Seunghee Lee (YSM ’92 MM, ’93 AD) on Getting to Carnegie Hall After Years of Practice, Practice, Pra
"As a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Chicago,
I didn’t know where Carnegie Hall was... But it seemed like a big deal
so I was determined to get there someday."
Seunghee Lee is an accomplished clarinetist and an international recording artist, currently in preparation for her Carnegie Hall debut. We asked her to tell us about her path as an artist, what music means to her, and what each of her projects have taught her along the way.
How did you get started in music? When/how did you get started on the clarinet?
When I was 11 years old, living in the suburbs of Chicago, I saw a year-end band concert at my elementary school, and I thought it was so amazing! I wanted to play a handheld instrument too! The band director said, “If anyone wants to play an instrument next school year, go home and ask your parents and pick an instrument of your choice”.
I went straight home to ask my father what instrument I should play and he said, “Why don’t you play the clarinet? I was a great clarinet player when I was in school so I will teach you.” I never knew that my father played the clarinet!
As soon as we brought home the Bundy clarinet from the rental shop, my father started playing all kinds of tunes on it, and I was doing everything he was doing on the spot. It was so much fun!
I learned the clarinet really fast, and my band director was impressed. He always said, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice!!” As a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I didn’t know where Carnegie Hall was nor understood what he was talking about. But it seemed like a big deal so I was determined to get there someday. I loved, loved, loved practicing and I loved playing the clarinet with my dad. The more I practiced, the better I got! That’s how I got started on the clarinet.
Tell us about your current project Full Circle? How did this project come about?
I believe that life’s journey is never a straight arrow but a set of continuous circles. Since completing my Master Degree at the Yale School of Music, my life has taken some surprising twists and turns, which I’ve never expected. Today, I embrace myself as a classical musician, a recording artist, a producer, concert organizer, a wife, a mother of two teenage boys and an avid golfer. As with all natural processes in life, we experience ups and downs, and during those times, we draw valuable insights and lessons from these important experiences. I’ve always found it fascinating that every time we embark on an exciting trip, we are full of anticipation, looking forward to the new experience. But once there, we often find ourselves looking forward to coming back to the comforts of our home and familiar things with more gratitude, appreciation and a deeper understanding of what we was already there. Similarly, coming back to playing old classical music, again, again, and again, I felt that with more life experiences, I was able to play from a fresh perspective, and add more to the interpretations. It’s refreshing to revisit an old piece of music that I’ve played numerous times as a student, as well as discover a new classical repertoire from a more mature perspective.
Did you ever hit a roadblock as an artist?
Oh yes, especially when my father passed away while I was a first year graduate student at Yale. He passed away unexpectedly in the south side of Chicago in an act of senseless gun violence. You can imagine the devastating shock and grief that impacted my entire family. He was the pillar of my life, and when he was gone, I felt lost and the world didn’t make any sense to me. For many years following, I asked so many times “why?” Why would anyone do such a horrible thing to someone whose whole life was about working hard and taking care of the family? I was competing in numerous competitions leading up to his unexpected death. I always looked to my dad for comforting words of encouragements before a competition or performing on stage. But, after he died, I felt scared and alone, and on stage, I developed a serious stage fright, which became unbearable. I became very hard on myself. I needed to be stronger, but the more I tried, the worse it got. Soon, I stopped competing and slowly even stopped performing all together. I think deep inside, silently, everything about the clarinet and music reminded me of my father and I just wanted to run away from the constant reminder. Slowly, my life was without music and I became bitter and resentful at life. Until one day in recent years, I realized that I am the only one that can pull myself out of my own pit of despair. So couple years back, I decided to do something about it. I embarked on a healing through music project called Solace, which was released last year.
Yes, your album Solace has a very special meaning behind it. Could you tell us about that?
Solace is a personal musical healing project I created to pay tribute to my father in honor of his 25th year since his passing. It also was a way for me to bring closure for myself to the past 25 years of silently grieving. I can never forget what happened, but through creating Solace, it became like a tangible reminder for me to move on and live the life that I’m sure my father would have wished for me. When tragedy strikes our lives, time doesn’t heal wounds. Words of condolence are not enough to alleviate the pain in the heart. But, over the years, in moments of deep sorrow, it was music that brought comfort and healing in my life. There are millions of people out there suffering silently due to a loss of their loved ones, whether it is by a tragic accident, health related or even natural death. We all need time to grieve and music is a very comforting companion. My heart especially goes out to the families of victims of gun violence in recent months in our country and around the world. The repertoire choices in Solace are based on 5 stages of grieving and my hope is for the power of music to enables us to seek compassion, forgiveness, appreciation, and love within us and for one another.
