A Life for Art – In conversation with Seunghee Lee
by Lucia Maruzzelli/Mind the Gap HK
There is a hidden place in our soul where the deepest desires lie. The dreams, that maybe have not yet taken shape, nor an idea of direction, but nonetheless they are there, pushing to take flight. To give wings to these dreams, one “must persevere, believe in them and work hard, so that they will materialize.”
We receive this wisdom from Seunghee Lee, an internationally acclaimed musician who – through the magical sound of her clarinet – is enchanting the audience. She is a woman of extraordinary sensitivity, who puts her musical talent at the service of charitable organizations helping children in difficulty, “because success should be shared and returned”. A petite and determined woman, with long hair and big, deep, black eyes where we read a story of achievements and redemption, Seunghee Lee is a wife, a mother, a golfer and, last but not least, an artist with three major music publications to her credit, that have earned her the top spots in the World’s Classical Music Charts.
With her, in the following interview, we simply talk about life, of how it changes and it is able to surprise us and make us suffer. Seunghee talks about her wise and inspiring father; about a little girl who did not give up; about a project, ‘Concert for Cause’, through which music becomes support for the needy ones.
The concert of January 24th, organized in collaboration with the Italian Women’s Association and supporting ‘Missione Possible Cambodia’ is exactly a ‘Concert for Cause’. For the musical arrangement of this concert, Seunghee Lee has cooperated with a Master, Andrea Morricone.
Seunghee Lee, you were born in Korea and grew up in U.S. Two different countries and a true cultural leap: what did you have to leave behind to start a new life and what did you keep about Korea while moving forward?
I was born in Seoul, and when I was 9 years old my mom and dad decided to immigrate to Chicago, in the US with five kids in tow. Yes, it was a true culture leap especially not knowing how to speak English (I only knew how to say “chocolate” and “ice cream”) but I was still very young, so I was able to adapt very quickly. I don’t really remember what I left behind but being thrown into a new environment in Hoffman Estates, Illinois (suburban towns in Chicago), I had to grow up very quickly. Both my parents were working so hard day and night, working two-three jobs. They really believed in the “American Dream”, both set great examples for us: to be honest, diligent and hard-working. My dad always told us: “if you have a dream and really believe in it, grace of God, hard work and perseverance will make anything happen”.
How did you discover the passion for music, and why the clarinet? A wonderful instrument, but less popular and traditional compared to the violin or the piano.
The first instrument I learned was the piano, when I was 7 years old, back in Korea. My mom took me to a place were lots of kids playing the piano. It looked like so much fun and I wanted to learn how they got to be so happy (Now I got that they were playing chopstick songs so no wonder they were having fun!!). I loved having one-on-one piano lessons with my teacher, she paid so much attention to me and always made me feel very special during the lessons. And every day after school I was going to her house to practice, learn and to have fun with other kids! Everything stopped when we moved to the US. My parents couldn’t afford to buy a piano but they told me to study hard so we can go to great college and get a great job and buy my own piano someday. But that someday seemed too far away, as I wanted to play the piano NOW. So, being a clever little girl, I remember getting a big white cardboard paper and I drew a piano keyboard myself and using black crayons to color in the black keys. Now I had a flat piano in front of me and at least I could make believe playing the piano. Once in a while, we’d get invited to someone’s home and I get to play the piano but the adults told us to stop playing since it was too loud and I felt embarrassed. Eventually, my passion faded away and then I think I lost interest.
