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Secrets to a Deeper Connection with Classical Music

Last week, I had the privilege of visiting local high schools in Crescent City, California, where I performed solo concerts. Often, presenters arrange for artists to visit schools during their stays and give them more direct opportunities to engage with the community before the concert. I love these connections, as I get to talk about the beauty of classical music and how to connect with it better outside of the concert context.

Making my way through students’ bustling hallway traffic between classes is always a fresh experience. In Korea, we stay in one classroom for the entire school year (in fact, the same assigned desk), and different teachers come to us. As I walked into a classroom full of high school students, some looked curious and happy to face someone new, and some looked indifferent and unsure about the whole thing.

Over the years, I’ve realized that I’ve lived a rather unusual life as far as classical music is concerned. As a graduate of an art high school in Korea, I majored in piano as a young teenager. Then, getting a higher education and becoming a doctor of musical arts (DMA) in piano performance put me in academia until my late 20s, surrounded by fellow classical music nerds for almost all my life. I didn’t have to explain the beauty of classical music to them. We were just fellow fanatics who loved to share and talk about it.

Then, I hit a big reality check after leaving the school once I started to perform in front of an actual audience. I realized that the general public needs more context when encountering classical music. After all, the piano is no longer a center of entertainment in their living rooms, and people are moving away from classical music traditions. The good news is that once I gave my listeners a better context, almost everyone found their way to classical music and loved it. I saw that not only did they become fans of classical music, once given the right context and setting, but they also became fellow lifelong supporters of what I do: act as an ambassador of classical music.

In that classroom, I asked how many of the students in the room had been to a classical concert in the past. Only a handful raised their hands shyly. I assume you are reading this because you have had some exposure to classical music and already love it. But setting that assumption aside, I want to offer the same secrets that I offered to those high school students on how to connect more deeply with this music that I love.

First, I want to share this three-minute video from my concert last week. It is about meeting one of my audiences, Elli, after the concert. Surely, it was one of the most powerful moments in my life as a pianist. If you ever doubt what classical music can do to people and their souls, please take three minutes to watch it. You will be convinced. Especially if you have been to my 시음 /si-úm/ concert, you will understand exactly what she is talking about.

Here are six tips that I would like to offer you to try to connect more deeply with classical music.

1. Choose a medium. There are so many instrumentation possibilities in classical music. Choose one or two instrumentations, such as string quartet, piano, piano trio, flute, cello, baritone, etc., and dig deeper. The more you become familiar with a specific instrumentation, the more you will feel at home when you listen to it as an introduction.

2. Be a superfan of several classical musicians. There are many classical music rock stars in this world. Don’t blindly follow what others follow, but find with whom you can connect and be a superfan; listen to their albums, go to their live concerts, follow their social media, and find ways to stay connected with them through their YouTube appearances or newsletters. Yes, I do follow others myself! Among them are pianist Maria João Pires and conductor Kirill Petrenko, whose concert I hope to attend in the future.

3. Choose one piece of classical music with which you connect and listen to many different versions. Interestingly, classical music is ironic in that you don’t have to know anything to appreciate it, but your appreciation surely deepens the more intimately you know the piece. I’ve never met anyone who said, “Oh, I know that piece so well, so I don’t have to go to the concert to listen to it again.” The greater you love a piece, the more eagerly you want to listen to that piece over and over again. This also leads one to be curious about how other artists would interpret it.

4. Go to live performances. Nothing beats a live performance, period. Yes, I do understand the convenience of YouTube and other digital mediums, and I am thankful for those. However, unless you live on a rural mountain at some far end of the earth, I bet you can find some live classical concerts somewhere. This is about a human connection—one human creates art, and another human receives it. Go and experience yourself. Then, do it again and again. Start small. At the beginning, an intimate house concert might have a better impact than a big hall for orchestra. Listen to the repertoire before the concert to equip yourself, turn off the phone, and allow yourself to fully receive a gift of music for an hour.

5. Be an active listener. That means you need to participate in the music. Can you think of some image or story or your experience while you listen? What would the composer have been thinking, doing, or feeling when he or she wrote? Can you connect with the performer? Tap into any emotions that arise in you, and follow them with the music. Don’t be afraid to go off on your own thoughts. That is a sign that your heart is responding to that music.

6. Learn an instrument. This is the hardest way to do it, but it is the surest way that I can guarantee that you will become a classical music fan. Once you taste creating magic in music yourself, you can never reverse it. You will be hooked on the sound of this music for life.

Many of those high school students I met came to the concert. They wrote letters and talked to me afterward, thanking me for sharing my passion with them and for the inspiration. Maybe I didn’t change the world, but I do believe that the power of classical music indeed touched some of the audiences’ hearts in a meaningful way—which is, to me, changing the world.

Have a wonderful week!


with students at Del Norte High School

Some notes from students

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