Inside Voices: “Socially Conscious Art,” with Dr. Brian Chin
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and this is my producer, Kyle. Say hi, Kyle.
Kyle Brown: Hi, Kyle.
Amanda: Today, we sat down with Dr. Brian Chin. He’s a musician, educator, and cultural entrepreneur. Trained in western cultural jazz and world traditions, Brian’s musical focus is only part of his larger vision as the founder and executive director of Common Tone Arts and the chair of the Music Department at Seattle Pacific University.
With a wide array of musical activity, Brian moves seamlessly between the soloing as a trumpeter, freelancing for world-class orchestras, composing new music, performing with the contemporary chamber ensemble Torch and producing socially conscious multi-arts events. Brian, thank you for joining us today.
Dr. Brian Chin: Thank you, Amanda. Thanks for having me and for hosting this podcast.
Amanda: For sure. This has been so much fun for me. One of the best parts of my job.
Dr. Chin: Absolutely.
Amanda: For sure. I’ve always said, my favorite part of my job is getting to know alums, and staff, and faculty that are out there doing amazing things. I’m constantly in awe of all the different things people are working on around campus. And so it’s so fun to be able to share some of those stories.
Dr. Chin: Right? The faculty at SPU is unbelievable. We’re so lucky, for the size of university we are, to have this many amazing faculty.
Amanda: Absolutely, and I could talk all day about that. Since you are chair of the Music faculty, I think every single one of them is a working musician, aren’t they, at least at some level?
Dr. Chin: Oh, absolutely. And to the extent that I’ve been able to facilitate and be a part of the hiring process, that is one of the things we look for first, is quality of musicianship and the level of activity, because you can always tell right away if someone’s an engaged musician or if they’re just doing what they need to to get by.
And so this is something that I’m really proud of in our Music Department, is so many people are fully invested in what they’re doing, artistically, and they’re embedded in the community of Seattle and nationally, internationally in the case of Dainius Vaičekonis, he’s an international superstar. And then, so many people … the other component that we look for, really, is this kind of emotional intelligence and ability to really connect with students. So, for us, it’s that intersection between being a great artist and being a great mentor that I think is the secret sauce.
Amanda: Oh, absolutely. And I’m sure by the time this comes out, maybe a lot of people will have seen it, but we’re in the midst of producing this Sacred Sounds Virtual Experience that leans not just on beautiful music being created by our professional musician alumni, but these stories of how they really feel completely changed by their time at SPU. They found that their foundation for life has been laid by these relationships with professors, so I think you’re absolutely right that when you’re hiring someone, the old adage “If you can’t do, teach,” it’s so the opposite of SPU, where you not only have to be able to do and be able to teach, but really have this unique passion for fitting into the next generation.
Dr. Chin: Yeah. I think that that old adage is 100 years out of date, if it was ever applicable. I mean, I certainly think there are people that went that way and believed that, but it’s certainly not the case of the last 20, 30 years, and certainly not here in Seattle.
Amanda: Yeah. I would agree. It’s a small city, in a lot of ways. When you get into the arts and you find that people know each other and have worked together, some way somehow, in the past, that just makes such a beautiful community.
Dr. Chin: Yeah. I think that’s a good way to put it.
Amanda: Well, let’s start by talking about you personally, and the trumpet. I’m going to confess, I don’t even think you know this, but you know when you’re talking about people that you’re working with to people that have never met them and you end up with these little catchphrases, like somebody’s spouse or whatever, that quickly lets the person know who you’re talking about, and I have actually referred to you as “trumpet genius” before. I’m just going to put that out there, just going to confess. Why did you choose the trumpet in the first place?
Dr. Chin: Oh my gosh, that’s always the age-old question. I mean, do you choose it or does it choose you, right? And it’s like, does your personality become attracted to that or does your personality start to be formed by that instrument choice? I don’t know, it’s like the chicken and the egg.