But when I was 11 years old, I saw a year end band concert at school. There were so many instruments being played and it was so great! Immediately knew I wanted to be part of the band to play music. The band director told us students sitting in the audience: “If anyone else want to play an instrument, go and ask your parents and fill out a sheet of paper for renting out an instrument”. I went straight home with that piece of paper to ask my dad what instrument I should play and he said, “Why don’t you play the clarinet! I played the clarinet when I was in school so I will teach you!” Done! Cool! I never knew that my dad played the clarinet! As soon as I got the rental clarinet home, my dad started playing all kinds of things on the clarinet and I was doing everything he was doing on the spot! It was so much fun!! I learned that clarinet really fast and my band director was so impressed!! He always said, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice Practice Practice!!” That’s how I started the clarinet! It is not as popular as the violin, cello, piano but clarinet was all that I had then! I didn’t have any other choice. It was basically chosen for me and I think because clarinet was the only instrument I can get my hands on, I gave all that I wanted to do with piano few years back into the clarinet. I loved loved loved practicing!! The more I practiced the better I got! I loved making music with it.
How important has been the support of your family in your artistic career?
My family means everything to me! Without my family, my husband, I am nobody! Family is the core foundation in which I stand to build everything I do. I am very proud to say that my biggest achievement so far is being the mother of my two amazing boys, Michael and Matthew!! They are my treasures and my inspirations in my life!
The first major awards. When did they come?
My first major competition I won was the 1989 International Clarinet Association Competition when I was 20. I was a student at the Eastman School of Music at the time and it really was a big surprise for me. Although I practiced many hours and poured my heart into the preparation of the competition, I didn’t think it would be enough, but to my huge surprise, I was awarded 1st place.
Soon after that, I won the 1990 Saint Louis Symphony Young Artist Competition and the amazing Leonard Slatkin was the main judge. This competition was opened to all instruments (piano, violin, cello, voice, woodwinds and brass winds) and when they called my name as the co-winner along with one of the most amazing child prodigy violinist, Rachel Barton, my legs were shaking uncontrollably as I went up to shake Leonard Slatkin’s hand.
How did you handle the success and the stress?
Actually, I didn’t know what stress was back then. I thank my father for that, as he was the biggest influencer, not in the academic kind of way but by creating a peaceful mental haven for my mind to express through my music whatever I am feeling inside. As I travelled by myself, I used to call him from a pay phone (no cell phones back then) from a competition venue, just to hear his voice. He always said the same thing, “Be true to yourself, give all that you got and the rest is up to God.”
Did you ever had some moments of despair? How did you react?
Oh yes, especially when my father passed away. The last competition I won was the Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition at Yale. Winning this competition meant the world to me because few weeks before that, my father passed away unexpectedly in Chicago by a gunshot. You can imagine the shock and the uncontrollable grief that impacted my entire family, especially my mom. I won this competition for him as my father loved the clarinet and loved me so much. He was the pillar in my life but when he was gone, I felt lost. That was the last competition I won. I did entered couple more competition but didn’t advance as I could not get myself to shake off the nervousness. Without my dad, I felt scared and alone on stage and I developed a serious stage fright, which became unbearable. Soon, I stopped competing and eventually I stopped performing too…..
You are a famous musician, much appreciated and beloved worldwide. What would you say to a little girl who wants to take this path? What kind of advice would you give her?
I don’t consider myself famous at all. As music or any form of performing art is very subjective, the path of a musician can be difficult. It’s a form of entertainment that brings pleasure to those on the other side listening but can be disappointing for the artist if the focus is on what other’s think about you and your performance. I believe that the little girl will know in her heart whether to take that path or not. It’s almost like a calling which one cannot ignore. When that little girl has the passion for music and the calling, it’s inevitable. The only advice I would give her is to trust herself, follow the whispers of her heart and with this, like what my father said, “Be true to yourself, give all that you’ve got and the rest is up to God”.
You are an acclaimed recording Clarinet musician: tell us about the recording of your 3 CDs and how does it feel to be on the top chart for Classical music all over the world!
All my recordings were created from my heart for my love for classical music and as a self-reminder the amazing power of music that can heal broken souls and soften the hardened hearts.
