In class she introduces herself as Cynthia Yih Shih, but onstage she’s known as Vienna Teng. A graduate student at the University’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprises, Shih might be the only enrolled student at the University who has eight years of national tours under her belt and songs boasting up to 500,000 YouTube hits. Tonight, Shih will transform from student to singer at the Power Center in one of her few performances scheduled this semester.
Tonight at 8 p.m.
Shih dreamed up the stage name Vienna Teng when she was an avid piano-playing 12-year-old, only for it to become her musical alias years later. Teng’s amateur career as a musician began in the smoky shadows of bars and coffee shop corners of California while she was working as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley. After a few years of mostly local gigs, she hired an agent who was able to book her as an opener for Joan Baez and similar artists. Before long, Teng was headlining her own gigs nationwide.
“My voice is on the soothing side, but I really love music that pushes me a bit,” Shih said. “You could describe it as mellow but adventurous pop music.”
Music has kept the 32-year-old busy — she has released four studio albums in the last decade. But now that she’s a student, Shih has chosen to temporarily cut back on musical involvement.
Last winter, Shih tried to balance a full courseload and a tour schedule that required her to travel throughout the country. The ensuing balancing act proved chaotic but insightful — she learned her limits living as both a student and as an artist.
“I figured out I can’t tour (while a student),” Shih said. “I missed out on a lot of things. I’d leave on Thursday after my last class and get back late Sunday night or Monday morning. It ended up working out, but I’d rather just focus and really be here (at the University).”
Shih became familiar with Ann Arbor through the musical support she received from The Ark as a performer. But even while she was touring elsewhere, other things kept bringing her back — chiefly the Erb Institute where she studies, a graduate program that blends the sustainable disciplines of the School of Natural Resources with the entrepreneurial concepts of the Ross School of Business.
Shih began looking for something like the Erb Institute after hearing a talk about the intersection of capitalism and environmentalism while working as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley.
“I’d never heard of anything like that before,” she said. “I’d always felt aligned with environmentalism, but I’m not good at getting angry and protesting things. The idea of actually working with businesses who are trying to be more sustainable was really interesting to me.”
Shih’s transition from the stage to campus has roused a bemused comment or two from several faculty members when they discover Shih is a well-known musician and a grad student.
“I was in a science class and the professor was talking with me and asked what I hoped to do after graduating,” Shih said. “When I told him I was a musician, he just didn’t get why I was taking his class.”
According to Shih, fellow students don’t recognize her as Vienna Teng, but when they hear she’s a singer, some remember discovering her on websites like Pandora.
“I like the level of fame-slash-obscurity that I have,” she said. “I’m not that famous, but I do have a Wikipedia page, so it’s an interesting middle ground.”
Since enrolling at the University in August 2010, Shih has found the Erb Institute to be a nice complement to her musical prowess.
“It spoke to everything I want to do in my life that music can’t fulfill,” she said. “It’s very concrete and has results you can measure, while music is much more abstract and mysterious.”
Because her passions for sustainable enterprise and music require her attention in two contrasting areas, a future involving both will require a deftly orchestrated balance.
“I love that kind of life where I can do very different things in parallel identities,” Shih said. “It sounds really difficult to pull off. But fortunately, there are no wrong answers.”