Humans of Harker: Reading between the lines

Sophia Horng immerses herself in music and books

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Helen Zhu

“I have something that’s been constant in my life, something that has been with me for my whole life. I don’t want to ever give it up. I genuinely enjoy the experience of playing [the violin] with other people and also playing as a soloist,” Sophia Horng (12) said.

As the velvet red curtains of the Patil Theater rise to reveal a stage full of musicians awaiting the start of their program, one seat remains empty. Walking onto the stage, Sophia Horng (12) is met with the gaze of not only the audience but also the 80 musicians onstage. With a melodious strum reverberating from the stroke of her bow, she immerses herself in each piece, expressing every note with purpose.

Having played the violin and piano since the age of 4 at the influence of her mother and sister Constance Horng (‘19), music has never not been a part of Sophia’s life. 

“My mom was a music major, so she really wanted me and my sister to continue that too. My sister played piano and violin before I started. I grew up with music surrounding me, so it’s [a big] part of my life,” she said. “I don’t have any memories of times [before] classical music. I can’t imagine not playing [the] violin.”

In third grade, in addition to advancing her technique as a solo violinist, Sophia joined the orchestra, strengthening both her love for music as well as the connections and friendships with her fellow musicians.

“Performing and rehearsing with the orchestra [allows me] to break down the music into different instrumentation. With a lot of pieces, you know [them] from when you’re little. [When] you start playing them in the orchestra as you get older, you can [fully] understand what’s going on in each part of the piece,” Sophia said. “When you go back to listening to … recordings of orchestral works, you know what to expect at each part, and you have memories associated with each piece.”

Since the start of high school, Sophia has been a violinist in three separate orchestras — Harker Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) and Silicon Valley Youth Orchestra — each facilitating her growth in different areas: serving as the concertmaster of the Harker Orchestra furthered her leadership skills; with SFSYO, she built a strong musical foundation as a violinist; and the Silicon Valley Youth Orchestra focuses on service.

“For the Harker Orchestra, it’s more about exploring new music [as well as] leadership and teamwork for me. As concertmaster, I work with [instrumental music teacher] Dr. [David] Hart to plan and lead the sessions. We explore more styles of music like jazz and movie soundtrack music; it’s very interesting and innovative,” Sophia said. “All three [of my orchestras] are different, so I would not be willing to give up any one of them, and there’s not one that’s better than the others.”

Furthermore, what Sophia likes the most about her experience at SFSYO is the educational, pre-professional environment, where she receives training and guidance from professional musicians of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). One piece Sophia performed with SFSYO on a tour around Europe was Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1,” which she has developed a keen affinity for.

“That was definitely the biggest piece that I’ve played before … Mahler’s symphonies are really grand; it’s full instrumentation and [around] one hour long each. We put a lot of effort into practicing and performing that piece: We performed it over eight times and rehearsed it for over four months, so I definitely have an attachment to the piece,” she said. “Now, whenever I go back to it, I remember every single note and which instruments are playing.”

Through music, Sophia explored new ways to express herself, to discover her own interpretation of each piece and make meaning out of it.

“I don’t end a piece after I learn it; I learn it in the first stage,” she said. “After that, it’s all about how I can apply the techniques to do different expressions of musicality and what kind of sound I want, not just a nice sound.”

Spending 25 hours a week in a combination of rehearsals, lessons and performances, Sophia has dedicated the majority of her time outside of school to the violin. Though a large commitment, it was worth it for her.

“I have something that’s been constant in my life, something that has been with me for my whole life. I don’t want to ever give it up,” Sophia said. “I genuinely enjoy the experience of playing [the violin] with other people and also playing as a soloist.”

Having worked with Sophia since she was in middle school, Dr. Hart has witnessed Sophia’s growth as a musician and as a leader and recognizes that her musicianship and musical ability is matched with a true passion.

“[She is] someone that I think very highly of, not only as a musician but as a student and a leader. She’s made profound effects on this department for orchestral music at Harker. I hear her using her voice as a leader but still leading by example. You listen to every word she says because she truly means them,” Dr. Hart said. “She’s continually a part of the conversation on how we can make orchestra better. Music runs deep in her soul, and she cares so much about this program; she cares about being a leader and helping others more than just herself.”

Sophia’s pure love for music seeps into other aspects of her life — perhaps not traditionally expected — whether it’s her final project in her Advanced Topics in Computer Science: Expert Systems course in which her program generated a music playlist based on the user’s preferences or reading while listening to music (usually K-pop or Mandopop) on her weekly drives up to San Francisco for orchestra rehearsals. However, most of us probably would not be able to read Sophia’s books of choice. Why? Because they are in Chinese.

“[Whatever] mood I’m in, I like to read books. In high school, I started reading Chinese books. The reason why I really liked reading them was because they’re either really long or really short,” Sophia said. “If I’m in a mood to read short books that are happy and uplifting … I know I can choose from my list. If I’m in the mood to read some serious and dramatic content, I can read the long ones that are over 10,000 chapters long.”

Speaking Mandarin at home growing up, Sophia solidified her familiarity with Chinese as a written language initially through watching Taiwanese dramas with her mother. Being able to both speak and read Chinese allowed her to immerse herself in Asian media including Chinese dramas, Taiwanese dramas and Korean dramas with Chinese subtitles.

“There was this one drama I really liked, and I found out that it was based on a book, [so] I decided to read the book. I felt like the book was actually better than the drama. After that, I started reading everything,” Sophia said. “I spiraled into looking online for suggestions and recommendations. Ever since I discovered that one book, it’s been constant. I get to practice my Chinese while I read, so it’s both useful and something I enjoy.”

Checking in with each other multiple times a day, close friend Pramiti Sankar (12) treasures every conversation she has with Sophia, specifically noting her curiosity and dedication.

“Sophia and I talk a lot. Pretty much every single conversation that we have is memorable to me. Sophia really brings this level of depth to the conversation,” Pramiti said. “She has this true love for learning that I haven’t witnessed in other people. The amount of effort she puts [into everything she does] is really admirable. 

Sophia’s ability to create connections between her various passions is one that stands out to her sister, who has played an influential role in Sophia’s life.

“Sophia is someone who’s really driven by purpose, and she’s incredibly efficient at getting things done. She’s grown in terms of expressing herself more clearly, whether that be personally or creatively. She’s become better at channeling her emotions into her music and has matured as a musician,” Constance said. “Sophia draws inspiration from everything she does and makes meaningful connections, whether that be listening to music, reading books, playing violin or [her academic interests].”