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Reaching New Audiences: From Haydn to Hisaishi

Interview with Sherry Kim

4/2/2021 • Reading Time: 9min

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About Sherry Kim

Korean-American pianist Sherry Kim is leading a multi-faceted career as a soloist, collaborative pianist, and private piano instructor. She graduated from Manhattan School of Music (PS ‘17, MM ‘16) and from Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music (BM ‘14).

 

Within the past decade, she has performed in the United States, Canada, Germany, Panama, and South Africa. She has made concert appearances in notable venues including Carnegie Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, Kennedy Center, among others.

 

After establishing her independent studio in 2017, she has been devoting much of her time to teaching. Her students have won various competitions and have entered prestigious universities and conservatories. 

 

Besides classical music, Sherry has a passion for niche genres of popular music, such as video games, anime, and Korean music. Her covers are well known on her 15-year-old YouTube channel which has about 50,000 subscribers.

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Interview with Sherry Kim

Tell us about your experiences relating to peers & friends in middle & high school, as a serious pianist.

 

In middle school, I wasn’t a very sociable person, and I think it was because I spent a vast majority of my childhood practicing several hours a day and doing homework. I had a hard time relating to my peers because I wanted to talk about Bach and Beethoven, not Beyoncé and Backstreet Boys. I was involved in musical classes like choir and band, and whenever I showcased current repertoire to my friends, they showed generic positive responses, but you could tell there was no personal connection between them and the music I played. This kind of sentiment toward my classical music performances continued onward throughout high school, but luckily, I was able to channel my love for classical music through my piano teacher’s studio classes as well as competitions and festivals outside of my hometown.

Your YouTube channel has 49.4K subscribers! How did you get started arranging video games, anime, k-drama, & pop music, & more? How did this journey progress alongside your classical piano training?

 

I craved personal connection with my peers, especially during middle school as I was going through puberty and self-awareness. I realized quickly that showing off my chops wasn’t going to help make friends, so I had to think of some other way. I noticed that my friends were constantly talking about music from other genres. I discovered that their love for the music they listened to was deep enough that they would be talking about it and sharing it with their friends. It was then I decided to explore piano covers of their beloved tunes. It started off by printing sheet music arrangements on the internet and sightreading them, which is one of my musical strengths. When I started playing these piano covers at school, I noticed that they were instantly drawn into my performances. When I discovered YouTube in early 2006, I decided to use that as my platform to start uploading videos as a way to memorialize my covers so that my friends could watch them on their own time. What I didn’t realize was that people from around the world would also appreciate what I play. 

 

I was never formally trained to arrange and perform popular music; my craft was strictly in classical music throughout my time as a student -- all the way until I graduated with my Master of Music degree in Classical Performance at Manhattan School of Music. However, it was because of my classical music training that allowed me to develop the ability to perform any style of music at the highest quality.

 

Looking back on my almost 15-year history with uploading YouTube videos, I find that only performing relatable content is not enough. I can’t even begin to count the number of Yiruma’s “River Flows in You” or “To Zanarkand” from Final Fantasy X piano covers on YouTube. In order to rise above that pool, there are many more factors to consider to reach a level of success as a musician on social media -- one of which is to provide a thought-provoking, emotionally invested, quality performance. This is something that can be refined through classical music training with an instructor. We are taught to express ourselves in unique and detailed ways that often don’t take priority when performing other musical genres. But these expressions do not and should not stay within the realms of classical music. 

 

On the other hand, playing popular arrangements and reading Youtube comments from people all over the world expressing their deep satisfaction and connection towards my videos helped me to understand that I must find a way to do the same through classical music. The intersection, I believe, is storytelling. I became more creative with storytelling in my more traditional performances because I understood what it takes to connect with an audience.

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As an experienced pedagogue, how have you found non-classical genres to influence your students’ study & concept of piano playing?

 

I find that it is difficult for students to really foster growth in one subject if they do not have any personal connection to it. For example, math or science has never really been a strong desire for me, and even though I had good grades in school when I think back to what I had learned, I can hardly remember much! 

 

I believe that as a teacher, I must prioritize finding that vector where their musical studies intersect with their overall musical interests. Musical interests are nurtured through everyday experiences - parents blasting music in the car, sharing favorite tunes with classmates, or falling in love with favorite movies and TV shows with memorable soundtracks. If classical music isn’t experienced as much in their personal lives, it is really hard to expect students to love classical music only through once-a-week piano lessons.

 

That is why I try to get to know my students’ interests and brainstorm repertoire ideas that specifically cater to each of them, no matter their age or level. At the upcoming spring recital over Zoom, I have a 6-year-old playing “How Far I’ll Go”, from Moana (that I arranged for young beginners, complete with big font and pictures), a 10-year-old playing “Laputa: Castle in the Sky”, from a Hayao Miyazaki film, another 10-year-old playing “Dear Theodosia”, from Hamilton, a 13-year-old playing “Sora ni Utaeba”, from the anime Boku no Hero Academia, and more.

