An interview with flautist Daniel Shao (2013, Music)

Last week, Daniel Shao (2013, Music) returned to St Catherine’s College as one of the guest performers at the 2022-2023 Henfrey Composition Prize final concert. Daniel is recognized as a rising star in the classical music scene, having won numerous prestigious awards and recognition throughout his career, with accomplishments including concerto performances with acclaimed orchestras such as the Czech National Symphony and Oxford Philharmonic.

We asked Daniel a few questions about his experiences in the music industry.

Why did you choose a career in music?

Since I had some professional musicians in my family, they were able to give me good advice on realistically what the industry is like – they all told me it would be extremely difficult and tough at times (that is definitely true), but the folly of youth made me just carry on regardless! It’s been good fun, but I wouldn’t say it is for everyone. I started on the piano and found that quite tricky, but when I started the flute two years later, it came much more naturally, which gave me more motivation to practice! Many years of failed applications and hard work in my teens led to me join the National Youth Orchestra, which I enjoyed so much that I decided to pursue the professional route.

How did your time at Catz and Oxford shape your music career?

Oxford and Catz allowed me to broaden my perspective of music; rather than take the conservatoire route for undergrad (I turned down a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, which my flute teacher said was a terrible idea), I had fallen in love with Oxford (as I visited my cousin who was at Pembroke), and it certainly has allowed me to try and see a ‘bigger picture’ now in my career as an orchestral player. I still come back regularly to perform with the Oxford Philharmonic, which was one of the first orchestras to offer me professional work through the connections I made during my undergraduate, so Oxford definitely allowed me to make professional connections! However, most my professional performing skill on the flute was honed during my Master’s at the Royal Academy.

As a member of the contemporary collective Tangram, you explore cross-cultural Chinese existence through performance and composition. What makes music an ideal medium for exploring identity and culture?

Music allows us to see and see the spaces between and beyond our constructed barriers between different national and cultural borders. Working with other Chinese-associated musicians through Tangram has been a revelation as a musician of East Asian heritage, who in a white-dominated orchestral field is often a tiny minority (or the only one) in the room. Finding a community of other musicians of a similar ethnic background, and realising how different we all are, but that we share experiences of racism in the industry, has been such a cathartic experience. Exploring this via dipping my toes into traditional Chinese music (with experts) has been such an interesting way to reflect on and create community through the fragmented and slippery nature of our identities, as pan-Chinese diasporic musicians now working in the West.

How did it feel to return to College as a guest musician for the Henfrey Prize for Composition Final Concert?

Great, it’s always so brilliant to work with Beibei Wang, and the composers all really tried to learn who we are as performers! This came through in the sensitive pieces they wrote. 

Do you have advice for Catz students who are interested in exploring music, either as a career or a passion?

My honest advice is to be a classical orchestral player is an extremely competitive and tricky field, and it’s not something you can just half-heartedly explore, you have to commit 100% to many years of dedicated work, making the right contacts, and sadly unpaid training before it can really become a career…. Many professional musicians say that it would be better off as a hobby! That being said, it is an amazing job which I am lucky to do.  There are many opportunities too to make your own projects and work that can explore totally different aspects of identity and unique perspectives which have been unheard for many years; funding bodies like the Arts Council are now really pushing for more diverse voices to be heard, so I’d say trying to find a unique angle on music is a really good starting point.

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