Studio Visit: So Jung Kwak
So Jung Kwak, 34, of Urbana is a 2016 University of Illinois doctoral of musical arts degree graduate in piano performance, organist at First Presbyterian Church in Danville and the lead instructor and coordinator of the UI's Piano Laboratory Program.
Which contest did you win to play at Carnegie Hall?
The American Protege International Competition of Romantic Music. I was a first-place winner in the advanced category. My performance will be at 1 p.m. March 26. I've never been to Carnegie Hall before, but I think my recital will be in Weill Recital Hall.
How do you feel about it?
So excited and very thankful to have this opportunity.
Have you won other contests?
Yes, I won second in the advanced category of the International Music Competition's Vienna Grand Prize Virtuoso competition.
When did you start studying piano? Where did you study?
I started playing piano at age 4. My sister started to play the piano, so I asked my mother, "Mother, I want to do this." I studied in Pusan, the second largest city in South Korea — there are lots of piano academies there. My teacher said even though I was a beginner, I was very good. So when I was very young, I started doing competitions and recitals. It was just a normal part of my life. I also graduated from the Pusan High School of Arts and Pusan National University with top honors.
When did you come here?
I came to the United States in 2006 to pursue a master's degree at Indiana University. I finished it within two years and went back to Korea to teach piano for about two years and then came back to the U.S. I did my performance diploma at Indiana University in one year and came to Champaign for my DMA degree. I also pursued a second master's degree in piano pedagogy here. I have many degrees.
During my years here, I was a graduate assistant and in 2015-'16, I served as a president of the UI Music Teachers National Association Student Chapter. During the past summer, I was invited to join Illinois Summer Youth Music as a collaborative pianist.
With whom did you study here?
Professor Ian Hobson. He's a great pianist, a great person and a great teacher. And for pedagogy, Professor Reid Alexander. He was a very, very good teacher. After he died (in 2015), I studied with Professor Christos Tsitsaros.
What do you like about playing piano?
Piano is like me — I want to share my music with others. When I was very young, I went to a concert and I heard a pianist play Beethoven. I was very moved, so I thought I want to be a pianist and I want to make my audiences feel moved.
What repertoire do you play? What will you play at Carnegie Hall?
I have a broad range of repertoire, from Baroque to contemporary. At Carnegie Hall, I will play Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 3, the fourth movement. When I applied to the competition, I sent a video of myself playing that, so that's what I'll play.
Are you doing any other performances around here?
I'm going to perform the Chopin sonata at 5 p.m. (today) in my church, First Presbyterian (100 N. Franklin St., Danville). I've been working there for two years. I play organ, piano and keyboard there because there's a contemporary service with a guitarist and drummer, so I play the keyboard with them.
How long have you worked with the UI's Piano Laboratory Program?
I was an instructor there from 2015 to now, but I became the coordinator last September. We have about 70 students from age 3 to 65 and older. It's for the community and UI faculty and students who don't major in music. We have 16 piano instructors. I assign a student to each instructor and manage six recitals a year. Our next recitals will be at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. April 30 here in the Smith Memorial Room (at Smith Recital Hall, 805 S. Mathews Ave., U).