I can remember being interested and fascinated by the trumpet for my entire life. I didn’t start until much later. I come from a non-musical family and, as such, I’m the black sheep. I’m from a whole family of engineers and doctors. And I didn’t start music until I was in sixth grade, really. But I started expressing my interest in the trumpet earlier. In fact, my father bought me a trumpet at a pawn shop in third grade and I played with it a little bit and it sat in the closet.
I became more most interested from my grandpa’s old records that he had. He was a Louis Armstrong fan and other trumpet players, and I was intrigued by the instrument’s ability to play in so many different genres and to be such an expressive instrument, from the cliche “aggressiveness” but also the intimacy that can come with it, too. So I was very viscerally attracted to the instrument from very early on.
The mistake I made, actually thinking back, was listening to my teachers and actually doing what they said at the beginning. They said, “You have to practice this thing half an hour a day, on the clock,” and I actually did that. Every single day, set a timer and practiced a thing a half an hour for the first year, maybe two, of my learning. And, as you’ll know, most sixth graders don’t do that. And so by the end of that first year, I was ready to play with the ninth graders, and it was just from there, just kept getting more and more involved.
Amanda: Can I just jump back a little bit saying, you’re the black sheep going into music in a family of engineers. And, really, anything with math and engineering, it’s amazing to me how close that is to music, even though most people think of those as completely separate things.
Dr. Chin: You’re right. I completely agree, especially intellectually, and then, actually, creatively. I’m always impressed, too. I mean, thinking, the craft side, yes, it’s very much in the mathematics kind of stuff. But creatively, I’m surprised at how much it’s similar to the thought process of design, thought process of engineering and basic problem solving. And then from a doctor side, kind of interesting how much it’s in line with the ethos of helping people. In fact, that was the reason I didn’t go into the med school track. In some ways, I had the music bug and I wanted to pursue that more and more, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else; but more importantly, I didn’t feel like I would be able to really impact the world, change the world, as much as I was believing I could as a doctor, saving one person at a time after they’re already messed up. I kind of had more idea of maybe we can impact world change on a deeper level, so here I am.
Amanda: I have heard you say, “Music and imagination are a universal language to bring people together and celebrate our shared humanity.” And it sounds beautiful, it’s poetic, it’s great to put on a poster. But trying to walk that out, trying to work, not just with your own self and your own art, but with your students and saying, “Music and imagination are going to celebrate a shared humanity,” that’s a pretty lofty goal. How do you begin to walk that out?
Dr. Chin: Yeah. I mean, I guess I could most easily tell that through a quick story. 20 years ago or so, I was invited to be a soloist in Thailand and I was rehearsing with the orchestra and they were all speaking in Thai. I had no idea what they were talking about, but as soon as we started playing, everything came together, it was just like no problem. And if anything we needed to rehearse needed to be changed or whatever, it was very easy to do so through this musical language that we were able to connect on.
And then more importantly, after the rehearsal, the whole orchestra went out to dinner together, and I was sitting there and it was as if I was hanging out with my buds back in Seattle after the gig, it really wasn’t any different, even though neither of us could really understand each other’s conversation. I mean, I had a beautiful feeling of, “This is the way we can bridge difference between communities. This is the way we can bridge difference between political ideals. This is the way we can see each other on our most basic human level.”
“I was invited to be a soloist in Thailand and I was rehearsing with the orchestra and they were all in Thai. I had no idea what they were talking about, but as soon as we started playing, everything came together.”
So everything I do at this point comes back in many ways to this belief that we do have a shared humanity, that music is one of those universals. In fact, one of the proven universals of all humanity from the very beginning, this little bone flute they found in a cave in Germany is like 60,000 years old, one of the earliest markers of what it means to be human. And this little bone fragment had a lot holes in it, and when they analyzed the holes, they realized it was a flute and that it had the pentatonic scale embedded in it, so it’s one of these markers of true universal humanity.
And so, I definitely see the work I’m doing through the nonprofit, the work I’m doing through the University, as building that bridge. Through my mentorship, it’s building an army of co-conspirators working with me in building that, right? Because you can’t do that alone. So I see this as, in many ways, my mission. And that would be, I suppose, my mission statement.
