Justin Chen ’21: Creating a Community Through Music

Senior Justin Chen, who has performed in numerous concerts large and small since coming to Dwight in seventh grade, can pinpoint the very moment when his musical spark of genius was ignited.

It was during an assembly that same year when he first sang as a soloist — and it was thanks to a sound malfunction: “The microphone stopped working and despite stage fright, I started singing without amplification and just focused on the music” he recalls. “The joy I experienced singing to a crowd with no barrier or mic between us trumped the joy I had previously experienced from drawing every day.” 

Before that seminal moment, Justin’s focus was on sketching; he had attended a school in Beijing where the visual arts program was much stronger than the music program. Though he continued to draw at Dwight, Justin shared a desire to sing with his music teacher, former Head of Performing Arts, Alistair Hamilton, who encouraged him to take singing lessons through our Conservatory program. With raw talent, Justin began working with a vocal teacher and then performed “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” from Les Miserables at that now-notable music assembly.

Music, Music, Music
The following year, Justin was one of the youngest students to solo at our annual global concert, where he sang “Everglow” by Coldplay. “Stepping into the spotlight at Carnegie Hall felt like a dream,” he shares, “It didn’t feel real — and then it was no longer just a dream! With that incredible experience, I felt like the sky truly is the limit, and it set the stage for me to pursue music in a variety of ways over the next four years. With each new Carnegie concert, I became more invested in my music.”

In ninth grade, Justin soloed again at Carnegie Hall; performed a duet with Abigail Arader ’19 in tenth grade; and then shared the spotlight with Jennifer Klein ’21, Akhil Karra ’22, and Ava Goldfarb ’21 the following year when our global concert was held in Shanghai. Last year, he performed a duet with Carolina Bueno Silva Arap ’22 and played the guitar, upon the concert’s return to Carnegie Hall. 

Along the way, Justin took Conservatory lessons in cello, trumpet, sax, and percussion. He had begun with classical piano as a child in Beijing, and reports picking up and putting down many instruments in a quest to see which one would allow him to do what he wanted to do with music.  

One instrument that did stick is the guitar, which Justin says he was first inspired to play as a fifth grader in China: “After hearing the guitar solo in ‘Hotel California,’ all I wanted to do was play solo guitar all day and night, so I began to teach myself.” He has added bass guitar and taken additional Conservatory lessons in music production and keyboard. 

Learning by Observation
“At every concert I participated in,” Justin says, “I watched what went into organizing it, and learned from Mr. Hamilton; Eric Novod, Head of Performing Arts; and other global music faculty. More and more, I wanted to create a performance of my own. I had sat through so many rehearsals, I felt that I could run my own and take on other roles, including being a band leader.”

To do more, Justin connected with friend and fellow musician Marlowe Clark ’21, who plays piano and keyboard, to create a student-led live concert series at Dwight. The idea, which had first come to Justin on a plane ride, was that a performance need not take place on stage, it can take place anywhere — in a hallway, classroom, on a staircase — wherever the right instruments can fit for a small intimate performance. The duo collaborated to bring that idea to fruition and created Corner Sessions. They worked with other students, created a set list, and hosted rehearsals during lunch and after school at a music studio, thanks to funds raised by the Student Council. Their debut performance was in the lobby of Timothy House last December! Corner Sessions planned to follow that with another to raise funds for WISER in April, but COVID-19 intervened. 

Writing His Own Songs 
In the classroom, Justin has studied music theory and composition in IB Diploma Program Music HL, enhancing his knowledge and further fueling his creativity. Dwight has certainly nurtured Justin’s spark of genius, providing him with countless opportunities to learn, perform, collaborate, and grow. “I discovered my passion for songwriting here and have had so much encouragement,” Justin shares. “You can really take initiative at Dwight and make your ideas come true. I’m so grateful for Mr. Novod’s support and for the resources of the Music Department — they’ve been amazing.” 

From Small to Virtual Spaces
Justin, who soaked up everything he experienced at Dwight, says that his spark of genius is creating a community through music. Indeed, he has fostered musical connections in his grade and with peers worldwide through Dwight’s global music festivals. 

Extending their original Corner Sessions idea, Justin and Marlowe took their next collaboration into the virtual realm to raise money for COVID-19 relief efforts. Over the summer, the duo encouraged performers who have recording capabilities at home to participate. The result was a benefit concert with students in New York, London, and Dubai sharing their talents for the greater good. This student-led concert premiered last month and exceeded its fundraising goal to support the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund and The Dwight School Foundation. If you missed it, you can listen to the concert here and still contribute.

After trying so many instruments, it is through his voice that Justin feels he can best express himself. He is busy writing and producing more songs — and draws the accompanying artwork — hoping to build a fanbase through a variety of platforms, including Spotify, Soundcloud, and Apple Music. Click here to listen.
Asked how he would describe his style, Justin says, “I have consumed so much music over the last two years to break barriers in my own palette that I’m still trying to figure out my own sound. Give me a couple of years and I’ll get back to you!”

The next few years will also include graduating from Dwight this spring and starting college, where Justin plans to continue studying music. “Of course, I would love to become a professional musician, as that would be a dream, but I also plan to study Economics to have a foot in both worlds, which will offer more freedom,” he says. “I want to go to a school with a great music program in a city with a strong music presence. I’ve been looking forward to that moment for a long time!”

We know that wherever he attends college, Justin will not only become part of the music community, he will also help to strengthen it!

To hear Justin share his musical journey, click here.

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