The double life of Jeffrey Li, Aspen Music Festival cello student and Google software engineer
July 26, 2018
Cellist Jeffrey Li appears to have the ability to bend time and space to his will.
The 28-year-old musician and 2018 Aspen Music Festival and School student also happens to be a full-time software engineer at Google, where he works on the tech giant's Chrome web browser. This spring, Li earned a master's degree in music from the Juilliard School after two wild bi-coastal years during which he excelled in one of the world's most exacting music programs and at one of tech's most demanding companies.
Li used saved-up vacation time in order to spend four weeks in intensive cello study in Aspen this summer.
While working on his master's, Li would twice weekly take red-eye flights back and forth across the country — bouncing between his classical music world of Juilliard in Manhattan and the tech realm of Google in Mountain View, California.
To keep pace with the intense practice demands of Juilliard, he stored a cello on each coast and traveled with his bow. To stay on top of the round-the-clock demands of engineering software for Google, he simply traveled with his laptop — often working from the Juilliard lobby or popping into the company's New York office.
While fully utilizing Google's support of flexible hours and for working remotely, Li kept his music studies secret from his colleagues at Google.
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"I mostly got away with it, in that I don't think anyone who I didn't tell found out," Li said recently standing outside the Benedict Music Tent after an Aspen Festival Orchestra rehearsal of Strauss' "Don Quixote." "I was there enough on both sides that I was able to make it work."
When he did tell Google colleagues what he was up to, their reactions, of course, were bafflement.
"Most of them thought it was interesting but more thought I was a little bit crazy," Li said with a laugh. "'You're going to be where? How are you able to do this?' And looking back, I wonder the same thing."
Balancing his artistic life with his computer work is nothing new for Li. He double-majored in computer science and cello performance at Northwestern University — a five-year program. After a summer internship at Microsoft, however, the company made him a job offer if he could graduate early. To get it to work, Li crammed his fifth-year course-load into his fourth year and graduated a full year early in 2011.
He went to work at Microsoft, on the team engineering PowerPoint for the Mac and iPad.
After three years there, he got a call from Google and signed on as an engineer on the Chrome team.
Li had always wanted to pursue a master's in cello. Google's flexible work hours, he thought, might make it possible. After two years at the company, Li applied to just one school (Juilliard) in the hopes of studying with just one teacher (Richard Aaron, who also is on the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and School).
"It was something that had always been on my radar, but I had to put it off just because having a job and a stable income seemed like the right thing to do first," he explained.
He saved enough money working for the tech giant that, once accepted to Juilliard, he was able to pay his tuition outright and without student loans.
These two pursuits, he said, are not as different as they may appear from the outside. Playing cello relies on understanding the physics of sound and the science of pitch and tempo and rhythm and such, he noted.
"That's all tied to the natural laws of the universe," Li said. "I think that's very important and that's something Richard Aaron teaches a lot of — how the mechanics of the hands work, how the instrument works and how to optimize the sound that the cello is able to produce. That's what I was drawn toward."
Likewise, when engineering a piece of software, he's aiming to design something beautiful and easy to understand though it depends on complex coding that users will never see.
"There is a lot more common ground between these two than meets the eye initially," he said. "These are technical tools but we want to make great products, we want to make something that someone wants to use."
He's also not alone in his dual pursuits of music and technology. This summer in Aspen, Li met Yuga Cohler, the conductor behind the innovative "Yeethoven" project — premiered with the Young Musicians Foundation's Debut Chamber Orchestra in Los Angeles and staged in June at the Aspen Ideas Festival — who also works as a software engineer.
"There are a few of us out there," Li said.
Li, who went back to work in California this week, doesn't believe he'll have to choose between his creative life with the cello and his professional life as an engineer.
"It was never a choice between one or the other," Li said.
Long-term, Li plans to marry both of his passions together.
"I want to take what I've learned from the software industry and combine that with the music industry," he said. "Can I start a company that employs musicians the same way that Google employs engineers to innovate in the 21st century? To come up with new musical content, new artistic ideas and new ways of performing that might not necessarily be tied to the concert hall? That might have more of an online presence? An educational presence?"
The concept could take the form of a new institution, not unlike the Aspen Music Festival, or of a straight-up content company producing new classical music for a general audience, he suggested.
On the tail end of his summer in Aspen, Li said his experience here has been transformative. He pointed to the extensive opportunities for solo work with teachers, the vast orchestral program, the opportunity to play with guest conductors and coaches and the high caliber of musicianship from all students. Among the most rewarding creative challenges he found here, Li said, was performing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 with the Aspen Festival Orchestra during the opening weekend at the Benedict Music Tent. It was his first experience working under conductor Robert Spano, who also serves as music director for the festival.
"I remember one thing he said — I will take it with me forever and will teach all of my students and carry it into my orchestra playing," he recalled. "It's: 'Fix not by insisting but by listening.' This isn't said enough and it goes a long way when done correctly."
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