Amanda: Yeah. Just to point out, because I think there are people who grew up around music and having musicality being a part of who you are, having it be in your DNA and others didn’t. And so when you talk about that shared humanity, I think ofa… again, I’m going to be very telling of my own upbringing when I mention these bands. But going to concerts with my family for a Beatles tribute band, going to see Peter, Paul and Mary on their very last tour, going to see Dolly Parton. When the audience goes from 3 to 83, during this time period where we’re arguably experiencing the biggest generation gap the world has ever seen, to have these places where everyone, even you said, listening to your Louis Armstrong records with your family. There is something so universal that we can all share in that.
Dr. Chin: Yeah, that’s a very good point. And I almost mean it more deeply than that, too. I mean, most of the music … when we say music now from our lens in 2020, it’s hard to imagine a world without recordings. But that world recordings brought with it this level of expertise thing and this idea of “we leave music for the experts.” And I guess part of what I’m trying to get back to, and trying to refer to, is this idea that communal music-making is actually part of what it means to be human, and then it taps into something that is, in some ways, lost in our modern culture. That, I think, throws another layer on what it means to be a part of the music world.
I mean, this is the reason why music that we own on records that sounds great and mastered and everything is not as exciting as hearing that same band in the arena with 60,000 other people. I have Joshua Tree but when I heard U2 do that in the arena downtown, it was a totally different experience. So I think that’s the reason, is that music has this way of bringing us together, and it’s common and it’s deep. We can’t even really understand why did 60,000 people need to go hear U2? It’s weird, you can’t even put your finger on it.
Amanda: And I think we have not even scratched the surface, from a scientific perspective, of what music does for you, creating music and being … not just seeing the band live but being a part of that band, what that actually does for your brain. I know there’ve been studies about students … there’s correlation, basically, between being good at math and being good at music. And yet, I think there’s all sorts of causal change going on there. I think making music actually helps create who you are and I hope our society never loses that. I hope we never cut music from schools because I think it’s so important for children to be able to early on feel what that feels like to be part of that process.
Dr. Chin: Yeah. Again, it’s part of our humanity. So music, even arts, being taken out of schools, to me, doesn’t even make sense. That’s a whole ‘nother podcast.
Amanda: That’s a whole ‘nother podcast.
Dr. Chin: We can talk about how to revamp music education if you want.
Amanda: Well, and I think all of us … I mean, any musician that you can name, practically, there was someone early on that showed them how to do that; that bought you the trumpet, that listened to those records with you, and if you take that away, what are we taking away from the next generation? Can we get a little bit personal here? Because, again, we’re talking about walking out very deep, broad ideas of humanity. So this deep-rooted need to create that has shaped your career and made it much more broad than simply a performing trumpet player, but you’ve done so much more with your life and career so far, do you feel like that has also shaped you personally and your family?
Dr. Chin: Oh, totally. In fact, I don’t see myself as a trumpet player. And I very rarely actually refer myself as a trumpet player, because embedded in that statement is this idea that I operate the trumpet and I’ll play whatever you put in front of me, and I’m one step removed from the process, at least that’s how it’s commonly understood. But the whole thing that got me into music in the first place, really, was an experience that I had early on, where the school commissioned a composer from the local college to write a piece for sixth-grade band or junior-high band, I think it was ninth-grade band, whatever, and we were a part of this whole process and we spent the whole first part of the year working on this and shopping excerpts and trying out things. And this was, to me, the most exciting process that I could have ever imagined.
And by the time we got to the performance, it wasn’t just something that we were excited about, but, I mean, the musicians were super excited about it, the audience was super excited about it, it was a process that I think I’ve been, in retrospect, trying to replicate the rest of my life. But then as I’m moving into the professional world and I’m playing with the Seattle Symphony and the ballets and doing recording sessions and all this, I started to feel removed from the creation process. And when I kind of awoke to that, to my original calling there, that’s when I went back to get my doctorate and to move into higher education, because I realized that I had accidentally, in an attempt to make a career in music, lost the reason I was in music in the first place. And so, for me, it’s kind of full circle and it is the guiding star from which I am focusing on now.
