Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
When I was 7 years old, my parents told me that I was enrolled in a guitar group at my school. Back then I didn’t even know what a guitar was, or that you could have a career as a guitarist ! At around 10 years of age, I took part in some guitar events in China where I saw some professional foreign guitarists play concerts and I was told I had the ability to do the same as them.
This is what first put the idea of pursuing a career in music into my head, without really knowing what it entailed. My youthful enthusiasm took me to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, against the wishes of my family, where I became the very first guitar student in the whole country. During my ten years there I constantly felt that my instrument was under appreciated and underestimated. This enhanced my own determination to have a musical career and show everyone what the guitar can do. I was also so inspired by the great musical environment at the conservatory, and this too strengthened my resolve to become a musician.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
There have been many challenges on my musical journey. When I started playing in China, no one in China had taken this path before, so there were no local role models. The country had no classical guitar tradition. Looking back, I had to battle against the odds to make my own path. Over the years this took me to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and later abroad to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. It’s not easy for an Eastern person to come to the West and make a career with no familiarity with the environment here. Especially so when that career is playing a niche Western instrument. Therefore, I am extremely grateful for all the support I have received to come this far.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of
My recordings are like my children. I like them all, but I am particularly proud of two, Bach Concertos and Sketches of China. These both contain new repertoire for guitar, so I put a great deal of effort and time to make these happen. Not only the recording, but sourcing the repertoire, and making the guitar arrangements.
There are also many concerts that I am proud of, but my most recent is actually a highlight. It was called ‘Once Upon a Time in Brazil’ and I played for two consecutive nights at the NCPA in Beijing. The concert presents a wide selection of Brazilian music from classical to popular style. The program highlighted the central role that guitar has in all this music . I pushed my own boundaries as a classically trained player. I felt a revelation performing new musical styles in collaboration with different combinations of chamber musicians. For example, we had one set with guitar, percussion, and double bass, rather like a jazz trio which worked really well. The enthusiastic response from the audience on both nights gave me great encouragement and was a welcome reward for the project.
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
I feel particularly at home with lyrical, romantic works. I consider lyricism as one of my hallmarks. I am always singing in my head as I play. Several string players have told me that I phrase as if I have a bow in my hand. That’s a complement I really like and can associate with.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Travel! I like travelling to see how people live in different places around the world, and to learn about their culture. That’s a great source of inspiration when interpreting music from these cultures. It’s not only an inspiration on stage, but it opens my mind and helps me understand myself and my own cultural background in a broader and deeper way and understand other people more.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It’s based on a combination of factors, my own personal tastes and desires, the concert schedule and promoter’s requests, and my recording plans. In general, I try to balance a program to have something for everyone. I also try to feature something familiar and something new, whilst at the same time broadening my own repertoire.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I think my overall favourite is Wigmore Hall in London. It has a perfect acoustic for guitar.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
I think a few factors need to be addressed. I don’t know if classical music is losing audiences as such, but nowadays people have more choices about how to use their time, so we must compete for their attention. We need to make the music relevant to them. I also feel there are still elements of elitism in classical music, that make many feel excluded from the circle. Musical education plays a huge role in this. For example, in China a vast number of children are learning instruments, and their parents will take them to hear concerts.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I have many! Two come to mind. My first is meeting the composer Rodrigo who came to my Spanish debut concert in Madrid when I was 14! More recently it was amazing to play on Bastille Day sitting under the Eiffel Tower with the French National Orchestra, performing to a huge live audience on the Champ de Mars, and an even bigger audience via the broadcast on French national television.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think I would consider myself as a success if I could be recognised and remembered for my professional legacy.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?
There are easier ways to make a living. It’s often a tough, competitive, and unforgiving profession, even for those who truly have talent. It’s very easy to be distracted or disillusioned, so I think it’s useful to keep reminding yourself why you are following this path, and never lose the love and enjoyment of the music.
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?
Finding the right business model that allows promoters to balance artistic innovation versus commercial risk. In economically hard times, there is great pressure on promoters to take commercially safe options in choices of artists, repertoire, and programs. However, in the long run this is a danger to the health of innovation in the arts. Exciting things happen at the edge of the comfort zone. I hope the industry will regain sufficient financial independence to strike a good balance.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, the first single from my upcoming digital album X-Culture (released 19th May 2023), was released on Friday 7th April from It was rather poignant to learn today that the composer of the piece, Ryuichi Sakamoto died earlier this month. I knew he was unwell at the time I was recording his piece; I was actually thinking of his feelings at that time. Reading about his suffering gave me a sense of nostalgia as I recorded the piece.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Good health, great loving relationship, and being able to do what I enjoy doing.
What is your most treasured possession?
Xuefei Yang performs in the Image China concert at London’s Cadogan Hall on Thursday 13th April. The programme features celebrated and ground-breaking works by acclaimed Chinese composers Chen Qigang, Tan Dun, Wang Xilin, Zhou Tian, and Fu Renchang alongside Western composers Edward Elgar and John Brunning.
Xuefei Yang is acclaimed as one of the world’s finest classical guitarists. Hailed as a musical pioneer – her fascinating journey began after the Cultural Revolution, a period where Western musical instruments & music were banned. Xuefei was the first-ever guitarist in China to enter a music school, & became the first internationally recognised Chinese guitarist on the world stage. Her first public appearance was at the age of ten and received such acclaim that the Spanish Ambassador in China presented her with a concert guitar. Her debut in Madrid at the age of 14 was attended by the composer Joaquín Rodrigo and, when John Williams heard her play, he gave two of his own instruments to Beijing’s Central Conservatoire especially for her and other advanced students.