Texas Prodigy Goes Pop
Charles Yang got his first tattoo at a parlor in his hometown of Austin on his 18th birthday. When his parents found out, they didn’t speak to him for a week. The tattoo was the latest rebellion from a man whose parents wanted him to be a classical violinist. He’d joined a rock band and become the lead guitarist; he’d grown increasingly social and popular. In short, he was spending less time practicing the violin.
Clip from “Motion” by Charles Yang:
Yang showed me his first tattoo one afternoon when I met him for pizza in New York City near the Juilliard School, where he’s now a junior. The tattoo is an intricate black-ink tracing of a traditional Chinese character that means music and happiness. “I thought it was the perfect thing,” he explains between bites, pulling up the sleeve of his T-shirt to display the calligraphy.
In frayed blue jeans, a tight white T-shirt and tinted sunglasses, Yang looks more like a grunge rock guitarist than a budding classical virtuoso. He was even carrying a guitar, not a violin, when we met. But his unexpected appearance and musical versatility are precisely what attracted a major Taiwanese music agent to sign Yang. The agent plans “to make me the Justin Timberlake of Asia,” he says.
Yang got his largest tattoo at a parlor in Greenwich Village during his first year at Juilliard. Inspired by the Lynryd Skynyrd song “Free Bird,” it’s an image of an eagle with wings spread wide across the muscles of his upper back. He nearly took off his shirt at the pizza parlor to show me.
The mixture of ancient Chinese symbols and modern American rock illustrate Yang’s uniqueness: he’s a rock guitarist and self-proclaimed Asian cowboy, a fan of barbeque, high school football and all things Texan, but also a lover of Mozart and Brahms, a violin virtuoso thriving in America’s most elite conservatory. While this rare blend of elements might seem contradictory, it’s actually the key to his exuberant personality. His versatility isn’t a shortcoming; it’s his chief attraction.
At his first recital, when he was 4, he turned and faced a corner while he played. “My ass was facing the audience the whole time,” Yang says. To get him to practice, his parents would bribe him with M&Ms. Even so, it was a struggle: “Past 30 minutes I’d always cry and shout, ‘Why do I have to do more?'”
Success as a violinist earned him praise and candy from his parents, but his peers couldn’t have cared less. When people talked about music, they talked about Britney Spears, the Spice Girls and Green Day. Once in the second grade, Charles chimed into a chat about music. He’d been listening to the violinist Pinchas Zuckerman, and while Zuckerman is famous in the classical world, he doesn’t give a second-grader playground cred. When Yang excitedly told a group how cool “Pinky Zukeman” was, eyebrows raised and faces sneered. “They were like ‘What? Who? You’re stupid,'” They teased him for weeks. After that he kept the name-dropping to a minimum.
By his early teens, Yang’s musical gifts won him invitations to play throughout Europe. In eighth grade he missed several weeks of school to play at a number of important venues. It was a blur of castles and concert halls, airports and sightseeing. One memorable concert was in a duke’s mansion. “My friends were like ‘Hey man, you missed some great soccer games, where’d you go?’ I said ‘Well, I had to play for a duke in Germany.’ They thought it was so cool.” By the time he got to high school, the story of the duke had blossomed into a school legend that Yang had played a private concert for the queen of England and had sipped tea with her.
In high school Yang started to feel that his music was no longer an obstacle to social acceptance. His friends had matured and Yang had also begun to enjoy non-classical music. At 16, after he began winning competitions in Texas and around the country, he persuaded his mom to buy him his first guitar. He’d been drawn to the instrument ever since he was young, but his parents would never agree to buy him one—they wanted him to focus on the violin. But once it was in his hands, he loved that $99 guitar, and it opened up a new world to him.
Yang’s talent was no longer an isolating burden, but a way to have fun and bring people together. At campfire parties—think teenagers, fire and beer—he became legendary for his ability to play virtually any song people requested. “People were always asking for Titanic. ‘Dude, play the theme from Titanic!'” He was still the kid who thought “Pinky Zukeman” was cool, but now he knew the music the other kids liked, and he liked to play it for them.
Yang also performed for his friends inside the classroom. In a biology class his sophomore year, the students were dissecting a pig when Yang discreetly removed the pig’s eyes, cut off its testicles and placed them in the eye sockets. When the teacher came to inspect his progress, she shrieked and ran from the room.
His antics often landed him in the principal’s office. But even the principal couldn’t resist his charm. They got along so well—and saw each other so often—that by Yang’s senior year he was teaching the principal how to play the guitar.
His parents were less than impressed. Time with the guitar was taking away from time with the violin.
When Yang is home from Juilliard and performing with his rock band, Charlie Railroad, they worry about his musical direction. “They’d get so upset when I’d jam and go to practice with the band,” Yang says. But he doesn’t think he needs to sacrifice one for the other. He sees classical and pop music as different but equally important. “If there’s one thing I want to do in my life,” he says, “it’s merge classical and popular music.”
Clip from “Maria” by Charles Yang:
His teacher at Juilliard, Glenn Dicterow, supports Yang’s quest to fuse genres. Dicterow has taught at Juilliard since the 1980s and says Yang has something he hardly ever sees in classical musicians. “It’s very rare, that magnetic star quality,” he said. “It’s so hard for anyone to have a thriving career these days. I think it is a good thing for Charles to explore his options, one of which may be breaking out into the world of pop and bringing the violin with him, bringing it to other people who wouldn’t otherwise hear the violin.”
Yang’s band, Charlie Railroad, has performed at Austin rock venues like Red 7, the Red Eyed Fly and Ruta Maya, where he’s mixing up genres. The band plays a set, mostly covers of classic rock songs and some of their own compositions, then during breaks Yang takes out his violin and plays a classical showpiece, often a Paganini Caprice or something similarly virtuosic. The crowds love it: a set of rock followed by a bit of classical wizardry.
Even Yang’s parents are slowly coming around. When they heard that a Taiwanese agent wants to make him a classical-pop crossover superstar, they were thrilled. Maybe this “just for fun” thing with the guitar isn’t so bad after all.
Nick Romeo is a freelance music and theater writer based in New York.