Amanda: Well, let’s talk about some of the pieces of that career, Common Tone Arts, for instance. What is socially responsible art? What does that mean?
Dr. Chin: Yeah, this is a small question. Socially conscious art making is really this idea that I am using this platform, whatever it happens to be, whether it would be music or some other combination of music and film, or music and theater, music and dance, in order to tell a story, in order to help people understand experience, and in order to reflect on who we are as humans, in order to reflect on who we are as culture.
So, notice it doesn’t say social justice and the fact that it’s an overt fight for a particular thing at this moment, but rather socially conscious, socially responsible as a way of saying, “I make art. It’s not just to make art for art’s sake, although it is, but it’s socially responsible in the way that I’m also using this platform to shine that back on either a part of my story, a story of someone else, or to bring attention to a particular issue.”
For example, a big piece that Torch produced in the last year … Torch is a chamber ensemble for musicians, and a collaboration with SPU’s own Scott Kolbo, from the Art Department, we created a piece called Passages that that brings attention to this narrative of this kid who’s trying to get over a wall, and the metaphors are pretty ripe for this time. But the social commentary there is deeper because it’s about fear, it’s about exclusion, it’s about vision, it’s about dreams. And you put all that together through the narrative of this kid and through the eyes of this kid, it tells a pretty powerful story about the time we’re in and about the human experience.
Amanda: So, not to oversimplify, but for someone who’s listening to this and this is a bit of a new concept, would you say that socially responsible art at its core is art that is at its foundation not looking for popularity but looking to evoke truth?
“I make art. It’s not just to make art for art’s sake, although it is, but it’s socially responsible in the way that I’m also using this platform to shine that back on either a part of my story, a story of someone else, or to bring attention to a particular issue.”
Dr. Chin: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I mean, you might say that the second you look for popularity, you’re no longer making art. Some people might say that. I don’t know. And then you get into conversations about “What is art? What is craft? What is …” I don’t know. And so, at some point, the whole thing just breaks down. So it reflects intentionality, to me. In other words, “Why am I making this? If I’m a painter, am I just doing a painting to put something beautiful on the wall, that I think is beautiful? Am I making this painting to sell a bunch to the market and have other people put that stuff on their wall? Am I making this to reflect my inner pain?” There’s all these different reasons of intentionality. And I think the intentionality that I want to state overtly is to be socially conscious.
Amanda: Yeah. I get that, I do. And I think that’s so helpful to us in our modern age, of being pulled in so many different directions, to really say, “To the best of my ability, I’m going to pull together these different pieces of myself and my career.” And like you’re saying, you’re literally pulling together different, diverse artists to create something together, to create something that not only produces truth within each of you, but then puts truth out there into the world. And I think that’s a beautiful goal to have.
Dr. Chin: Yeah. Thank you. And I think what I’m realizing is most musicians aren’t encouraged, this maybe the right word, encouraged or messaged, that they can do that. It’s like, “Well, how are you going to feed yourself? You’re a musician.” So it turns into this other problem and it’s the wrong question, I think. To me, it’s at the core of what it means to be a 21st century artist, a 21st century musician. But also what it means to be working at a school like SPU, where we’re essentially building this group of musicians that think this way and are trained to think this way, or are messaged to think this way from the very beginning.
Amanda: And to piggyback on that, I know you were a part of a huge curriculum redesign within Music, and I assume that a lot of what you just said went into that. Going from, “I’m just going to make you a great musician and then hopefully you can make a living and feed yourself,” going to a whole different level of musicianship and socially conscious art as your goal. Can you talk about the new curriculum?
