Provost Hai-Lung Dai didn’t see a piano until high school.
Dai’s parents, who fled to Taiwan from China during the rise of communism post-World War II, worked as farmers. His home didn’t have running water, let alone access to music education, he said, though he was always fascinated by music.
“I grew up in a countryside, basically among rice fields,” Dai said. “The house we lived in was like mud, of course not spacious. And I remember in elementary school about half of my class didn’t wear shoes.”
Though Dai did not have access to instruments, he said that by high school he realized he could use an “instrument that everyone has” – his voice.
At 16, when he began college at National Taiwan University, Dai started a choral group and said he was later asked to be a student conductor.
“As the student conductor, I had a lot of chances to conduct the chorus, and when I was there we were always national champions,” Dai said. “I always joked that my college studies major was chemistry, and my minor was choral music.”
Since college, Dai continued to conduct through his service in the Taiwanese military and after multiple moves to California, Boston and Philadelphia.
While a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and while Dean of the School of Science and Technology, Dai has served in multiple choral groups, both conducting and singing.
In 2008, Dai co-conducted a classical concert held at the Kimmel Center to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Temple’s School of Science and Technology.
“I think I became an oddity in that a scientist can conduct an orchestra,” Dai said. “So I began to sometimes receive invitations to conduct concerts.”
Five years later, Dai filled in as conductor for a performance by the private Chinese orchestra, called “Accent,” in Beijing.
Last year, his conducting took him to Shanghai, after he was invited by the Shanghai city government to hold a lecture on science and to conduct a concert with the Shanghai City Symphonic Orchestra.
Dai said that although the combination of music and science may seem odd, people often compare musicians to scientists or mathematicians because both fields value precision and measurement. But he said he believes music should be about trying to break free and use imagination.
“[Music] is like imagination with reason,” Dai said. “To me, there is no necessary connection between science and music. Actually, it’s a very different form of thinking and appreciation. It’s really like a distraction, but I do believe we all need a distraction.”
Preparing for conducting a chorus or orchestra takes a lot of time and practice, Dai said, which can be a serious distraction, but also gives him something to look forward to.
“In a way, conducting to me is like a serious hobby,” Dai said. “So when people ask me I say, ‘I’m a very serious amateur.’ A lot of our hobby life, if you really want to enjoy, you really have to get into it. The more you put in, the more enjoyment you get.”
Alexa Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.