Why – Part 1

This is my Origin Story (Myth, Tall Tale)


Those of you who have seen Simon Sinek’s fantastic TedX talk have heard about starting with “why.” His thesis is that great companies, organizations and people succeed because they are driven by a powerful core belief and not simply by the need to act. At this point I’m going to commit blog suicide by explaining what I’m about to write, to explain my “why.” I teach the way I do because of the texture of my life, and I believe that having this context as a backdrop will help people understand what drives me and my unconventional methods. I didn’t want to share this at first, thinking that it would be self-indulgent. My colleague Erik Bryan, who teaches orchestra in Brevard County, FL, insisted I do so and convinced me that it would be valuable. As I share this story, my hope is that each of you might find some puzzle piece in your life that overlays with a similar time in mine. I want to show you that out of imperfect circumstances there can still be great outcomes. The difficult times might even turn out to be blessings.

In the beginning:

I came to the States from South Korea when I was three and a half years old. My mother went two years prior to Chicago to get a job and settle in before sending for my brother and me. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for my mom to leave us, ages one and a half and six months, to go to a foreign country whose language she hardly spoke and where she hardly knew anyone except a few other alumnae from her nursing college. She, like so many others, did that to give us a better life in the best country in the world. I somehow still have some very vivid memories of my early childhood which I’ve kept alive by recounting certain facts to my American students who have a hard time imagining growing up in these circumstances. The country I left was still only two decades removed from a terrible war and was ruled by a military strongman. Our home had no running water, only a well with a manual pump that I was too small to operate (I remember trying!). We also didn’t have a refrigerator but someone in our little compound of homes did have a color TV. It seems like a miracle now. When we got to the States everything changed, of course. There was water out of a faucet, color TV and Apple Jacks. I started kindergarten less than two years after I got to the States and quickly forgot most of the Korean I knew. I was an American now, but as most immigrants know, still on the outside.

When I started
When I became serious/baseball was not going to be my career after all
My home life
Seeing how the other half lived

Passion for baseball, not the violin, was at the heart of my new identity as an American. Like a million other kids in Chicago I grew up playing youth baseball and dreamed about playing second base for the Cubs. Unfortunately everyone else got bigger but I stayed the same size and my baseball career was over. Luckily I still had the violin. I started first on the piano when I was five, but my piano career was short lived. My piano teacher also played the violin (and drove a CTA bus to pay the bills) and when I first saw his violin, and the colorful winding of the Dominant strings, I fell in love with it and I wanted to switch right away. I liked the violin, but I was no prodigy. There were always kids whose playing progressed faster than mine. My private violin and viola students somehow find this hard to believe. I don’t think it’s my playing that necessarily gives them this notion. I think they believe that anyone who teaches at a university must have been a child prodigy and that it’s the only path to musical success. This is, of course, a terrible and limiting myth, made worse by the proliferation of tiny children playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto on youtube. Thank heavens there was no youtube when I was a kid. I would have quit straight away after seeing one of those kids.

My home life was chaotic and not what one thinks of as an Asian, “Tiger Mom” upbringing. My parents (my mom and dad had by now reconciled after almost a decade apart) were too busy trying to make ends meet to keep tabs on us. We didn’t have much money and I never had access to the best teachers. I didn’t even know youth orchestras existed. We often ate free food that had plain black and white USDA labelling on it. My teachers were as likely to be driving a bus as playing in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We were never on welfare, but we never felt comfortable. My mom worked inhuman amounts of overtime to somehow cobble together enough money to send me to music camps at Sewanee, Northwestern, BUTI and Aspen. It was at these festivals I discovered another world existed. A world where private teachers were members of elite orchestras and instruments were made in Italy by people who had been dead for two centuries. These kids took lessons from people in the Boston Symphony. Their parents drove them two hours from the middle of nowhere so they could take lessons from the principal trumpet player in the Minnesota Orchestra. They had beautiful Italian violins (one of the kids I went to camp with had a Grancino!) and Hill and Sons bows. Their parents visited them on concert weekends, drove Mercedes S class sedans, brought them massive care packages of food and took them to dinner at the nicest restaurants in town. They were the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, small business owners and a future Nobel Peace Prize winner. I feel no resentment towards my circumstances and certainly not towards these people. Many of them remain my dearest friends and had no choice about which families they were born into. It’s funny to look back at all of this now and to think about how much I wanted to live their lives. This is an important fact in my story and a huge part of what drives me. I still feel like an outsider and I identify with those who are on the outside looking in. If there is one seed that drives this entire project, it’s that I want to break down the barriers to entry into the magic world of music for everyone else. Time and time again music and books have been my savior. They were the escape from reality I needed to cope with a world I didn’t understand. I often tell my students that I’m a human battering ram; that I’ll keep running into the wall headfirst until a hole opens up and it’s their job to swarm in after me, even if they have to step on top of and over me to get there. I still don’t feel like I’m a part of the other world. I’m running on a parallel track and every once in a while, when I conduct a professional orchestra for instance, the tracks intersect. The rest of the time I am still one of those kids who are on the outside looking in – the kid who knows what free food tastes like. Believe me, it tastes different.

Next Time: Performance Injury

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

Please contact me at chung@chungpark.com if you’d like me to come and lead a workshop. I’m available for student workshops and teacher professional development sessions.