Dr. Chin: Sure. And I could talk about that for hours here. But I think to summarize it, it is what you just said, in that we asked the question, “What does it mean to be a musician? Why do it?” And to us, the answer is this idea of it’s a vehicle for social growth and social progressiveness and toward justice. And then on the other side, it’s like, “How is being a 21st century musician different than it was before?” And in some ways it’s not, it’s not really any different than it was to be Bach or Beethoven, or George Gershwin, or Duke Ellington, it’s all the same kind of things. You get your craft and you use your imagination for apply that. And if you break that down, there’s levels of composition, there’s some performance chops, you’ve got to master an instrument of some kind, whether it’s your voice or otherwise.
And so the formula is not that different. Yet, being a 21st century musician is significantly different than it was before because the economic models have shifted, genres have expanded, and to use the phrase, maybe “disintegrated.” So we’re living in either a genre-fluid, which is my favorite word, or a genre-less society as music makers, where to say you’re a…
“We asked the question, ‘What does it mean to be a musician? Why do it?'”
50 years ago, if you said you’re a violinist, that basically meant you were going to be doing 19th century Germanic music in the orchestra or solo. To be a violinist now is a completely different thing. You’re going to have a wider skill set in chamber music and you’re going to be versed in things like tango and other world styles from which we operate in all the time, as well as jazz and other music from the African diaspora. So I think it’s an essential thing to be thinking about in education, is really asking that question, what does it mean to be a musician in the 21st century? And a lot of schools are just, frankly, stuck in the past on that. And I understand why.
It’s very difficult to systemically change thinking on these things, all the way down from history to practice and pedagogy, practice and theory, and theoretical understandings, and all the way down to just, “Which musical examples are we looking at?” So it’s a huge conversation. We’ve made a huge flip on that and it’s a completely different program, and there’s more work to do. And that’s what I love about that process, is, as soon as you get that, you say, “What’s next? What can we do better?”
One of the things we do that I think is essential to being a 21st century music person goes back to this idea of socially conscious art-making which asks us why again, right? And so the students have to answer that question via a project, and this project is student-generated and is designed to be exactly that. How does this prepare, not just build my portfolio in a way that frames me for the real world, but also to get me thinking about intentionality. What am I doing? What story am I trying to tell? And so, the whole curriculum is essentially built to send the student out from SPU with their career already started.
Amanda: Not just to be someone who can get by in the world but to be a good citizen in the world, to be a steward of the music and the culture that you’ve been given.
Dr. Chin: Right.
Amanda: Do you want to quickly touch on … I know it’s not a quick subject, but before we run out of time here. Just in personal conversations, you’ve talked about, in digging through all of this for your career, both within and outside of higher ed, I know you’ve made some cultural discoveries and adjustments of your own in your personal life. Do you mind talking about that for a minute?
Dr. Chin: Yeah. So I was raised in Northern Idaho as a mixed race Asian-American. I mean, Northern Idaho is a very conservative place, especially growing up in the 80s. So it is not surprising, I suppose, that when I went to New York, I didn’t feel Asian. There was no culture … Like, “In what way am I Asian? OK, my last name. My dad’s of full Chinese blood. OK, but other than that, I’m a hick from Idaho.” But when I went to the East Coast, there’s all these Asian clubs, there’s all these things, people talking about identity of what it means to be Asian. I’m just like, “Whatever, I’m just going to play trumpet.” And so I’m in school, I’m learning all this music of African-American heritage, mostly through jazz, that was my number-one focus of study.
And then I started learning, later, more music of European tradition, and I’m starting to play in the orchestra. So both these types of music are amazing, just amazing. So in my mind, at that point, it was like, “Who cares what I am?” But on the other side, I did spend a lot of my energy realizing I don’t really fit, and I still don’t feel like I fit anywhere. I don’t really fit in the jazz world. One of my teachers actually told me, “You should probably stop doing that professionally because you’re not black and your career is not going to go anywhere.” And in the 80s, that was probably a wise mentorship, but at the same time that’s kind of like, “Really, that’s a barrier? What the-”
So on the other side, playing in the orchestras, there’s a lot of Asians playing string instruments, but there are no brass players or very few, especially at that time. And so I didn’t feel like I really fit there either, and I didn’t feel like being half-Asian was anything to do with it. But I do realize in retrospect that I spent most of my life trying to distance myself from that. And it wasn’t that I was ashamed of it or afraid of it or anything like that, but I think the messaging in there was that, “Well, what does being Asian have to do with anything of interest other than making my life more difficult?” In fact, for a while I was composing under a faux Germanic-sounding pen name. Actually, it kind of Dutch, it was like Von something, I can’t remember. Just because I was like, “Well, I’m not going to be taken seriously with my name,” and I still feel like that.
