What would you do for $25,000? Does being really, really ridiculously good at cello sound like a fair bargain?
Every year, the Davidson Institute offers fellowships to students 18 and under who have the potential to change the world. This year, Nathan Chan, CC ’15, and a student in the Columbia-Juilliard exchange, was chosen as one of 22 recipients.
Chan won a $25,000 Davidson Fellowship for a project titled “The Importance of Passion.” He was awarded the prize not just for his cello playing, which was part of his entry, but also for an essay he wrote that describes what it means to be a successful musician.
“I felt like the music component wasn’t enough—I wanted to do something more than just say ‘I play the cello,’” Chan said. “I wanted to really take something about what I’ve done with my life, my story, and extrapolate the larger message that the key to success is to love what you do.”
A native of San Francisco, Chan made his musical debut as a conductor at the tender age of three, when he led the San Jose Chamber Orchestra in a set of Mozart variations. He started playing the cello when he was five years old, and since then has played with orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.
A child of the social media generation, Chan has cultivated an online presence.
“I think the Internet is a really, really important way for artists in general to put their work out there,” he said. “It gives a wide variety of people equal access to music.”
Chan has recorded many pieces and uploaded videos of himself playing on YouTube.
“I think I deliver a message. I feel like my playing isn’t just about playing, it’s about trying to inspire people.”
Chan has been reaching and inspiring people throughout his career. In 2006, he was featured on an HBO program called “The Music in Me,” which followed several young musicians from around the country on their respective journeys.
“That one project opened a lot of doors to other projects because people liked what they saw, and [they didn’t just like it] because of my playing. It was because I told my story.”
Chan has had other opportunities which extend beyond his classical repertoire: He was invited to play on soul singer Roberta Flack’s Beatles tribute album, has played with Ravi Shankar, and many of Chan’s YouTube videos are covers of pop and rock standards.
“For some reason classical music just isn’t popular enough,” he said. “But I want to give people a way to enter the classical music world in a way that’s easier for them to enjoy.”
Chan has found this to be effective even at Columbia, as part of the Columbia cello ensemble String Theory. Although he and the other members of the group are serious about playing classical music, they reach a wide audience by doing covers of songs like Coldplay's "Viva la Vida." Their video reached much of the Columbia community last year.
Chan, an economics major, plans to continue working as a musician after college. While life in the dual-degree program can be tough, Chan says that his goals, combined with perfected time-management skills, allow him to keep a positive outlook throughout even the most stressful days.
“I sometimes get emails from kids saying stuff like ‘I’ve wanted to quit the cello for some time, but after seeing your videos I’m going to stick with it,’” he said. “That right there sums it up. That’s the best.”