When I recorded my first CD Brava (Summit Records), I was happily married and was actually in my first trimester, pregnant with my second child. The initial idea of creating my first cd (which I thought would be my retirement cd) came about solely because I knew once I started having kids and take on the greatest challenge in life being a mother responsible for raising two human being in life, I knew there wouldn’t be any time to focus fully on music. I wanted to have a concrete evidence in hand to show to my kids later on that their mommy was a classical musician at one stage in her life. Surprisingly, after the release of Brava the classical radio station in San Francisco picked it up and put me straight into a list of “Top 30 classical artists under 30” list! When I saw my name on list, I was six months pregnant (not performing but only bed resting due to my high risk pregnancy) and felt like an imposter. I felt like I needed to hide and with raising two young energetic boys, my life did get very busy and making music became less of a priority and became very distant. 11 years later, I produced my next CD titled Embrace (Summit Records). At this time, I was living in Hong Kong learning the crazy game of golf. This cd was produced almost by accident as my initial intention was to dedicate it to my fellow golfers and share what is a steady rhythm and tempo, which is the key elements in playing golf. With this newly found enthusiasm, I decided to return to recording for the first time in over a decade and put together an 18-track album featuring some of the most beautiful classical compositions from the likes of Chopin, Schumann and Dvorak. Embrace was received very well by many clarinet lovers and after its release here in HK, it even climbed up to Classical Charts #4 at HMV HK!! and I felt like I found my “niche”. This childlike wonder and drive lead me straight into working on my latest CD Hidden Treasures. There are so many other pieces out there written for other instruments, which has never been recorded on the clarinet!! Eureka!! How cool is that I will record them! So, I went searching in the vast world of the internet and YouTube for more beloved pieces, that works beautifully on the clarinet with piano accompaniment and I even dared into arranging my favorite symphony of all times, the Third Symphony, third movement by Brahms. I knew I was getting into raising some eyebrows by the music critics by doing this most daring thing but I couldn’t help myself!! I just had to do it! When I played the melody of the Brahms symphony on my clarinet, it sounded so great as if the composer intended to write for the clarinet. I just wanted to share it with other clarinetists out there looking for and dying to play different kind of music than the choices in the limited traditional clarinet repertoire. Again and again, beyond my expectation, Hidden Treasures was on Top 10 charts for 10 weeks straight after its release in HK and even climbed to #2! Hidden Treasures is being played in radio stations all over the world and last summer, Hidden Treasures was chosen “CD OF THE WEEK” in KDFC, San Francisco’s classical radios station, WCLS in Maryland and FINE MUSIC RADIO in South Africa!!
About your second great passion, golf, during your speech at TED X Hong Kong, you talked about the surprising similarities between golf and music (in fact the main movement of the golf is called SWING!), and the mental challenges of viewing both skills through the lens of a perfectionist. Pls. explain and share with us these interesting views.
Life is really funny when it comes to learning. You never know where you will discover new things about yourself in life. Thank God for the personal insights I discovered through golf that lead me back to music. Can you believe it? Being a full- time stay home mom living in the US prior to coming out to HK, I had no time to play golf, a sport which is the most loved sport among Koreans. Luckily, when we moved to Hong Kong, my husband got a golf membership and now with 2 kids grown up, I had more time, so I learned to play golf.
I fell in love with golf instantly and improved very fast! It was so much like learning a musical instrument! I was able to apply the same kinds of discipline in music to golf and soon enough I became single digit handicapper in less than 2 years. My friends were constantly asking me what my secret is in improving so quickly. Basically it all comes down to keeping a steady tempo and rhythm when you swinging the golf club! It’s something you naturally feel and do. It’s a way of being and feeling. What better way to introduce tempo and rhythm than in smooth easy listening classical songs! So, when I became the Lady Captain of my club, in hopes to help my fellow golfers improve in their game, I decided to create a CD specifically tailored to golfers’ tempo and rhythm. There are many other similarities between music and golf. In both disciplines, one must let go of perfectionism.
Do you feel Music is therapeutic? Can it save life or, at least, can help live better?
