Synced with Nature, Synced with the Music

Synced with Nature, Synced with the Music

To call Will Hagen a nature lover would be “a giant understatement,” he told me. From a young age, Hagen could list all the different subspecies of bear and elk. He could tell where the world’s biggest tigers were found, what their diets and lifecycles were. Anything that walked or crawled or slithered the earth had him stoked, especially “big, bad animals, like grizzly bears.” 

“Man, I was just so obsessed with the natural world,” he told me, laughing. 

This passion for nature never stopped, even as the violinist grew older and dove into the successful music career he leads today. He gets most of his nature fix through wildlife gardening, a practice that focuses specifically on fostering a garden habitat for indigenous fauna—birds, bees, butterflies, and other animals—in addition to flora. 

Today, he’s moved on from the big, bad lions and tigers, and bears he loved as a child. He’s just as interested in butterflies and birds, and even more so in the holistic practice of merging sustainable, natural ecosystems into developed areas. 

“My whole gardening passion kind of snowballed over COVID,” he said. During long days in quarantine, he’d spend hours out in the garden. Wildlife gardening especially drew him in, because of the unique hybrid it offered between plant and animal. “I get a kick out of planting a specific flower, and the next day a hummingbird is on it,” he said. “It’s incredible to be a part of that ‘cause and effect’ relationship that nature has.”

He’s also hoping to add gardening to his professional life. When we spoke a couple of months back, the 30-year-old Hagen was in the process of opening a landscaping business in Salt Lake City (where he was born and raised). 

His idea is to specialize in planting all native, drought-tolerant plants. “I love landscaping because, like music, there’s an artistic side to it,” he said. “You have to make things look good, like a musician has to make them sound good. You’re organizing plants by color, when they bloom, figuring out ways to invigorate the land in winter… So I get such a kick out of the design aspect with the flora, but I’m also adding this element of ‘Hey, let’s get you an endangered Monarch butterfly in your backyard. Let’s get this species of bird you like. And so on.’

His goal is about more than just creating beautiful ecosystems in people’s backyards. It’s also about giving the natural world a place to thrive alongside modern human habitation.

“What this is all about,” he said, “is rewilding. I’m trying to assist people in re-wilding these urban areas, making them more in sync with nature.” 

Hagen hiking in nature with his dog, Zuzu.


From the Bat to the Bow

Hagen is somewhat unique in the world of classical musicians, and not just because he spends much of his free time digging in the dirt and planting flowers. 

Many professional classical musicians are raised in the world of music, either by musicians or—at the very least—families interested in the arts. But Hagen grew up in a sports family, with no real connection to the music world. As a kid, he was just as much an athlete as he was a musician.

“My family was totally obsessed with baseball,” he said. So he played travel baseball throughout childhood, hitting 23 career home runs by the time he ended his varsity career (and today, he still practices violin best “with ESPN on mute”). 

But heard the sound of a violin once, as a little kid, and became, in his words, “totally obsessed” with the instrument. He began begging his parents for a violin and learned to play from the age of four. As a youngster, he played both baseball and violin, never thinking each would be more than a hobby. 

But it was clear that he had remarkable talent as a musician, even from a young age. He won a local competition when he was nine, which led to him performing a solo with the Utah Symphony. “That was pretty magical, for a nine-year-old,” he said, and it catalyzed a shift in his life. It convinced his parents (and young Hagen) that he had what it took to make something of music. 

Hagen went on to study music in Los Angeles with Robert Lipsett at the Colburn School, and later at Julliard in New York and the Kronberg Academy in Germany. He eventually took third place at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels (2015), which kickstarted his career as a soloist. 

Will Hagen, dressed and ready for a performance. 


Different and the Same

Today, Hagen has toured and performed all over the world, with the Seattle Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and Belgian National Orchestra, among other groups.

But throughout all his travels, he’s found that audiences are much more similar than you might expect. “One time I played in the middle of the Amazon jungle, and that audience wasn’t so different from an audience in Texas, or the Netherlands,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what country you’re in. These audiences just really enjoy music.”

There are exceptions, of course. “Some audiences that are a bit bewildering,” he admitted, in particular, a concert he played in China. Hagen said audience members were taking phone calls, full-voiced, during the performance. “It was just bizarre,” he said. “A weird, weird crowd. And 100% of the people were filming the concert with their phones the whole time, too!”

Afterward, the audience responded with such tepid applause that Hagen and his fellow performers “were like ‘Wait, did we just bomb?’” But they talked to some of the audience later, and everyone seemed to love the performance. 

Motivations, like audience behavior, may be different. Some people may come in knowing all his work, some may come in on a whim. “But they all love the music,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what continent you’re on, whether you’re in a city or a small town or a stage in the Amazon jungle. That’s why they’re there to watch and listen to you perform, and it speaks to the universality of music as an art form.” 

Hagen on stage after a performance in Paris on March 13, 2020, the night before the COVID-19 shutdown. Also pictured are pianist Jérôme Ducros and cellist Bruno Philippe.


Carrying the Crowd Along with You

Part of the reason Hagen found that Chinese crowd so perplexing is because he thinks of the audience as an active participant in any concert. This is why he believes classical music is more similar to stage acting than any other art form. “It’s the interpretation of a written text, in an acoustic environment, for a live audience. So we’re more similar to stage acting than jazz, rock, or any other type of music. Like acting, we’re telling a story.” 

