While walking the long halls of the Fine Arts Department, students can often hear the familiar, lyrical notes staff accompanist Jiwon Choi creates as her hands dance across the piano keys.
Choi’s passion can be found through her ability as a pianist and her willingness to help others whether it be students, faculty or fellow pianists.
Junior Jaymie Argotsinger has worked with Choi since she was a freshman, the year Choi was a new staff member.
“Her commitment to her students and her commitment to her craft is super inspiring,” Jaymie Argotsinger said. “To watch somebody, especially (since) she’s pretty dang young, like totally excel in her field as a person, as a woman, is just inspiring to see that.”
Choi began playing piano at the age of six, which she said is actually quite late compared to when children typically start.
Her interest and love for the piano stemmed from a piano performance on TV and her first toy piano given to her by her dad. Soon after, she began piano lessons.
Even though she lived in South Korea, where parents usually do not support being a musician as a career, Choi’s family was the opposite. Her main support for her dreams growing up came from her parents.
They never pressured her to practice but rather allowed her to have fun with it.
Despite being middle-class citizens and having to bear the financial burden, they continually advocated for her to pursue her dreams.
One of Choi’s most memorable performances was dedicated to her dad while he was going through chemotherapy during her time at the University of Kansas.
“Before I graduated, during the summer break, I decided to go back to Korea and visit and give a recital just for him, just to cheer him up,” Choi said. “I know that he loves when I play the piano… It was dedicated to my dad, and I wrote the letter on the program and basically just made everyone cry, including me.”
Choi said she believes that the sound of the piano helped her dad feel better even if it couldn’t cure his cancer. While he’s much healthier now, this particular event helped Choi to understand more about why she plays the piano.
“I think the purpose of doing music is (to) encourage people, challenge people,” Choi said. “That’s why I’m doing this and what I’m doing this (for).”
After graduating from Dong-Ah University in South Korea, she ended up coming to America and attending school for her Masters at Roosevelt University by pure luck.
She said she happened to be in Chicago for the summer with a family friend and somehow ended up “auditioning” at Roosevelt University despite her performance being completely unplanned. By chance and her performance, she was accepted into the school with a scholarship.
At the University of Kansas, Choi found one of her biggest role models in her professor of piano Steven Spooner.
“Not only is he a great pianist, but also a great mentor and teacher,” Choi said. “He’s really good at teaching. He still learns himself as well. He practices like crazy all the time. He performs like he never stops. Most of all, he taught me how to love the music. I want to be like him as a teacher.”
Spooner said he was grateful to hear this, especially since it meant he did his job.
“That makes me really happy because that is a mentor’s first job,” Spooner said. “The love of music is the absolute core of everything because it drives everything. It makes a performance wonderful. It makes our preparations wonderful. It makes everything.”
When Spooner began teaching Choi, he said he was amazed by her piano skills and versatility and that there wasn’t much he felt he could teach her.
“Dr. Choi is one of the most natural pianists I’ve ever seen in my life anywhere,” Spooner said. “She has such an ability to play the piano with just almost no difficulty, no physical difficulty at all. I was sort of amazed by that right from the beginning.”
Spooner said all he could do for her was to push her to play the best performance she could, because for most people, what was good for her was better than other people. He also pushed for her to have higher aspirations and play in bigger competitions where she was met with incredible success. He wanted her to do more and be more, especially with the amount of skill she has.
Besides her piano playing, Spooner said Choi’s strongest trait lies in her modesty.
“She is incredibly modest,” Spooner said. “Really so modest, and this modesty puts all of the attention where it should be, which is on the music, not on her.”
When people first meet Choi, they can’t believe how talented she is, but even more so in her humble nature.
Department Chair Kathryn Strickland said it is helpful for students to be able to see just how humble she is since most musicians who have so much talent come in with egos
“She could easily have an ego, and I think a lot of people who play at her ability level do,” Strickland said. “We run into that a lot in every area. She has the opposite of an ego ... It’s good for the students to see somebody that way. To see somebody who can be stellar at what they do but still be humble is a great example.”
For Choi though, she said she takes every compliment with appreciation. Especially since most of the time, she said she isn’t really satisfied with half her performances.
“People come to me after concerts and say good things,” Choi said. “Or when they say they are touched by the music that I played, it means a lot. It’s not just, ‘Oh, OK thank you.’… I don’t know if I’m kind of a little bit harsh on myself, but there are not many moments where I’m always satisfied with my performance, comparing with other great pianists… I could never go, ‘Oh, I’m great.’ Never. Never.”
Choi really goes above and beyond for her students by scheduling times that work better for them. Her ability to balance both her personal life and her career is certainly a wonder to both the students and the teachers.
Argotsinger can’t believe the flexibility she provides for students despite the amount of time she dedicates to other recitals. Choi tries to make every second count, especially with her busy schedule, while still making time for her personal life.
“I actually use every second of time to practice, work here, and then, when I go home, I’ll spend time with my son,” Choi said. “Then when he sleeps, I’ll go to the piano again and practice a little bit at night. I use every second.”
Even with the bustling schedule, Choi loves being able to help and perform with a variety of musicians.
“Somebody texted me this message, and I think it just really tells my life,” Choi said. “He said, ‘Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.’ I think I feel some of both, but mostly towards the passion, because I love what I’m doing here.”