Interview with Heran Zhao, Musical Sensation & Diversity Advocate

Our December 2019 Spotlight features Heran Zhao, a graduate of Hammarskjold High School in Thunder Bay. A highly accomplished individual, Heran has won the 2018 American Protégé International Concerto Competition, and played at Carnegie Hall, while advocating for diversity and multicultural within her community. She is currently starting a non-profit for youth musicians. In our interview, Heran shares her journey through music, and provides her insights on balancing multiple commitments, and taking a productive gap year.


1. As an accomplished musician, you play as the principal cellist at the Thunder Bay Symphony Youth Orchestra, won the 2018 American Protege International Concerto Competition, and have played at Carnegie Hall. What has driven you to pursue music at such a high level? What memorable moments have you had from music over the years?

Both passion and self-discipline has driven me to pursue music. After I moved to Canada, I was completely on my own when it came to my musical studies. It was the self-discipline that my teachers instilled in me that motivated me to practice every day, and that kept my skills sharp. At the time, I was fascinated by a number of professional musicians and conductors, and I learned that some of them offer master classes. As a shy kid in a new country, socializing wasn’t really my thing. So back then, I had all the time in the world to watch these master classes, and learned how these world-renowned musicians interpret and analyze music, handle small details like markings in the music; that gradually changed the way that I work on a piece and how I play music.

As for one of the most memorable moments, it would be in 2018, when I met a group of awesome youth musicians from across the world at Carnegie Hall. Music competitions have given me opportunities like this to meet highly skilled musicians, which drives my playing to a higher level. I also love to play music on different occasions, and I especially love the fact that my music has enabled me to travel to different places, and meet different people that I otherwise would never have met!

2. In addition to music, you’re an advocate for diversity and multiculturalism. You founded your high school’s multicultural club, serve as Co-President for the northwestern Ontario Regional Multicultural Youth Council, amongst other commitments. Why is diversity and multiculturalism so important to you, and how have you worked to encourage inclusion?

I believe advocating for multiculturalism and diversity is an important way to protect the rights of racialized and minority populations in Canada. As such, I work with several non-profit organizations both locally and across Canada, and I’m involved in the policy-making process to create long-lasting impact. I want to help ensure that youth voices are heard by the government.

In the community, I have multiple commitments that promote diversity and multiculturalism: I work with the school boards to ensure the education system is safe and inclusive; I work with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation to provide peer mentorship to indigenous youth, and I sit on the City of Thunder Bay Anti-Racism Advisory Committee to help the city understand the challenges that Thunder Bay youth face. I am also a member of the constituency youth council, where I share meaningful ideas, opinions, and concerns within our community and across Canada directly with my MP.

Nationally, I served on the Justice Canada Youth Action Committee to collate and provide direct feedback and have helped generate reports that are shared and heard by senior officials, policy analysts, researchers and others in the Canadian Justice Department. Earlier this year, I was selected as an ambassador for the National Youth Ambassador Caucus, and met with business leaders and members of the parliament in the House of Commons. Through consultations, I have provided my input to the new national anti-racism strategy and Canada’s first national youth policy. Advocating for multiculturalism and diversity is important to me, as I want to help marginalized youth. I want to ensure every youth can move through the education system smoothly, and receive unbiased treatment in the justice system. This lays the groundwork to help them succeed at what they set their minds to, and that is simply its own reward.

3. With all the community projects you’re involved with, the music practice, and school, how have you balanced all of your commitments?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic formula for saving time. However, there are certain things that help me juggle everything and increase my productivity. Firstly, I am a big fan of bullet journaling, and I use it to organize my to-do list and my goals, so I don’t forget about the things I need to do. My bullet journal also helps me keep everything on track. Secondly, I try to self-reflect daily to make sure that I am mindful of every action I take, and I constantly make adjustments to clear out distractions in my life and maximize my productivity. Thirdly, I am trying to learn to say no, as I realize that I often make commitments that distance me from achieving my personal goals,  and adds to an already jam-packed schedule. I am learning to let go of the less important things, and am trying to make more time for things that are important to me.

4. You’ve planned and organized numerous events, including a youth conference for 150 attendees, musical workshops, and various events for the clubs you’ve been on. What tips do you have for putting together a successful event?

I tend to work backwards when I brainstorm for an event. Instead of thinking about the basic first steps, I first think about what the event will eventually look like:  When is the event? How many people are in the room? Is it casual or professional?  After that, I write out a list of the little issues that have to be resolved and use that list to create the event timeline. This way, I gain clarity, awareness of the details, and forget fewer things along the way.

5. You’ve just graduated from high school and are taking a gap year. What do you have planned for the year? Do you have any advice to students who would also like to take a gap year?

I have a lot of exciting things planned for this year! To name a few, I am fortunate enough to receive a grant to start my own non-profit: a network for Canadian youth musicians and artists to build meaningful connections across the country, inspire them to utilize their skills in advocacy, and create positive community impact. I will also be travelling and attending conferences this year; I am especially thrilled to represent Canada as a youth ambassador on a mission to Peru in 2020.

Some advice that I would give to students who are thinking about taking a gap year is to plan your year well in advance, and define goals to work towards throughout the year. It is very easy to lose track of time out of school, and time will fly by if you have no plans to execute Also, don’t hesitate to reach out for support, as it will be extremely difficult to carry out your plans solely by yourself for a whole year. Most importantly, if you are travelling, working or volunteering in an unfamiliar city or country, take the necessary precautions to stay safe!


Heran is happy to answer your questions about pursuing music, taking a gap year, or organizing events through our free National Young Leader mentorship program. Connect with her here.

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