semester, which covered the origins of the string quartet genre and classical composers to Beethoven. This progression in literature was also generally mirrored in the pieces that are assigned as the practical element vehicles of the class, for example Haydn op. 33 no. 2, Beethoven op. 18 no. 1 in fall 2018; and then Schumann op. 41 no. 3 and Brahms sextet op. 36 in winter 2019; Haydn Lark, Beethoven op. 18 no. 2 in fall 2019; and then Beethoven op. 18 no. 1, Mendelssohn op. 12 in winter 2020.
I re-envisioned this standard progression of string quartet literature using only string quartets by women composers. The first half of my program includes a chronological progression of quartet excerpts spanning the classical and romantic era from Maddalena Sirmen, Fanny Mendelssohn, Amanda Röntgen-Maier, and Ethel Smyth. The second half includes excerpts of various national and compositional styles that developed in the early 19th and 20th century from Grażyna Bacewicz, Germaine Tailleferre, Florence Price, Ruth Crawford, and Elizabeth Maconchy.
What drives you in your research?
The question “why?”
What advice would you give to new students in your program?
Plan time for the unexpected, because you can’t rush creativity.
What is your earliest musical memory?
Waking up super early in the morning but still lying in bed, singing all the songs I learned in preschool until I got too hungry, and then going to my parents’ bedroom to get breakfast started.
If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?
What was the last book you read / podcast you checked out / album you listened to?
- A Promised Land by Barack Obama
- Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard
- The Complete Ella and Louis On Verve
Based in Montreal, Quebec, violinist Alicia Choi is a passionate musician dedicated to the performance and teaching of violin and chamber music repertoire. Recent performances include concerts in the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Faculty Recitals, New Brunswick Summer Music Festival, Salle Bourgie Musée des Beaux-arts de Montréal, Thy Chamber Music Festival, and Trinity United Methodist Tower Arts Series. As a soloist, she has performed with the Atlantic Music Festival, Berkshire Symphony, and Queens Symphony Orchestras.
From 2013 to 2017, Alicia was an Artist-in-Residence Faculty of the University of Evansville, Associate Concertmaster of the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, and a member of the Larchmere String Quartet. Performances include concerts at the Accademia Chigiana Festival; Arts Institute of Western Maine, Harry Jacobs Chamber Music Society; University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music; and Sarnia Concert Association Recital Series. Alicia has also worked with students in masterclasses at Earlham College, Otterbein University, Western Kentucky University, and Williams College. Additional performing-teaching positions include artistic director and faculty of the inaugural Harlaxton International Chamber Music Festival; and faculty at Camp musical Père Lindsay, University of Florida ChamberFest with Beyond the Chamber; and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Chamber Music Workshop. Other highlights include the 2016 Evansville Mayor’s Arts Ensemble Award; and the release of the first commercial recording of the Stephan Krehl String Quartet, op. 17 and Clarinet Quintet, op. 19 with clarinetist Wonkak Kim on the Naxos label.
Alicia has won awards from the Fresno Musical Club, National Federation of Music Clubs, and the Virtu Foundation, as well as the McGill University Graduate Excellence Award in Music from 2017 to 2020, and the 2020 and 2021 Innovative Learning and Teaching in Music Graduate Awards. A graduate of Williams College and The Juilliard School, Alicia is pursuing her Doctor of Music in violin performance at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University.