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Wind (Instruments) of Change

New Oboe Professor Brings Accessible Approach to Classical Music

By Karen Shih ’09

Five WindSync members holding their instruments

Emily Tsai M.M.'13, second from right, with her chamber ensemble WindSync, is the new oboe professor at UMD's School of Music.

Photo by Carlin Ma

She’s topped famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the classical Billboard charts, gotten a shout-out from a Washington Post critic and even recorded an upcoming album at Abbey Road Studios. Now, oboist Emily Tsai M.M. ’13 is ready to blow away students at the University of Maryland and audiences at the Kennedy Center as she embarks on a new appointment at the School of Music along with her second season in the Washington National Opera Orchestra.

This week, she starts a busy run as the assistant principal oboe as the opera debuts its fall shows: “Grounded,” about a fighter pilot grappling with the implications of drone warfare, and the classic “Romeo and Juliet,” all while she takes the reins of UMD’s oboe program.

“It’s no secret: A career in classical music is not an easy path to take,” Tsai said. “I feel so lucky I get to do what I love every day.”

She was “shocked, honestly,” to be asked to fill the shoes of the retiring Professor Mark Hill, who has been a mentor since she was a UMD graduate student a decade ago. Though she’s been teaching since then, this is her first major university appointment.

Previously, during residencies at colleges across the country, she described it as, “you kind of dive-bomb them with knowledge, and then you’re like, ‘OK, bye!’” she said, laughing. “I’m really excited to see progress week after week, and to get to know students individually.”

Emily Tsai with oboe
Photo by Aly Matei

Tsai started out on the violin as a 4-year-old; it wasn’t until middle school that she was introduced to the oboe. She was intrigued by the challenge, because it’s considered one of the more difficult instruments to play, and continued pursuing both until she went to the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. There, her parents insisted that she have a backup plan by double majoring in biology and music, hoping she would follow in the footsteps of the many doctors in her family.

Her passion for the oboe won out. She focused initially on chamber music, joining the Houston-based WindSync quintet, rather than pursue a full-time orchestra position (they’re not easy to come by—she was one of about 60 auditioners for the opera’s orchestra). WindSync has a “youthful, pop-rock sensibility,” and uniquely, performs entirely from memory, giving the musicians flexibility to move around a stage and add choreography and costumes.

Its accessible approach to classical music has led to opportunities to perform around the world. That’s helped her reach her goal of visiting all 50 states as well as over 25 countries, record multiple albums and explore collaborations with unexpected sources, such as with NASA the Lunar and Planetary Institute for the 50th anniversary celebration of the moon landing.

Playing with WindSync (a nod to the recently reunited N*SYNC) has helped her hone a distinct sound—something recognized by The Post’s classical music critic earlier this year, when he wrote that she was one of two musicians in the opera orchestra who was “frequently catching [his] ears from the pit.”

It’s a skill that she’s looking forward to teaching her students at UMD.

“Show off your personality through music,” she said. “People these days, more than ever before, want individual experiences.”



Schools & Departments:

College of Arts and Humanities

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