Can you tell us a bit about your "Concert for Cause" project?
“Concert for Cause” is an intimate, private home concert series that I regularly host where we showcase notable non-profit organizations and provide exquisite chamber music experiences to the audience. Each non-profit organization is unique and special in its own way. At “Concert for Cause”, we create an opportunity for the founders of these organizations to connect with a wider audience. In a short presentation format, the founder gets to share the organization's mission and front line experiences. And after that, there is a chamber music concert. Music being the bridge that brings people together, “Concert for Cause” aims to empower these organizations and assist in their efforts to resolve pressing humanitarian issues. I believe in the goodness and caring hearts within every one of us. With the power of music as our tool, we aspire to make a difference to those in need, one concert at a time.
If you could perform in any venue, which would it be?
Carnegie Hall of course!
You once gave a fascinating talk at TEDx Hong Kong. Can you tell us about that?
It’s a long story but in a nutshell, the talk was about perfectionism, the double-edged sword aspect of it, and how I’ve trained myself to go beyond it by way of applying valuable life lessons I learned from the game of golf. When I was performing music in my earlier days, I was so caught up in having perfect performances, which usually fell short. After a while, music became all about playing perfect notes and winning competitions as a sure way to validate to myself of being worth something. But the funny thing was that I remember even after winning some notable competitions, I was never satisfied. I felt like I wasn’t good enough. Especially after my father passed away, I became very critical and judgmental about everything I did. I had to make it in the world. It became a vicious cycle and eventually I lost sight of why I became a musician. It wasn’t fun any more. I lost that childlike wonder and enjoyment in music by getting stuck on perfection.
But after I stopped performing, I had lots of time. Then I discovered golf! I love, love, love golf because it’s so similar to learning music. Good thing about golf is that you get to be out in the beautiful golf course to practice. Both are all about tempo and rhythm and I found that in golf, the more you put pressure on yourself, the worse you score. But when you let go, focus on one shot at a time, there’s more joy in playing. As in many other things, you perform so much better when there’s enjoyment. I won many trophies by winning top amateur golf tournaments. One key insight from golf that I apply to my music is that par is a par no matter how you get the ball in the hole. It’s not always about having perfect shots. You can mess up one shot but it’s always up to that next shot that determines your result. It’s a long story but I somehow found my way back to embracing music once again because of golf. I’ve learned how to let go and found a way to use my hard working mindset to focus on something greater, like mentoring young musicians and performing for a meaningful cause. This really moves and inspires me.
Here is the link if you want to take a look: Perfectionism: Does Practice Really Make Perfect?
How does living in New York City affect your work?
I love living in New York City. This is where the best of the best in any industry are represented from all over the world. I’m so inspired every day by such wealth of creativity and hard work in all fields: art, classical music, jazz, opera, ballet, modern dance, poetry, literature….you name it, the list goes on and on!
What is your best advice for recent grads?
Whatever field you are in, go beyond your comfort zone and take chances. Don’t be afraid of the rejection or the unpredictable results. Things will not always turn out the way you expected but in hindsight, it may be a blessing in disguise. The key is to embrace the unexpected, move on and make it work.
I believe knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and being able to evaluate yourself and humble yourself to be evaluated are key to the next level of self-development. And also you have to put in the work. As my old band director would say, “Nothing comes easy. You have to earn it.” Behind every success there is hard work and dedication. Figure skaters make their jumps look effortless because they’ve already put in countless hours of hard work behind those jumps and fell flat numerous times. If you really want something, you have to go for it by believing in yourself, working hard, one step at a time, and the universe will align for you. The only way for any dream to come true is by taking action!
One last question: You have an exciting concert coming up at Carnegie Hall. Can you tell us about that?
Yes! On December 4th, I’m super excited to give my debut recital at Carnegie Hall! I’ll be performing selections from my newest album, Full Circle, along with some highlights from my previous albums Hidden Treasures, Embrace, and Solace. It is my greatest pleasure that a few of my close friends and colleagues will be joining me on stage. I’m especially delighted to have commissioned a Double Concerto for Bandoneon and Clarinet by JP Jofre for this occasion, which we will make a World-Premiere performance that night.
It took a long time getting here! But I know I’ve practiced a lot! This is truly a full circle moment for me. I’m back!
*A note for those of you in New Haven: Seunghee will be giving a concert at Sudler Hall on December 2, leading up to her Carnegie Hall performance. Tickets and more info here.