Q&A: Chicago Sinfonietta violist Seth Pae on life as a musical activist – and Wrigleyville’s busiest dueling pianist

Photo of Seth Pae
Seth Pae holds his viola at the Green Eye Lounge in Bucktown on the evening of Jan. 14. (Julia Lowe/MEDILL)

By Julia Lowe
Medill Reports

Between performing as the principal violist with the Chicago Sinfonietta — “Chicago’s hippest orchestra” — and playing piano at bars like Sluggers and the Zebra Lounge, Seth Pae, 31, is building a diverse portfolio as a multi-instrumentalist. A self-described musical activist, Pae mainly performs compositions by women and musicians of color. Since 2020, when most viola auditions and performances were canceled, Pae taught himself piano. Now he regularly performs across the city as a “dueling pianos” performer (basically, two pianists face each other and play alternating singalong songs for audience tips). The DePaul graduate in viola performance talks about his journey as a performer, entertainer and musical activist.

This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.


When did you first pick up the viola?

I was 9. I was in fourth grade orchestra through public school. I was lucky to grow up in a school district that had an orchestra program because, as I found out moving here (from Cleveland, Ohio), that’s not basic in every school.


What does being a musical activist mean to you?

Activist is a polarizing word. People get these ideas about what an activist is: people chaining themselves to trees or protesting in the streets. It elicits a reaction with people, but I think it’s just doing things that will help other people. I want to take on projects that will amplify voices and help underserved communities.


You were a Project Inclusion fellow with the Grant Park Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta before taking the assistant principal viola position. What was the transition process?

I knew there was an audition open, and then it got pushed back because of the pandemic. I told myself that this was the most important thing that I had in my life. When I got to the audition, I listened back to one of my mock auditions, gave myself notes, and I played the best audition that I had just because of that prep. Transitioning from being a fellow to being a full-time member of the orchestra, I was nervous. But I have found that everyone in the orchestra has been really supportive. We’re on the same team. It’s no different than being at the back of the section, except some people might ask me questions. It’s been a dream come true because when I was a fellow, I thought one day I would like to be in this orchestra.


What is the best part about playing with the Sinfonietta?

It’s a combination of the people and the music because it reflects diversity. It’s important to have both ancient wisdom and experience with youthful people that can bring fresh ideas and perspectives.


I’m curious how you started playing dueling pianos, and how that came about for you alongside your Sinfonietta performances.

During the pandemic, I didn’t have a lot of work lined up because a lot of my work was either orchestras or teaching, and both of those have to be in person. There were times during the pandemic when I thought, “Am I ever gonna get to play with orchestras again?” I started having a lot of time to myself to practice. I set up incremental goals for myself: One of them was to learn the five main songs for dueling pianos. And then learn 10 songs. I still use the same process to learn new songs. I listen to it one time through — don’t write anything down, just listen to it. Then I listen to it again. Then I try to do a listen-through and write down the lyrics. It’s a long and painstaking process. (I still have to write down the lyrics by hand.) When I first started, it was similar to my orchestra audition process. I just started playing for people. And then the opportunity arose on a Saturday night in June, and they needed a sub at Sluggers. I wanted to make sure that I could nail this. And I was nervous — I don’t get nervous about orchestra stuff anymore. I’m 10 out of 10 confident on anything involving the viola. There’s nothing that I can’t do. Singing? At the time, probably four or five out of 10. I’m seven out of 10 now because I got a vocal coach. Piano? Three out of 10 when I started, and maybe now I’m a five. 


What do you find yourself playing the most in your request shows at Sluggers?

There’s a rotation of 20 or 30 songs that I know will get asked. I’m in the process of learning more of the Big Ten fight songs. The most money I ever made in a five-minute span was this person who requested the Michigan fight song, and I didn’t know it. And I did this whole spiel: “Thank God I don’t know this. I would never play this because I’m from Ohio. But my buddy will play the Michigan fight song!” And he played it, and we got $20 for it. Someone from Ohio State runs up there and says, “Play the Ohio State Song!” $50. Michigan runs up. They give us $75. Ohio State – they’re out of cash. So, they come peeling up to the stage, “Could you take Venmo? $125?” We’re playing “Hang On Sloopy,” and everyone else that’s not from Ohio State is booing. Honestly, I do love it because I would be all up in that too.


Do you have a favorite song to play at dueling pianos?

I have a couple because I can’t just pick just one. I really like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding. “Benny and the Jets” was the first song that Elton John played when I saw him live, and I use that as an anecdote before I play. “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers was my most listened-to song of the pandemic. And “Come Sail Away” by Styx. 


Do you think that performing with the Sinfonietta and playing dueling pianos have anything in common? Is there something that ties those together for you?

Performing at a high level and preparation — both of those things are the connecting thread. I made a plan, stuck to the plan, had success, worked hard and reaped the benefits. 


What’s next for you musically?

I have a “32 before 32” list of creative projects that I want to get finished before my birthday in May. I’m in the middle of writing a piano and vocals album right now; I’m starting to record — and I’ve never done that before. The way you start getting good at things is just by doing them. I am also writing a viola concerto. I have ideas for a musical and an opera. Dueling pianos and the Sinfonietta have taught me that if I make a plan and do the small actions, that adds up to large results. I’d love 10, 20 years from now to be able to say that I played a show in a stadium. Or I got nominated for a Grammy. Or even just that I played shows at every small venue in Chicago, and a bunch of people heard my music, and I had a good time doing it. If that’s my safety net that I fall on, if playing a world tour doesn’t work out, that still sounds cool to me. 


Julia Lowe is a Magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @juliamlowe.