Part of the reason I started using Kai as a middle name, to further own my Chinese heritage, because I felt like I’ve been kind of separating it. So in recent years, it’s more about, “Well, let me learn about this heritage. Let me fully own that and let me turn into that as part of my identity.” And, as such, I’ve been composing now, using source material from China. And I’m currently writing an opera that, in many ways, tells the immigration story of my great-great-grandfather and what it meant to be in the Midwest during the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was horrible. And once I started doing this research and stories about this, I mean, it’s slavery with another name. So it’s very huge and weighty stuff. So I am now owning it fully. And I think it’s become a huge part of why I do what I do, and especially in terms of trying to design the Institute for Creativity, which is one of the programs of the Common Tone Arts, the nonprofit, around inclusivity, and designing it from the ground up around inclusivity because I think that my story is not an unusual.
“So in recent years, it’s more about, ‘Well, let me learn about this heritage. Let me fully own that and let me turn into that as part of my identity.'”
Amanda: Yeah. I feel like that question has taken us kind of full circle to why you’re doing what you’re doing and why it’s so important when you hire new professors in the Music Department, that it’s really this three-legged stool of professional musicianship and skill, the ability to teach, but this magical third leg that is showing that there is more to life than just being a practitioner. Showing these students that even though they’re just at the beginning of their career, showing them that there is a place, there is a big, deep foundation of learning about yourself personally, about the world, around you, about God, about your ancestors. There is so much rich ability to learn out there. And sometimes, if you weren’t taught that early on, you get out into the world and you’re just drowned by how much you didn’t realize was out there.
And so, to show our students that there’s a lot out there and you have a safe place to fall, and you have people you can call when you’re overwhelmed by it all, and you need help focusing your efforts for tomorrow, I love that. And again, working with all these alumni musicians for this Sacred Sounds Virtual Experience, that’s the story I heard again and again. Whether they were in their 50s or in their 20s, the story I heard again and again was what they found at SPU, even if they didn’t know it while they were a student, even if they didn’t realize it till later, what they really came away from SPU, not just the technical expertise but that ability to dig within themselves and know that if they found something scary that they would have some help, that they would have someone they could call, which is amazing.
Dr. Chin: That’s a very good point. Yeah, that is why we do what we do.
Amanda: Absolutely. All right, Brian, we’re going to end with the last question that we ask everyone at the end of our podcast. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have them do?
Dr. Chin: I think it would be to help people realize that we’re all in this together. We’re all in the same boat. And so much of the time, it feels as if we have this mindset that if I can somehow climb above someone else by smashing someone else down, or I can leverage what I’m doing in such a way that helps my inner circle, that somehow makes this work better. I mean, it’s part of one of the inherent flaws of what we’re doing in our current political and economic systems. But it’s like, if we can somehow find a way to change the mentality, to realize that we leave anyone behind, that’s like … what do they say? It’s like lifeboat mentality, we don’t leave anyone behind, that we are stronger together and we all want the same thing, we want to pull in the same direction. So, I’m not sure what that looks like. I do know that the music components of what I’m doing and bringing people together in this way is part of that answer, it’s not all of it, but that to me is the answer.
Amanda: I love it. All right, Brian. Well, we’re going to start something new here today. We’re going to end our podcast episode with a blessing. With all the craziness going on in our world, we thought we would just speak a little peace out into the world as we finish here. May the Lord bless you and all you put your hand to. May the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May the Lord bring you unity, bring it to our community, and bring peace to us all. Amen.
Dr. Chin: Thank you, Amanda.
Photos by Chris Yang