in search of excellence: vienna teng at club passim

December 7th, 2008

 Last Friday, we went to Club Passim in Cambridge, MA to see Vienna Teng. Going to see and hear Vienna is always a delight. She is an exemplary human being in many ways. An inspiring artist, a humble person, in search of excellence.

Allow me to tell you why. My first encounter with her was a moment of serendipity – my friend Herman asked me whether I wanted to go see a concert a few days before the weekend. Being in Philadelphia at the time, the invitation came at the right time as I had an urge to visit New York City, so despite knowing little about who would perform that night, I decided to go, visit NYC, hang out with my good friend and open myself up to the chance of good music. Little did I know I would be blown away.

It was in a small venue, and the concert was really a sample of a few artists who all would play a few songs and tracks. After a few unnoticeable tracks, this Asian looking girl took stage, started to play the piano and blew my friend and I both away. Breathlessly listening, I occasionally would stomp my friend and he would nudge back saying “I know”. . I went back home, ordered all her CDs on Amazon (friends making fun of me), and started looking into her background, fascinated by this human being. It turns out she is Asian-American, Taiwanese descent, grew up in California, and what caught my interest: got a degree in Computer Science at Stanford, even went to work briefly for Cisco but in the midst of the boom, decided to pursue a career in the arts. Perhaps I saw some semblance of that in myself – who also briefly pursued Computer Science (but never finished it) and instead turned to study China Studies instead. In her, I see someone to aspire to. After last Friday’s concert, I am even more inspired. Here’s why.

The concert last Friday was my third, and while she has always been a great performer, her confidence and conviction made me think she really took it to the next level. Her passion, her singing skill, have all been there before, but seeing her how comfortable she was in a setting where she had not planned a specific order of songs to sing, but was taking requests from the audience, experimenting with some tracks while at the same time exuberating enjoyment, comfort and confidence left me wondering how I can ever reach such heights.

I’m really impressed with how she seems to be quite a humble, down-to-earth and perhaps even introverted person, who nonetheless enjoys interacting and talking with the audience, telling us little bits and pieces of insight behind every song, while making jokes about herself. But how also once she is about to sing a song, becomes an intense performer who takes pride in her work – it’s quite a stunning transformation. 

I think her performance for me exemplifies the virtue of ‘excellence’ the way Hannah Arendt has described it. Excellence, necessarily a public act, caring for what you care about, to incessantly improve yourself, because you take serious what you do, but also tremendously enjoy what you do. To measure yourself against others, not because you want to be better than them, but because you want to be a better person. To make a difference in the world through this pursuit of excellence. 

She mentioned briefly during the concert what her feelings were with regard to her being an Asian-American. How she never thought of herself as an Asian-American artist, but just as an artist. How others look at her and see her as such, but that she herself refused to be cast in a category. That perhaps people should like her work because for what it is. 

To me, as an Asian-European, that is incredibly inspiring. It might be ironic, because she doesn’t think of herself as an Asian-American, but in the process becomes a role model, precisely because she refuses to “play that card”, to be reduced to a single adjective, even thought that might come with many benefits: the first Asian-American artist! being the biggest fish (in a small pond)! Instead, she wants people to measure her, and she measures herself, squarely in the larger public of all creative artists.

Which leads me to the end of this post: in requesting songs from the audience, I could not resist requesting a particular song (that nobody else I think requested that night): a song sung in Chinese. I was considering for a brief second whether I should yell “Green Island” in English or “Lu Dao” in Chinese, deciding for the latter. Great was my satisfaction and intense my enjoyment when she sung the song to cap the night. And what a night it was. (I recorded most of the songs that night in pretty good quality, leave me a comment if you are interested in hearing them).

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7 Responses

  1. Boulos


  2. Martijn

    Sure has been a long time since I’ve seen her. Bimhuis Februar ’08 I guess…

  3. aparna paul

    thank you for your post and really am awed by vienna- she is a friend to us all. she is an amazing singer and she inspires me to be better in every way- a better person and friend and singer and artist. to be more compassionate and push ourselves to the limits of who we are and what our missions are.

    i saw her friday and last night in northampton at the iron horse. there is a beauty to her music that is in no other music i’ve listened heard. truly dynamic, different, true.

    grandmother song- talk about love and courage- vienna is an example to us to keep fighting to be victorious and win in our lives no matter what doubt comes up for us. the impossible is possible for us and for her through determination and perseverance.

    we, lovers of her music and her spirit, we wish for her only great things.

  4. Shirley Yuen

    Thanks for sharing this, very nice and inspiring.

    I am interested to listen to her other songs as well


  5. Jillian C. York

    Lovely! I wish I’d known she was playing here.

    I don’t know if I told you, but I actually discovered her through!

  6. goose

    Wow, that sounds like a great concert!!!! I like her even more now because of her personality. I love the song “Nothing without you”, did she sing that?

  7. Lokman

    goose: yes she did sing that.

book and sword : gratitude and revenge

is the first novel written by Jin Yong. The protagonist is Chan Ka Lok, who is the leader of the Red Flower Society. The book title refers to Ka Lok being famous for being well-versed in culture and martial arts, but also for having to make a difficult ethical decision. My father named me and my brother after him.

The subtitle is from a poem Desiderata