Studio Visit appears in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. Here, a visit with Champaign musician David Tcheng.
Q: I saw your recent Facebook post about taking up the oboe.
A: I just started. This oboe has a double reed, but it has a very unique sound. People were concerned when I first started talking about the oboe. People have these love-hate feelings toward the oboe, but when I first heard it, I loved the sound of it.
Q: How many instruments do you play, anyway?
A: People always ask me that, and I've never been able to answer. How do you count among instruments like all the different saxophones? It's more what instruments I don't play.
Q: What is your primary instrument or the first one you learned?
A: Piano, when I was around 7. But I quit because I didn't like to practice. My dad was self-taught on piano. He wanted to play piano and sing. He grew up in a Chinese family in Vietnam, where he was told the piano was a woman's instrument. So he taught himself to play piano and accordion as well. I pretty much had it in me that I can teach myself and don't need instruction.
But in my case, I got the best of both worlds. In grade school, I wanted to play a band instrument. A teacher knew I had musical aptitude, and she was a French horn teacher and said she would find me one.
Between then and the time she found a French horn, I practiced on a French horn mouthpiece attached to a garden hose. Then I played French horn all the way through grade and high school and college.
When I was a freshman (at University High School in Normal), I started taking college classes, and when I was still in high school I was the first horn in the symphonic band at Illinois State University. But I realized the French horn is not an easy instrument to jam with with other people. So I started on other brass instruments, and then when I came here for graduate school, I started playing with bands.
I was rooming with a guy who played all these wind instruments, so I started picking up all these wind instruments. My two brothers had played guitar, so I started playing more and more guitar and writing songs with guitar and with piano. I have quite a few songs now, and I've played in different bands.
Q: What bands are you playing in now?
A: The Curses led by Ben Spoden and a relatively new band called Wagon Fire. Chris Strand, a bass player, organized Wagon Fire and plays in the Curses, too.
Q: A friend of mine immediately downloaded the Curses CD after hearing it at my house. It's really good. How would you describe its music?
A: I like to call it original Americana. We cover a lot of styles. They tend to be older styles, from the 1920s to the '50s. It's very much an acoustic band that plays in almost a street style, which I really like. For one thing, we don't have a drummer playing a drum set. The drummer usually sits on a drum box, and that makes for a quieter sound.
Wagon Fire plays gypsy jazz. The reason it's called Wagon Fire is (gypsy guitarist) Django Reinhardt got hurt in a wagon fire.
Q: Is that drum set over there yours? Do you play drums, too?
A: It's my drum set, but I'm not an accomplished drummer. I like to play every instrument because I feel it expands my musical knowledge. With a lot of instruments, I have a lot of timbres to pick. That's a great thing to have because each instrument has a different character.
Q: Why didn't you become a professional musician?
A: I guess because I'm a better scientist. I'm equally interested in science and the arts. My work (at the University of Illinois) allows me to pursue those interests. I never thought I was destined to become a great musician. I always thought I was a good musician and would get better at it and I enjoy it.
Q: What do you do at the UI?
A: I'm a research scientist at the Illinois Informatics Institute and the (National Center for Supercomputing Applications). I study machine learning and how to solve problems and make predictions, using usually super computers and software I write.
Editor's note: The next Curses gig will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at Dublin O'Neil's, 301 N. Neil St., C. For more on the Curses, see http://www.facebook.com/thecurses.