2006 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place

An event that taught a lesson about being Korean-American
Jennifer Kim

Calling myself a child piano prodigy is too much of an overstatement. But I can tell you that the first nine years of life was spent either at my piano teacher Carmela Cecere’s studio, in front of my Yamaha, or at Drew University where numerous auditions and competitions in New Jersey were held. I don’t exactly remember why I started taking piano lessons; my mother adamantly claims that I begged her.

My first piano teacher was a middle-aged Korean woman. She taught me the basics and helped me to build the foundation that I would need to further my piano studies. But after listening to my plinking and plunking the same two songs for a year, my determined mother got a hold of the phone number of a renown teacher in Chatham, a half-hour drive from where we resided. I vividly remember my first lesson with Carmela Cecere. She was an elderly Italian woman with a high but brusque voice that made even adults edgy. She smelled of expensive perfume and had a countenance like no other. Honestly, I was terrified of the woman.

The first question she asked me was my Korean name. When I told her it was ‘Minjee’, she decided she would call me by my Korean name instead of my American name, Jenny. And that is how the next three years and 81 lessons were- everything was done her way. Each week, I was assigned four scales, drills, chords, a technique, 10 studies, and three pieces.

With not much homework to do in the second and third grade, I spent four to five hours practicing each day with my mother attached at the hip in order to prepare satisfyingly for my next lesson. I practiced before I went to school, after-school, and before I went to bed.

Yes, it was tedious, painful, and much too intense for a 7-year-old who should have been playing House or with Barbie dolls. There were few occasions where I was so overworked I would cry, but nonetheless, I would be back on that bench pounding furiously away the next day. I’d like to say that my lessons went smoothly after clocking many hours in front of the piano, but Carmela always seemed to find something that I needed to fix or do better. No doubt, there were tears at these lessons. Her motto was “Have a tissue. That’s why I put a box of tissues on the piano.” I even witnessed her making a high school boy break down.

In the spring of 1996, Carmela thought I was ready to compete. She entered me in the Russell E. Lanning Competition, an event sponsored by The Piano Teachers Society of America. My mother had a party dragging me from dress shop to dress shop until we finally settled on a pink flower-patterned dress. I was a tomboy at heart, but I didn’t have a say on what I was to wear.

I worked harder than ever to get ready for the competition. That day, my whole family drove to Drew University. I was fidgety while I waited for my audition time, but once the judges called my name and I stepped into the room, all of my fear disappeared and my confidence took over. I could breathe again after I left the room, and a week later, I received an ecstatic call from Carmela saying I had won in my age group. As one of the 12 winners of the competition, I was to perform with winners from various competitions at Carnegie Hall. I had no clue where or what Carnegie Hall was, but my parents and their friends and especially Carmela made a big fuss of it. I started to realize what all of the ado was about when I stepped out onto the mammoth blinding stage as my name was announced. Looking out into the audience, I saw a second and third tier in addition to the regular seating, and all of the seats were occupied. Surprisingly, I wasn’t nervous at all as I played “Buzzing Bee” by Nevin. I bowed to thunderous applause and that was the end of it. Even after I played, I still couldn’t grasp completely what had just happened. I know now, 10 years later, that I had the opportunity to do what not many 7-year-olds or even famous musicians are able to do.

I studied with Carmela for two more years before I moved to Virginia Beach, during which I competed in the same competition, this time both as a soloist and a member of a trio. The two other girls in the trio were my friends and we spent our weekends practicing endlessly. While we would’ve liked to use piano as an excuse to have sleepovers, our mothers used sleepovers as an excuse for us to practice. I again had the honor to perform at Carnegie, playing my solo piece and the trio number called “Evening Prayer,” which Carmela arranged for us. That year, I knew what playing at Carnegie Hall meant to me and I savored every second of it.

By performing at Carnegie Hall, not only did I represent kids my age or New Jersey, I represented my people, Korean-Americans. I didn’t realize this until I was older and aware of the struggles that my parents and other immigrants had endured to provide a better life for the succeeding generations. Because of the first Koreans who took the chance and immigrated to America, I was able to grow up in a culture where many door and opportunities are present to me. I know that I must work twice as harder than other students in order to succeed in today’s world. Because of Carmela’s mentoring, I have had a strong work ethic and will have one throughout college and for the rest of my life. Playing at Carnegie as a child helped me to realize who I am: a Korean-American.