 

But these students, first and foremost, begin with a rudimentary foundation in classical music, which is then supplemented by favorite non-classical tunes - not ever the other way around. It’s true that you can turn any piece into an educational experience, no matter the genre, which is why I’m not strict on sticking to purely classical repertoire. However, as a trained classical musician myself, I understand the value that comes with having practiced classical music. It’s being able to easily maneuver scales, arpeggios, and chords, which are often found in more virtuosic arrangements (shoutouts to Animenz, Tehishter, and Kyle Landry - my favorite YouTube pianists who often present incredible anime and video game music performances). It’s also being able to carefully carve out a beautiful, singing melodic line in more intimate and precious moments. And what’s great about a classical music foundation is that it is so versatile when you have to adapt to other styles of music!

I personally am super into in creative & multi-media programming.  Have you ever performed classical & non-classical genres on the same program? What was it like, & how did everything “connect”?

 

Surprisingly, I haven’t had the opportunity to combine my two passions into one program before - until last month, when I was invited to play at a Lunar New Year virtual concert hosted by Northwestern University’s Asian and Asian American Alumni (NU-A5). It was the first time that I was given the ultimate freedom to create a program. It didn’t matter to them what kind of pianist I was. So I took those liberties and performed my favorites from each style: Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, and Joe Hisaishi’s Waltz of Chihiro (Reprise). 

 

While the two pieces are completely unrelated, it is only through my own personal story in which a program like this could work. I explained how both works revolve around a narrative and both evoke feelings of nostalgia. However obvious the narrative or picture seems to me, I do not assume everyone has the ability to use their imagination in such ways, so I take the time to briefly explain what to be listening for, so they can develop some sort of connection with the music.

 

I understand that not every performing opportunity I get will allow me to do something like this. Popular arrangements would never fly by in a competition or music school setting, which consumed the past 20+ years of my life. Conversely, classical music would not be thoughtfully enjoyed at a cultural show, which I’ve done my fair share of as a Youtube artist. Because these “hybrid” concerts are a rarity, my hope one day is to normalize the mixture of these two genres. And I believe that it’ll be up to me (and musicians like me) to create those kinds of opportunities myself.

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You’ve also participated & done well in numerous competitions throughout the years. What do you feel you gained from these competition experiences? 

 

This is a complicated question to answer! To ensure I don’t end up writing an entire novel, I will write from the specific perspective of someone who has just recently retired from competitions: 

 

Competitions are definitely not for everyone. And sometimes they are perfect for you in one season, but then not in others.

 

What I truly appreciate about competing is that you can learn a lot about yourself by pushing yourself to the limits. You learn about what it means to be patient, to persevere, to be brave and courageous even when you don’t think you have what it takes. This applies to just about every area of life, not just for pianists!

 

My biggest piece of advice - 

If you (or your child or student) are motivated by competitions, make sure to set healthy boundaries. Your mental health will thank you for it.

 

Do continue to compete if it produces fruitful and positive realizations about yourself. If it leads to thoughts like, “I realize I should have been more prepared if I wanted to win, and I am motivated to work harder next time,” and you become fired up for whatever next is coming up, I would consider that productive. 

 

However, if there are unhealthy trails of conscious streaming into your head due to (too many) negative experiences, then it is time to take a break or stop altogether. There are so many different scenarios that could lead to that. 

 

So what happens if you decide to stop competing? What else is there to do? Oh, there is so much out there! You’ll learn to discover other niches you may have with all the extra time you have from not stressing out preparing for competitions! And more often than not, those newfound passions will bring a long-lasting inner joy.

 

I am not sure how many other pianists would resonate with what I’ve said above, but I believe I am a much happier person now that I’ve made the conscious decision to move on from this chapter of my life. 

 

Just remember: participating in competitions should be treated as a process or journey, not an end goal. If it’s the latter, how do you move on and continue to grow?

Who is your favorite legendary pianist, and why?

 

As someone who graduated from various music schools, you’d probably expect an answer like “Horowitz” or “Rubinstein”. For me, however, this pianist is better known as the composer behind the soundtracks of many Hayao Miyazaki films - Joe Hisaishi. He may not be famous for his virtuosity as a pianist compared to the classical music giants, but it is his ability to connect with his audience on such a profoundly deep level that makes him my all-time favorite musician. To further illustrate the kind of impact Hisaishi has made on his audience, he is often compared to John Williams in the American Hollywood scene.

 

I personally grew up watching many of these films that featured Hisaishi’s works, and they have been etched into the happiest parts of my memory. So you can imagine how emotional I got when I had the rare opportunity to watch a Carnegie Hall concert in 2018 featuring many of these soundtracks, with Hisaishi conducting and performing at the piano. In the hundreds of concerts I have watched in my lifetime, this was one of the few times I actually shed tears of pure joy. I’m thankful to have witnessed my biggest inspiration up close.

Videos

Frederic Chopin - Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 No. 1 and Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23

Shakugan no Shana OP1 - Hishoku no Sora (ft. Theishter!!)

About Maryam Raya

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Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.

Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.