In that vein, the aura he tries to create during a performance is akin to that in a movie theater during a spectacular film. “Most people, most movies… the credits roll and everyone calmly gets up and goes home,” he explained. “But when you see a truly amazing movie, the whole audience loves it, and there’s this massive, thunderous applause when the credits start rolling… that’s because the audience was carried along, and that’s the art we cultivate as classical performance musicians.”

The trick to this, Hagen says, is getting the audience to experience the story together. A classical musician has to bring the audience with them as they tell a story—all without the dialogue and context and “everything that’s telling you exactly what you should be thinking” in a film. 

This makes gripping the audience much more difficult than in a film, novel, or other form of storytelling. “But it’s also so freeing,” said Hagen. That’s because the musician is in charge of making the audience care about the story, but the details are up to each listener. “The music is wide open for the audience to interpret. It could be about anything… maybe an elephant. Who cares? That’s what’s so cool about this art form.”

This is a big reason why performing will always hold a special place in Hagen’s heart.

Putting out music on Spotify or sound bites on social media can never have the same impact on a listener as sitting down in a concert hall and experiencing the full, visceral story of a performance. Listening to just a snippet of a song online, Hagen said, is “like watching Lord of the Rings, but all you see is Gollum fall into the lava at Mt. Doom at the end.”

“You don’t know the buildup. It’s nothing.”

The good news is that—barring a few exceptions—it’s usually not hard to tell when an audience is following along with the story. “When you do something and the audience is with you, you can tell,” he said. “Almost always. With your eyes and hands and the way you move, you can draw people’s attention to things… and either you feel it or you don’t.”

“It’s pure emotional stimulation,” he continued. “When you do something on the quiet end and you can hear a pin drop, that’s an audience that’s with you. When you get the audience really worked up for an ending, and you just throw that ending right off the stage into the hall, if they’re with you, you’ll feel a difference in the applause.”

“When you get those endings… Man, that’s the most thrilling thing about what I do.”

 Will Hagen


Teaching Others and Learning in the Process

In addition to performing and recording (he released his debut album Danse Russe, with pianist Albert Cano Smit, in 2020) Hagen also teaches, offering classes online. Any student of any skill level, anywhere in the world, can sign up for a class at the click of a button. 

But Hagen’s not worried about who he accepts as a student. That’s the beauty of it.

“I have a wide range of levels that I teach, but that’s fascinating, to me. The problems you face as a beginner and an experienced player aren’t that different. Violinists at all levels are chasing after the same thing.”

He began offering online classes during the COVID pandemic, and initially, he gave them free of charge. “It was just a fun way to reach out and meet people,” he said. “I taught people from Germany, Mexico, Qatar… all these crazy places.” 

After a while, it became unsustainable to keep offering lessons for free. But even today, it’s not a real moneymaker. It’s something he does for the love of it.

“It’s made me a better player, as well,” he said, “because it makes me analyze my own techniques. When you have to pump up a student and get them feeling better for a performance, it’s a reminder to yourself as well. It takes you back to the basics. Sometimes as a professional, you get so caught up in technique that you forget how little the audience actually cares about technique, and how much they care about what you’re saying to them.”

“Teaching keeps me aware of that.” 

Hagen also appreciates that teaching offers a contrast to solo practicing and performing, one that’s less self-focused. “You’re still devoted to the art [as a teacher], but it feels like you’re giving something back,” he said. “It’s not all about you.”

Hagen in dad mode, out on a walk with his newborn son.


There is No Comparison

Hagen performs in Coregami’s black Miles Mandarin, and has worn Coregami apparel religiously for some time. “I was quite conservative with concert clothing early on in my career,” he admitted, “but I can tell you right now, since playing in Coregami I’ve tried to wear a normal tux a few times… And it is truly awful compared to playing in my Coregami. There is no comparison.”

“For me, Coregami is about showing the audience that we mean business, but also not hindering the physicality of performance just for the sake of formality.”

As a former athlete and someone who loves getting outdoors and working in the garden, what draws Hagen to Coregami apparel is its functionality. “When I arrive at a hotel and I pull my concert clothes out of the suitcase, I’m not worried about ironing the shirt,” he said. “I’m not worried about putting in the studs and trying it on, making sure I’m used to playing in the jacket. I’m just ready to go.”

“Imagine playing a game of basketball in a t-shirt versus in a suit,” he said, chuckling. “I mean, a classical concert isn’t so different. It’s a physical thing to play the violin. So I love Coregami. I love this trend that they’re a part of, which is, ‘Hey, the music doesn’t sound any better in tails.’" 

Hagen with conductor Lawrence (Larry) Loh after a performance with Symphoria in Syracuse. Both are Coregami enthusiasts, and we've also written a profile of Larry.


Enjoyment over Achievement

Music isn’t about formality for Hagen. It doesn’t sound any better in tails. But it isn’t about achievement either. 

That’s the main thing, as a teacher, that Hagen would like a student to take away from his lessons. “Enjoyment over achievement,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. You have to enjoy the music.”

“A lot of people get into classical music in the same way they get into academic excellence,” he continued. “They’re playing because there’s a prize you can win or because it looks great on a college application. So much of classical music is achievement-based, because it’s seen as this morally good thing to do.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Hagen admitted. Of course, people create whole careers based on achievement. “But you also want to enjoy it,” he said. “I try to teach, to help people’s technique get better, not so they can win competitions or get scholarships… but because it’s more fun to play the violin well than not well.”

“Life is short, man. If you’re doing art and you’re not really enjoying it, something is dreadfully wrong.”