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Music doctoral student pursues dual career as professional violinist, teaching artist

Julian Tuan Anh Nguyen playing violin.

Arizona State University double-alum music student Julian Tuan Anh Nguyen playing violin. Courtesy photo

December 07, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

Arizona State University double-alum music student Julian Tuan Anh Nguyen will graduate in December from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre with a Doctor of Musical Arts in violin performance.

Nguyen completed his Master of Music in violin performance in 2020, studying under Jonathan Swartz, professor of violin in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.

Nguyen has served in leadership roles with the ASU Symphony Orchestra and ASU Chamber Orchestra and is one of the winners of the 2019–20 ASU Concerto Competition. While at ASU, he has created and performed transdisciplinary works, including two innovative college courses for his doctoral project. The courses teach the skills necessary to develop artistic performance projects, combining interactive responsive music and visuals through coding and programming. His creative work also includes producing and performing in multimedia experiences with focus on works by femme-identifying and BIPOC composers.

“Julian exemplifies creativity and excellence in all that he does,” said Swartz, Nguyen’s doctoral advisor. “His compassion for humanity is evident in his artistic endeavors, and he has a compelling voice that will make a difference in society.”

Nguyen said one of his most memorable accomplishments was meeting faculty and students from other schools, which led to new opportunities such as participating in the ASU Designspace drive-through sensory experience. His involvement with SOUNDS Academy, Harmony Project Phoenix and the East Valley and Phoenix Youth Symphonies has provided him the opportunity to mentor young people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, Nguyen said.

In the local artistic community, Nguyen serves as concertmaster of Musica Nova Orchestra; he is also a substitute violinist with the Phoenix Symphony and a local violin teacher. 

Nguyen said both of his parents were very musical, so there was always music in his home. His father played violin, and Nguyen said he grew up thinking it was normal for everyone to play instruments.

“When I was 3, I begged my parents for violin lessons,” Nguyen said. “After my parents paid for a full year of lessons and my mom took me to my first lesson, I laid on the ground screaming and crying wanting to quit. Since the tuition was non-refundable, I had to continue lessons until the year was over.”

After the year ended, Nguyen said, he continued to play and later joined the school orchestra and a youth orchestra run by his father, later attending a performing arts high school.

“I feel like I was on my musical path my whole life,” he said.

Nguyen said he felt blessed to earn the teaching assistant position for Swartz's studio, and also received scholarship funds from the ASU Symphony Orchestra.

“I am grateful that after I graduate, I am able to continue my performance and teaching career without any debt,” Nguyen said.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study and major in violin performance?

Answer: As a young violin student, I played in a nursing home for the residents. Before the concert, someone from the staff asked me to play for a lady in her room as she had not left her room in years, other than for meals. After I played a short piece for her, I returned to the group to warm up. Before the performance, I saw the staff member bring the lady to the concert and was later told that she had asked to attend after I played for her. Seeing the power music has to heal people and create community at that age definitely made an impact on me and contributed to my desire to pursue a music career.

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Professor Swartz's thoughts on "warming up" helped shift my perspective on what is achievable when we ask for more from ourselves. He was presenting a lecture on alternatives to scales that led to a discussion about warm-up routines. As an undergraduate, I would practice all 12 major and minor keys, plus some arpeggios, and often felt like I needed to do that to feel "warmed up." He challenged that idea by asking me, "Why?" Why do I create the expectation that I needed to spend 20 minutes in semi-autopilot running through my scales every day to feel comfortable to play? Aside from the physical warming up, which can also be accomplished through stretching your fingers, so why shouldn't I be able to recall the knowledge needed to enact the skills I already possess? Shifting my mindset to one where I expected myself to be able to play to the best of my ability whenever my mind willed it changed my playing for the better. Now, I have tried to be more mindful about it in other areas of my life – to be more cognizant of the unintended consequences certain routines or expectations can create.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Professor Swartz informed me that joining the ASU program would allow me to take lessons with him, participate in the Visiting Quartet Residency Program and explore classes I was interested in offered by other departments. I was able to take some creative coding classes at the School of Arts, Media and Engineering during my program.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Definitely Professor Swartz. His approach toward achieving an incredibly high level of violin playing is one that I have been able to apply to other areas of my life.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Get more sleep.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I did not venture too far from the Music Building as that is where everything I was involved in was happening. The courtyard was a great spot for fresh air between practice sessions and rehearsals, and I would always run into a friend, colleague or professor and visit with them. The second place is my TA office because it came with a futon I could nap on.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am continuing to expand my performing career and applying to collegiate teaching positions.

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