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Senior Spotlight: Multi-hyphenate Daniel Cho composes life after Rice

Katherine Hui / Thresher

By Michelle Gachelin     2/28/23 11:18pm

From music composition to multivariable calculus, one prolific artist has excelled at it all. Daniel Cho, a double major in violin performance and composition at the Shepherd School of Music, began playing the violin around the age of five and won a competition for his first original composition at the age of nine. In addition to his impressive portfolio, Cho is minoring in business and is set to intern in Los Angeles this summer at Crowe, a global accounting firm, before returning to Rice to earn his Masters in Accounting. He hopes that his experience in finance will be another string on his bow to position himself in Los Angeles long term, where he can begin composing music for film soundtracks.

“I’ve been told a lot, as far as the film industry is concerned, that you have to be willing to take on whatever projects you can,” Cho, a McMurtry College senior, said. “But then the fact that I do have this sort of day job situation lined up for me also makes me feel like I don’t have to be bound as much by just taking whatever I can get. And then I can, perhaps just because of that financial stability, be a little more discriminative about which projects I want to take and which projects I don’t.”

Last summer, Cho was accepted into a seminar program at New York University, which culminated in a recording session with the Budapest Film Orchestra, the creatives behind the soundtracks of “Star Trek” and “Mulan.” He said that composing music for film requires him to become a chameleon by sticking to the director’s vision. However, he also believes that there is value to be found in deviating from the script, so to speak, and refining his unique voice as an artist while still retaining a breadth of impact to diverse audiences.

“Something that I quote that I heard recently [is] about how in gift giving, everybody focuses so much on giving a gift that’s supposed to be personalized to the person that’s giving it, that sometimes people don’t think a lot about giving a gift that’s personalized [from] the person that’s giving it,” Cho said. “So in a way, I’m trying to see how as a musician, I can make music that’s similarly not generically suited to the film that it’s supposed to work for, but also indicative of the kind of musician that I am and how I can work that personal touch into the film score.”

As someone who grew up in Michigan, which he describes as not very diverse, Cho says that part of discovering his artistic voice lies in returning to his Korean American heritage. He recently began working for a program within the Houston Asian American Archive to collect and document stories from AAPI individuals. Another project that honors Cho’s heritage is a standalone organ piece he plans to perform for his mom, who works as a music director at a church. 

“My parents went through college in an era where there was a lot of political unrest in Korea — there were demonstrations and riots,” Cho said. “What I’m doing with this piece is I’m taking the melody from one of the songs that was emblematic of those protests in South Korea, and I’m reworking it into an organ piece where that melody isn’t very clear for most of the piece, but towards the end, it kind of shines through and you realize that it’s been there all along.”

Cho says that his parents have been extremely supportive of his music. Since his dad is also an accountant, he says his parents represent his quantitative and artistic sides, almost like his right and left brain hemispheres. According to Cho, both parents helped instill his strong sense of work ethic.

“Everybody has their own preconceived stereotypes about what it is like growing up in an Asian American family, and I can’t speak to the validity of how true those stereotypes are beyond my own personal experience,” Cho said. ”But what I will say is that we had an extremely work-oriented mindset. And when I was growing up as a musician, I feel like I was just very, very imbued with this mentality of learning by doing.”

Along with learning how to work hard, Cho said that he and his parents are also learning how to have fun and enjoy themselves more. Now that he’s a senior, Cho said that he has more confidence in himself outside of external validation since struggling with his mental health as an underclassman. 

“[I was] also dealing with the insecurity of social impostor syndrome, where I felt out of place coming out of homeschool and not really knowing how to exist in a way that felt satisfying to me,” Cho said. “And also partly growing up in whitewashed areas, where I felt like I didn’t know the right way to be Asian, if that makes any sense. So now that’s something that I’m coming back to and realizing that I feel a lot more comfortable with. It’s not something that happened overnight, but it’s something that I kind of just woke up and realized … It’s just gone now.”

Cho says that he’s always on a journey of self-discovery, and that his support system at Rice has been invaluable.

“Overall, college has been such a tremendous period for me that I’m kind of sad to leave,” Cho said. “It’s very bittersweet, because even though I’ve dealt with so many difficulties, and I’ve had challenges, I feel like coming out of those challenges and learning all the lessons that I have has been really, really valuable … Long story short, I’m vibing. I’m happy.”

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