Min Kwon is much more than an accomplished pianist and performer. The Korean-born artist who came to America at the age of 14 to pursue her musical dreams has checked every box of success in her field: advanced degrees from the best conservatories in the country; solo performances with prestigious orchestras at venerated venues around the world; and critical acclaim, with accolades like Steinway Artist to her credit.
About halfway through her career however, Kwon realized there was more to being a musician than playing and performing at the highest possible level. With immense gratitude for the guidance she had been given in her life and a desire to help others, Kwon founded the Center for Musical Excellence in 2010 to provide high-caliber training and mentorship to gifted young musicians. A decade later in 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, Kwon’s charitable and innovative instinct was once again ignited, and she conceived the America/Beautiful project as an antidote to the despair and divisiveness transpiring in her adopted country.
In this Q+A, Kwon talks more about how America/Beautiful and the Center for Musical Excellence came about, her music-filled childhood and training, some of her performance highlights, her self-care practices, and more. As this accomplished musician proves, a truly radiant life is one in which the spotlight shines not only on oneself but is turned outward toward others.
AM: At what age did your piano training start, and how much of your childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood were dedicated to practice and study?
MK: I was 3 when I first touched a piano. I grew up in Korea with a mother who ran a music school from home specializing in young children, so I was exposed to the sound of music literally from the womb. My mother noticed that as a young child I had perfect pitch, and when I would hear students making a mistake or playing a wrong note, I would grimace. Also at a very young age I started to be able to play back what I was hearing.
My mother started me with piano lessons first and then violin and cello, as well as singing in the choir. This was a huge part of my childhood, and I was playing in the orchestra and practicing constantly. By sixth grade, my mother said I need to pick one instrument to focus on, so I chose piano. That year I auditioned for a middle-school competitive art school, almost like a mini Juilliard (that had visual art, dance, and music), and I studied there for one year.
I had been reading about conservatories in America, specifically The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and The Juilliard School in New York City, and it became my dream to train there. That year my father’s business, which had a branch in New Jersey, transferred him to America. So when I was 14 we moved to the States, and I auditioned for Curtis and got accepted. I graduated at 19 with a bachelor’s degree in music and then went on to get a masters and doctorate from Juilliard.
AM: As you went through your schooling and moved up the ranks in these very competitive environments, did you ever doubt your decision or want to change career paths?
MK: There were definitely difficult and challenging times, but never a moment when I doubted being a musician. There was just no question in my mind that this was what I was meant to do and this was my destiny. I knew it from a young age because, for me, music — whether playing it or listening to it — felt as natural and necessary as breathing.
Yes, the standard is extremely high at conservatories like Curtis and Juilliard, but ultimately you’re not competing with everyone else. You’re competing with yourself. You’re constantly stretching yourself and pushing the limits to see how far you can take this talent. That path can be a very lonely road. Sometimes you do want to give up and just go have fun and do what everyone else is doing. One needs very strong determination and passion more than anything to stay committed.
AM: What has been one of your proudest moments as a piano soloist in your career?
MK: As a performer, every concert is meaningful. I find just as much joy and reward playing for a few patients at the hospital as I do playing for a full house at Carnegie Hall. It’s very difficult to pick one, but if I had to, it would be when I made my debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at 16 while at Curtis because that signaled to me that I could do what I love in my new home in America. It meant so much to me to be playing with one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world at such a young age. I remember going in to the rehearsals prior to the concert and everyone played so incredibly from beginning to end, we had a perfect run through. It felt like a performance! The whole experience was like a dream.
AM: You started the Center for Musical Excellence in 2010 to mentor and support young musicians. How did this come about, and why do you think it’s important for budding professionals to have a support system around them as they prepare for a career in the arts?
MK: Creating the Center for Musical Excellence came at a defining moment for me well into my career. I was asking myself what should I do with this music and [the] opportunities I’ve been given. Playing piano requires so many solitary hours honing skills and practicing. My whole life I wanted to prove I could do this at the highest level, so I trained at the highest level and wanted to play the hardest pieces. But what it finally came down to is, how can I be happy doing this? I realized the answer was helping others. Because I came to America to fulfill a dream with music and had so many guiding lights and people who helped me, I felt I could do the same for others and help mentor young musicians, open doors for them, and support and encourage them.
