Impromptu - March 2010
photo by Kirsten Beckerman
QING LI WAS JUST 19 when she moved to the United States to study on a fellowship scholarship at the Peabody Conservatory.
She arrived in Baltimore in August 1987 with $36 in cash, two large suitcases stuffed with clothing and family photos, and
a Chinese-made violin her father had bought for $100.
Li didn’t speak English and American dormitory life with bland cafeteria food couldn’t compare to her family’s
historic courtyard home in Beijing and her mother’s delicate pork filled dumplings, both more than 6,000 miles away.
“I missed everything—the food, the culture, the language, my friends and family,” she says. But when she
began playing her violin, the music washed over her and she felt like she was home. “Making music gives me meaning in
life, it’s a metaphor to everyday living,” says Li, who started studying violin at the age of 4 with her father,
the former concertmaster of the Chinese National Opera and Dance Theater.
She threw herself into her studies, earned a bachelor’s degree and a performance certificate from Peabody and won
U.S. and international competitions. The homesickness lessened and her English improved. “If you need money you can
sell the violin,” Li’s father told her. At times she struggled financially, but she wouldn't sell it. And when
she auditioned for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1993, she won the part with her Chinese fiddle.
Today Li returns to Beijing twice a year to see her parents, visit with friends and eat her favorite foods. Because she
also likes to spend some time teaching classes at the Central Conservatory, which she attended, Li brings along her latest
violin. It’s a Nicolo Gagliano crafted in Naples in 1736 and affectionately referred to by musicians as a “poor
man’s Strad.” The instrument may be Li’s most recently acquired violin, but it’s not her only one.
She still has the Chinese violin her father bought her. “It means more to me that I keep it,” Li says. The violin
reminds her of the beginning of her American Dream, the journey she took to become who she is today and her pursuit for purpose
in life. It also reminds her of home.
Read more about Qing