Mimi Yu

The Signet Society building on 46 Dunster St. seems like the perfect place to conduct an interview with Harvard’s cellist extraordinaire, Mimi Yu ’08. And at 5 p.m., when the Signet’s Friday Tea is in full swing with soft jazz music wafting down the hallway, it’s also the perfect time.

But life at Harvard hasn’t always been so perfect for Yu, who counts an Office For the Arts fellowship for the current year among her many achievements. Yu found it difficult to meld her differing interests together in a coherent way when she first arrived at Harvard.

“When I first entered Harvard I was confused because I found different selves yearning to do more,” she says. “I took an Ec class and found the approach was intuitive. I loved my analytical self. There was the musical self too. And I enjoy poetry that brings out my creative self.”

“I’ve spent four years at Harvard trying to reconcile all my different selves and trying to realize that these could co-exist,” she adds.

Coming to Harvard hasn’t been the only challenge that Yu has faced in her pursuit of music. Having started to learn the piano at age four and the cello at age nine, Yu traveled from Taiwan to the United States at 14 to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music under the tutelage of celebrated cello pedagogue Dr. Richard Aaron.

“It meant leaving my family and traveling all the way here to be by myself to pursue music at a much higher level with him,” Yu says. “I realized that I could not forgo this wonderful opportunity to study music in a much more in-depth way and pursue what I really love.”

Yu’s passion for music is evident in her activities at Harvard. She was a finalist in the 2007 Bach Society Orchestra Concerto Competition, is a current member of the Brattle Street Chamber Players, and participates in three other chamber music groups. But for Yu, what matters as much as the music is the people involved with it.

“I am the kind of person who loves working with people, and I think being in music is that you see such interesting minds at work,” she says.

Yu also draws a distinction between the musical life at Harvard and at a music conservatory. Harvard’s vibrant community, she thinks, makes for a more interesting musical experience.

“When you’re in a conservatory it tends to be quite one-dimensional because people are very focused on technique and want to win competitions,” she says. “But here at Harvard everyone has some other interests, so you don’t play to win this audition or to impress certain people—and that’s one of the most important things...that we need to keep and pass on to all the musicians coming up.”

And it wasn’t only the diversity of the students that was striking to Harvard’s extremely talented cellist when she arrived here; the skills of Harvard musicians struck her profoundly.

“When I got to Harvard, the talent and education I saw in my colleagues was just incredible. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the most talented musicians—not only at Harvard, but compared to music conservatories. They are top notch players.”

This is high praise from an individual with a Cello Masters scholarship to Julliard who has worked with such famous musicians as Ethzak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma ’76, and Harvard professor Robert Levin.

Yu says that she has had wonderful encounters with all of these artists, highlighting time spent with Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble as one of her most influential experiences.

“Everyone was so friendly and so interested in what you have to say as a musician, and so passionate about bringing different kinds of music together—celebrating the western traditions versus the eastern traditions,” she says. “And this performance was one of the most inspiring musical experiences I’ve ever had.”

But in spite of all her stellar achievements, Yu believes that the greatest pleasure in music is that which she can bring to her listeners.

“Everyday when I go practice and perform, I realize when people come up to me afterwards that the mission as a musician is so fulfilling that all the pains really disappear during the performance,” she says. “And you realize how fortunate you are to bring music to the world and to other people’s existence.”