I attended the best schools and received the finest education, but no one taught me how to find my way once I graduated and actually make a life of this. This is an extremely important tool to give to aspiring artists and musicians. I believe the happier and healthier you are, the better you’re able to communicate through music, as that is your voice. Being a musician is all-consuming and requires physical, emotional, and mental strength. There’s a great quote I heard once that has stuck with me because it is so true: “To be a great musician you need the mind of an architect, the heart of a poet, and the body of an athlete.” So that means all of those aspects of your being must be aligned and healthy. I want to help these young people not only play music at their best but also make sure they are grounded, well-adjusted human beings that feel supported socially.
AM: Tell us a little bit about the America/Beautiful project: how and why you started it, and what future plans you have for it.
MK: The project was born out of the pandemic. My husband is a doctor, and every day I watched him come home from the hospital more depleted than the day before. At the same time my work came to a screeching halt and I was craving human connection. Every day was just Zoom meetings and virtual learning with my two daughters, and a lot of dark news and events. I started thinking there has to be something more helpful I can do as a musician at this extremely difficult time. As a doctor or first responder, you can go out into the world and physically help people. But an artist’s responsibility has always been putting a lens on humanity. I wanted to create something so that my daughters or the next generation reading about this time in America would not just see all the death and destruction and the country in shambles. I wanted to birth something hopeful.
I reached out to nearly 100 composers that I considered to be some of the most powerful, relevant voices of our time. 75 of them were eager to participate (some said no, they couldn’t even imagine America Beautiful at that time), and I asked them each to compose a variation of the classic “America the Beautiful” anthem based on either the tune or the words. Everybody was home and in distress so this gave them something to focus on and put their creativity to. I asked them to think about what America means at its essence and core. Even though not all the pieces are beautiful, it’s important to express the entire picture so we can see it and learn from it.
These composers come from such diverse backgrounds and range in age from 23 to 93. They represent over 30 different cultures and countries because when their parents or grandparents immigrated to America they brought their traditions and culture with them. It became this powerful snapshot of the time America was in and it helped us to share this experience and process it together. I started jokingly calling this the United Composers of America — in this group were Grammy winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, all of these extremely accomplished people who came together around a common goal. I wanted to symbolize that although we are all very different and there are many of us, we can be one. A Latin phrase became the motto for this project: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
I then performed seven of these composers’ pieces live and/or live streamed at various venues, including at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, beginning on July 4 2021 and continuing at other locations through the summer and fall. Live-stream videos were filmed at such venues as the Catacombs at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn; the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts, where the view from the piano overlooked the Atlantic Ocean; and the majestic hills of Somerset Hills, New Jersey. I hope and plan to continue premiering the rest of the pieces for live audiences in 2022 and beyond.
AM: In what ways do you think music, especially classical music, can be uplifting and therapeutic during difficult times?
MK: Although there are so many incredible qualities in other art forms like writing and fine art, I think music can more directly touch people because it’s sonic. The melody and harmony and vibrations are all moving and breathing. A painting is painted once and then it’s static. Music is alive. Even the same piece of music played at a different time can sound and be received differently, which is incredible.
AM: How do you juggle the demands of professional musician, teacher, mentor, and mother? What are some of your go-to wellness or self-care practices?
MK: I make sure I create time and space for myself. And that could mean anything from going to a yoga class or workout to just sitting quietly. The world is full of noise and, especially as a musician, my ears are always perked up to every sound around me. So sometimes just sitting in stillness and silence is the best self-care. I also really enjoy spending quality time with my young daughters, it is very life-affirming for me. They are dancers and they inspire me by the lovely shapes they make and how they move to the music. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
AM: What is the most important lesson or example you hope to one day pass on to your daughters and the artists you mentor?
MK: I want my daughters and young musicians to understand that we all need one another in this life. It’s all about relating, and the more you learn about the other, the better equipped you’ll be. As musicians, we’re trained to really listen — listen to different voices, listen to each other. As a pianist, my left has to relate to the right hand. I think choirs and orchestras are such a beautiful form of musical expression for that reason. They have to harmonize and blend, even if the instruments are different. It goes back to the America/Beautiful theme: out of many, there is one sound. That’s what an orchestra is, and that’s what community and society could be. It is a beautiful thing to “belong,” and I believe music helps us do this in the most magical way.
For more information on Min Kwon, visit minkwon.net, cmemusic.org, and america-beautiful.com.
Allison Malafronte is a writer, editor, and artist based in New Jersey. For more information, visit artindependentllc.com