SMU Professor Uses Music to Bridge Cultures

While Xi Wang was a growing up in China, her parents borrowed a piano from the museum where her father worked so she could play and practice.

They had been sent to the countryside as labor workers during the Cultural Revolution, so they valued any chance for their only child to expand her education.

“I showed good memory to melodies and to tunes,” she said. “My parents thought classical music was such a beautiful thing, and they knew nothing about it. They wanted me to study something they considered high class.”

Eventually, the family borrowed money from relatives to buy their own piano for Xi to play.


Xi Wang has composed a number of original pieces for band, orchestra, and chamber. Here is a sampling of her titles.

  • Lonely Stone (2012)
  • Fall at the Barnard Cottage (2011-12)
  • Silhouettes of Sound (2008)
  • Shattered Dream (2007)
  • Above Light (2006)
  • Three Images (2005-07)
  • Crows Over Wheatfield (2005)
  • Haze (2003)
  • Autumn Poem (2003)
  • Retracement (2000)

“My parents were in debt for several years — financially, it was a huge cost,” she said. “There was an obligation that you have to be outstanding.”

Clearly, this hopeful endeavor on her parents’ part paid off. Today, the pianist and composer — whose name means “hope” in Mandarin — is a professor of musical theory and composition at SMU.

She first arrived to the campus in 2009, after completing her education in Shanghai, followed by graduate degrees from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Cornell.

“I was admitted to the graduate school [in Shanghai] without examination,” she said. “I saw everything so smooth in front of me. It was too safe. I was only 22 or 23 at the time, and I wanted to see how far I could go.”

She adapted to massive cultural and language barriers in order to obtain her master’s and doctorate degrees. Again, the seemingly overwhelming effort paid off.

After just her second year on SMU’s campus, she was given the Rotunda award, which is based on student nominations.

“Out of all the professors and all the classes, four or five won. That reflected to me that the students loved her as well,” her husband, Stewart Hsu, said. “She’s been very happy being part of the SMU community. It feels like they’ve really embraced her.”

But the students aren’t the only ones who admire her.

“Xi Wang is an extraordinary artist and human being,” said Samuel Holland, dean of Meadows School of the Arts.

Even with playing and teaching, though, her truest passion lies in composing.

“Performing for a new composition you just wrote is like the day you see your newborn child,” she said. “I have all these sounds in my mind, but then you give it to the performers … the premiere is like you present your new baby to the world.”

Xi’s pieces are performed with groups all over the country, so she frequently travels to attend them and give a short speech either before or after the performance, if her schedule allows.

“That’s the day you show the world what you have done and you let people go into your heart,” she said. “You open your heart and let the music in.”

Xi said she typically composes two or three new pieces per year, depending on length and difficulty. It’s that same spirit of dedication her parents taught her that propels her toward new compositions and fuels her teaching.

“As a composer, you can’t wait for the inspiration. It doesn’t work that way,” she said. “I always tell my students you have to work for the inspiration. It doesn’t fall from the sky.”

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