Fifteen-year-old Albert Joo studies with Min Kim in Bundang, South Korea. He won first place in the piano division of the Seoul National Amateur Competition and second place among all instruments. In 2009, Albert attended the IIYM Summer Music Academy and participated and the Dino Ciani Piano Competition in Italy. In his free time, Albert likes to breakdance.
You’ve had an interesting life! What was it like to relocate to Korea? Is your life different there?
Relocating to Korea has definitely been an experience. I say “experience” without any adjectives because it’s definitely had its ups and downs. I didn’t find terrible culture shock, but I did need time to adjust and settle down. There is a large difference between peaceful little Portland, Oregon, and bustling Seoul, South Korea. I guess the thing that stuck out to me the most was the demands of the schools here. I go to an international school, but the workload and competition among the students is so much more rigorous than my old school, it's unreal. So I had to calm down on my activities for a while, including piano, and settle in. Otherwise, Korea has been a lot of fun to adjust to. You learn a lot of things - like how precious a seat on the subway is.
What have you noticed about music study in Korea? Are Korean music students different than American students?
In Korea, you can see a definite line between those that choose to major in music and those that don’t. By high school, the kids that want piano as a career option drop everything else and live a life of eating, sleeping, and practicing. Most other kids that have played piano up to that point, quit. Their studies are more important. It follows the Korean principle of giving it your very best. Choose one thing, and work at it until your hands fall off. So I guess I’m in sort of a unique position. I do take piano very seriously, but at the same time, it’s a hobby, not necessarily a career option at the moment. I practice, but school and extracurriculars don’t allow the possibility of practicing ten hours a day. Furthermore, not being a native Korean speaker myself, lessons aren’t as effective as they were back in the States. My piano teacher and I communicate through broken Korean, bits of English, humming, and many, many sound effects. Based on that, I’ve had to interpret a lot of things in the music for myself.
What music-related things are you working on right now?
In my solo piano life, I’m continuing to practice and enter competitions from time to time. Those things are important to stay motivated. I also spend time playing piano in hospitals around Korea with a chamber music group through the Red Cross Youth Organization. It’s really great, and my first time playing chamber music. It’s a bit of a humbling experience as a pianist to find out that you’re not always the star instrument. And I think it’s really a blessing for the patients at the hospital as well, the music really brightens their day. They’re incredibly appreciative and supportive, always asking for us to come back. Aside from those classical endeavors, I do spend a little bit of time recording my own music and uploading it on the internet. Things that your average teenager would like.
What are your future plans?
I think my first plan for the near future is to survive high school. There’s a myth that goes around that says “if you’re Korean, your parents are going to make you into either a lawyer or a doctor.” I do want to study to become a business lawyer, but of my own choice, ever since I was a small boy. I’m also in the founding class of our school’s weekly news program, and my teacher told me “this could be a career option for you!” so I’m looking into that as well. I’ve been watching a lot of news and reading a lot of Time magazine to learn more (and it’s probably influenced the way I’m answering these questions as well). People are usually surprised when I say that I don’t plan on majoring in music. I love it and it’s definitely become a huge part of my life, but I plan on keeping it as a hobby. I’m not really sure why though, perhaps it’s the difficulty of making a living in music (if I were to be completely honest), or the fact that putting the word “job” on piano could possibly cause stress. I don’t want my stress relieving hobby to do the opposite. But I plan on enjoying music forever, and piano will always be key.
Click here to listen to Albert play on the July 8, 2009 IIYM Honors Recital.
Described as "dazzling" by the Washington Post, critics have hailed the powerful performances of pianist Steven Spooner and noted that the "American had everything: polished technique, musical intelligence, innate sensitivity, and a personality that reaches across the keyboard." Steven was a prizewinner at each of the seven international piano competitions he has entered and top prize winner at both the Hilton Head International Piano Competition and the Artlivre Chopin/Liszt International Piano Competition. He was awarded First Prize and recipient of the Niekamp Career Grant as most outstanding pianist in French music at the Paris Conservatory.
As a young pianist, you studied all over the world. How did those experiences shape you?
I was a late-bloomer and I didn’t have good training early on. I just had an insatiable will! I grew up in New Orleans and went to Loyola University. There was an exchange program between Loyola and the Tbilsi Conservatory in the Republic of Georgia. While still in New Orleans, I played for a wonderful teacher, Nodar Gabunia, a former student of the renowned Russian teacher Alexander Goldenweiser. He invited me to come study with him in Tbilsi, which I did, for three years. When I went to Russia, I realized immediately, “oh, my gosh, I’ve got to get to work”. The Russian style of teaching was different from what I was used to, and in some ways, for me, better. They understand the value of teaching etudes early. Americans are always weak in this. And lots of Mozart sonatas—the basics. Russians are very good physically—they understand how the arm works. They teach in public and always from memory. Russian teachers require more than good playing. Good playing has to have character, something beyond the notes. They constantly remind you of this. Gabunia gave me wonderful opportunities to play for some famous people - I played Shostakovich for Tatiana Nikolayeva in Moscow.
I understand you have a teaching and performing tour of Asia coming up.
Yes, it’s five weeks long. I’m in Indonesia for two weeks and then at the Singapore and Shanghai Conservatories. I’m looking forward to it - I’ve seen some terrific talent from there when I'm at the European summer festivals.
Your latest CD is due out soon. It recreates Anton Rubenstein’s historic recital series. How did this project come about?
In order to be a better teacher and pianist, I felt that I needed to make myself “uncomfortable” learning lots of new repertoire to help myself grow. Rubenstein played nine unbelievably large concerts, his take on what the core of the piano literature should be, and also what was fashionable at the time. These programs would be too long for today’s audience, so I made them into 17-18 concerts. Some of the pieces I had already played, some were brand new. I did four to five recitals in a nine-month period. I tried to emulate Rubenstein, and make a musical “time capsule” of what pieces are central, and interesting, today. It was a tremendous act of love for piano playing and self-improvement. For me, it was an act of self-discovery. It showed me where I was strong, and where I need to improve.
Do you think young pianists of today should know more about historic pianism? Where could they start?
In a word, yes! Run, don't walk, and get David Dubal’s book The Art of the Piano. It has an excellent discussion of the standard literature and lists of recommended recordings. The list of recordings is alone worth the price of the book.
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