Most definitely!! I think classical music is a language of the heavens. It is most unlikely to harbor hatred or violence when you hear beautiful music. I believe that music has the power to heal broken souls and soften the hardened hearts. It’s been over 20 years since my father died of a random gun violence. All these years, it was music that brought comfort and solace in my life in moments of sorrow and grief. All my recordings were created from the bottom of my heart and for my next CD project, I want to create a recording with this specific mission in mind: to bring healing to others who may be suffering and grieving silently due to tragic violence in the world. There is so much violence going on in the world right now and my heart goes out to the victims and the families who are left behind seeking justice and my hope is to offer SOLACE through music.
It’s a long story but in a nutshell, when I was performing in my earlier days, I was so caught up in performing music so perfectly to win a competition. After a while, music for me became all about winning a competition. It was a way to prove to the world and to validate myself to be worth something. It became too stressful and I think I lost sight of why I was a musician. I lost that childlike wonder and enjoyment in performing and got too stuck on perfection only. I really though perfection equals success, but after a long time away from performing, I discovered that I can let go of perfection and focus on something greater, like performing for a very meaningful cause which really move and inspires me. This way, I don’t have to be so stressed out about being perfect and can focus on giving back to the world through music. Through Concert for Cause, I aim to bring music-loving friends together and raise awareness to meaningful causes.
And now you hold a charity concerts, organized in collaboration with IWA (Italian Women’s Association) for “Missione Possibile Cambodia”.
I love children! Like in Whitney Huston’s famous song, “Children are our future!” I am so happy to host this Concert for Cause for the Children of Cambodia! It really saddens me that millions of children are living without proper care and parental guidance. The first years of childhood is the most precious time where they develop their personalities, confidence, and their identity as a person and I believe it is crucial to provide proper care, nurturing and especially LOVE. I think all children should grow up listening to classical music as it enhances their brain developments.
To realize this concert in collaboration with IWA, you have been working with Andrea Morricone to a new and unreleased version of “Love Theme”, the musical theme of “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso”. Andrea is the son of maestro Ennio Morricone and winner of two Golden Globe Awards: how is to work with him and what do you think about this experience?
It’s been an incredible experience working with the one and only, Andrea Morricone! Thanks to my most awesome friend Michela Bardotti, the President of the IWA, who introduced me (she knew him as they grew up together being next door neighbors in Rome). When we were planning the program, I knew in my heart that I had to include my all-time favorite Italian music, “Love Theme” to Cinema Paradiso. I just love love this movie and love the soundtrack. I saw this movie with a group of music friends when I was at graduate school.I remember walking out of the theatre humming the tune to the Love theme and was singing it for days on end. Something about this music is so pure, timeless and speaks straight into the heart. It’s one of these masterpieces you just want to hear over and over again and in those moments, the music just transports me too another space of bliss where I can just let go and just be in the moment. Working with Andrea Morricone is so much fun and inspiring! He is so energetic and so passionate about his music and he gives his all to everything he does. He wrote many soundtracks to movies and his music has touched millions of lives over the years and I believe his music will be treasured for many years to come. For our special Missione Possibile Concert, since I am performing the Brahms Clarinet Trio (Clarinet, Cello, Piano) in the program, I boldly asked him if he would arrange the clarinet trio version of the Cinema Paradiso and immediately he responded YES. I cannot wait to perform!
What about your future professional plans?
In the summer of 2015, we will be moving back to the US after nine years of living abroad in HK. I plan to continue my series of Concert for Cause in the US and bring awareness to very meaningful charities and organizations. I plan to continue to work on my CD #4 and aim go into recording in the fall of 2015 and also possibly collaborating with Andrea Morricone in an exciting and meaningful CD project to release to the world! Andrea has told me that he loves the clarinet and has already shared with me several of his clarinet compositions: they are so beautiful and I cannot wait to share them with the rest of the clarinetists! I really believe anything is possible!
For more information:
Seunghee Lee has been interviewed by:
Lucia Esther Maruzzelli/Mind the Gap HK