Sam Shin - The Ever Shifting Landscape of an Improv Cellist

Sam Shin - The Ever Shifting Landscape of an Improv Cellist

By Ariel Thomas

Sam Shin first stumbled upon St. Augustine back in 2016 at Sarbez, during one of Narrow’s open mic nights. Invited by John and Shea Birney, who he met at MAGfest in Maryland, Shin performed with them, and met Alex Peramas who would  ask him to join his gig later in the week at Oddbirds. Thus began Shin’s first week in the nation’s oldest city, meeting local musicians and gigging. Little did Shin know that St. Augustine would eventually become the final destination in his vagabond lifestyle.

Shin, who was once the cellist for Salt and Pine, has been playing music for twenty-four years, though not always consistently. He first started playing cello when he was eight, after his older brother gave him a convincing argument that cellists get to sit down all the time. “It’s one of the first things that sold me on playing,” says Shin with a laugh. He says he spent his first hour with the instrument playing open strings and fell in love with the sound. Since then, he’s had private teachers, played in a quartet, and was part of the New England Youth Ensemble, which took him abroad to places like Jamaica and New Zealand. Though his upbringing was classical, Shin wanted something a little more unconventional. “Classical wasn’t really for me,” he says. “I love certain aspects, making harmonies and getting in close with chamber groups, but it just felt so constricting. You have to play what is on the page and there’s not much room for improvising.”

Under the wing of Evonne Baasch, a Suzuki violin instructor, Shin was able to play in the pit orchestra of a show called Matthew’s Miracle. While Shin was busy following the sheet music, his stand partner, also on cello, played beautiful phrases between singers. “He was the first person that introduced me to improvising,” Shin says. “Playing however I feel in the moment.”

Shin says he didn’t have a standard progression with music. He dropped out of college, where he was a math and music major, saw the death of his dad in 2008, and moved to Columbia, Missouri, in hopes of becoming a massage therapist. He went through a point in time where he wouldn’t touch the cello but three times a year. After a brief stint with a band he decided to just bring his cello with him everywhere he went. The first place he brought it was to a friend’s Halloween party in 2012, which he describes as an uplifting experience. He set up in the basement, where people would gravitate towards him: one person sang, and there was percussion. From then on, he got involved with the local music scene, and remained in Missouri until he moved back home to Maryland to help take care of his grandmother.

“I really felt like this town had the same vibe as Columbia, Missouri for me,” Shin says of St. Augustine. He likes that here, the musicians support each other, and that the community supports its musicians. “This is a really interesting town for music,” he says. “It’s got such a mixture of old and new energy. That’s only really scratching the surface.” He says that St. Augustine is a melting pot of locals, tourists, and people who travel but will always call here their home. It’s criss-crossed with older and younger musicians, with places like Tradewinds, the original venue for music in town, juxtaposed to places like Sarbez, which is quickly becoming a mainstay for indie music. “This place really drives home the only constant is change,” Shin says.

What Shin would like to see though, are more opportunities for local musicians to play original music. “One thing though that a lot of times I see is musicians playing these three-to-four-hour bar and restaurant gigs, there seems to be a pressure of playing covers and playing whatever tourists like,” Shin says. “I get it, but I’ve seen good musicians who are feeling burnt out on that playing cover gigs. There’s so much good original, straight from the heart music that is under the surface of all that.” When asked for his final thoughts, Shin says simply, “I guess keep supporting local music.”

dave kosciolek