In the Key of (C)onnection
A musical journey from awkward childhood piano lessons to one night with Yiruma
By Paul Lee Cannon
Photos courtesy of Mind Tailor Music
I’m guessing that most of you reading this also took piano lessons as a kid. Every Saturday morning, from ages 10-13, I would make the short drive with my mom to our teacher Shelley Hankins’ house. Mom took lessons too, insisting I always go first. She would watch and listen as she sat behind us on a wide, upholstered sofa awaiting her turn. Mrs. Hankins would ask me to perform pieces that I usually wasn’t fully prepared to do. My Saturday audience of two could be incredibly intimidating.
I don’t remember enjoying the lessons. It was just something I had to do because Mom said so. She adored the piano and played for her Sunday church service – and wanted at least one of her children to follow in her keystrokes. (Naturally, like any Korean parent, she also hoped one – or all – of us would become a doctor or lawyer.) Two of my older siblings lasted only a couple of years on the piano so all musical hope was projected onto me. But Bach and Chopin didn’t rock my world at the time – I was more into the Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac. Right around the time my skinny fingers learned to peck out the C major scale, “Rumours” had taken the world of 8-track players by storm. I was also more interested in riding my bike, building tree forts, and spending all day at the community swimming pool.
In 2013 (at least 30 years from my last lesson with Mrs. Hankins) I took up the piano again after Mom bequeathed her circa-1960s Wurlitzer baby grand to me. She trusted (bless her Korean heart) that I would revisit playing even after such an impossibly long time. The piano had been a gift from my father, who passed away in 2004, so as much as it was full of melodies waiting to happen, it was also deeply sentimental. I wholeheartedly embraced this musical family heirloom as a wonderful opportunity to pick up where I had left off.
From the time the piano was delivered to my Oakland living room, I haven’t stopped playing it. I immediately hired a teacher who came to the house every Sunday afternoon. Michael was his name and, damn, he was tough. Every week he expected me to have learned three new pieces, all preferably memorized. Who was he kidding? I hadn’t even learned to use the pedal! With Michael hovering over me, arms folded, lessons were always nerve-wracking. But I always learned something new each week that would improve my piano skills. Plus it didn’t hurt that my instructor told me I was talented. I was encouraged and motivated to keep going.
After a year, I switched to another teacher, whom I’ve been taking lessons from twice a month for the past couple of years. She’s taught me how to use the pedal; to keep my left hand quieter than the right; and to feel the music by imagining what story is unfolding as I play – because every music composition is a story.
So this past July I’m sitting in the baggage claim area of Mineta San José International Airport waiting for my Mom’s flight to arrive. It’s late but the lobby is wide awake. Travelers are bustling to and fro – happy to be arriving, perhaps happier to be heading out. Between the symphony of chatter and the sound of their luggage wheels, I hear piano music – not the Muzak variety emanating from a PA system but live piano music. Then I see it. Right there, just a stone’s throw from Baggage Carousel 3, a dark, rickety, undeniably vintage piano. It reminded me of the kind you’d see in the saloon scene of an old Western shortly before the big shootout. Only it wasn’t a buxom saloon girl at the keys. A young Asian-American dude is sitting there busting out a lovely interpretation of “Comptine d’un Autre Été,” a piece composed by Yann Tiersen for the film “Amélie.” I burst into applause after he finished, for both his fantastic performance and because I honestly didn’t expect such a tender piece to be played by a bro dressed in B-boy style.
James was his name. He reacted to my clapping with a huge smile and we got to chatting about music. Nice fellow. His enthusiasm for piano music was refreshing and infectious. He encouraged me to “play something” so I did – the only piece I can currently play from memory, “Embers” by Helen Jane Long.
I didn’t receive any applause but our shared passion for the piano sparked further chit-chat.
“Do you know Yiruma?” James asked me.
“Yes! I’m learning one of his pieces.”
“He’s coming to the Bay Area in September.”
“What?! Really?! Where?! OK! See you there!”
I glanced down at my phone to see that Mom had been trying to reach me. She’d arrived the moment I’d gotten caught up in the moment. I hurriedly shook James’s hand and bolted toward the baggage carousel.
About a year ago, the music of South Korean pianist/composer, Lee Ru-Ma (better known by his stage name with the same pronunciation/different spelling, Yiruma*) popped up on my radar. His most widely known piece, “River Flows in You,” has received tens of millions of hits on YouTube and Vevo, so I’m guessing you’ve probably heard it. It was also used to promote the 2008 blockbuster “Twilight.” Chances are you’ll also recognize some of his music if you’re a fan of Korean soaps such as “Secret Garden,” which use original Yiruma compositions to intensify the drama and intrigue typical of such shows.
I took a stab at learning “River Flows in You.” It’s melancholy and has a predictable melody, but that’s its appeal. The chorus is repeated often which helps to establish muscle memory quicker. The 16th and 32nd notes are no joke but I find they are way more fun for warming up than the traditional Hanon scales. After practicing the piece for several months now, I still have a bit of work to do before the “River” flows the way I want it to. But it’s getting there.
Shortly after meeting James at the airport and several months prior to Yiruma’s Bay Area performance (one of only two U.S. shows for his “Autumn Rain Live” 2016 tour; the other would be in Strathmore, MD) I’d made arrangements to interview the artist in person. As a budding pianist and fan of his music, I was stoked! Then just a week prior to the concert, I was informed that all press interviews were canceled because Yiruma, scheduled to arrive to the Bay Area from Korea only one day before the show, needed the time to rest. I’m not gonna lie, I was disappointed. But I was still graciously offered a complimentary ticket to the show.
It was a gorgeous, “light jacket” of a fall evening at the Flint Center in Cupertino, CA, where Yiruma was slated to perform. My comped ticket turned out to be for a nosebleed seat. But who was I to raise a fuss? It was a free seat and I didn’t need to see Yiruma as much I needed to hear him, right? It helped that the acoustics of the auditorium were phenomenal. We in the audience got a pre-show sampling of the stellar sound system when a pre-recorded voice introduced Yiruma and promptly, thoroughly massacred the pronunciation of his name. [Hashtag: #rollingmyeyes]
Just minutes before the performance was about to start, I texted the show producer in hopes of securing a closer seat.
“Any way I can get a better seat? I’ve been put in mezzanine C141.”
Not wanting to miss a beat, I didn’t end up checking my phone for a response until intermission. Here it was:
“Yes! Please come back to the lobby entrance!”
With sleeves rolled to the elbows and looking considerably younger and far more dashing than he appeared in promotional posters for the tour, Yiruma, 38, put on an incredible show. He performed a medley of pieces thoughtfully curated from among all six of his albums. Judging by the resounding applause from the audience of mostly millennials and ajummas, “Kiss the Rain” was an obvious favorite. A sucker for sad songs, I adored “Prelude in G Minor,” an ode to the composer’s late father-in-law. The cellist Youngmin Kim accompanied Yiruma on this piece as well as many others, all to exquisite effect.
For an artist whose music has such a serene, serious quality, I expected Yiruma’s personality and showmanship to be similar. It just wasn’t. He’s actually quite the natural comedian, perfectly at ease sharing a few wisecracks between turns at the Steinway. He often sprung up from behind the grand to gab with the audience before casually introducing the next piece. Yiruma had us all in stitches with a cheeky, endearing rant about how it was “OK” to download his music for free. He also invited a young lady from the crowd to come up and perform alongside him, which was also good for a few laughs if not a whole lot of envy.
Then the moment we’d all been waiting for had arrived.
“This next song is what you all came to hear,” Yiruma playfully announced before plunging into “River Flows in You.”
A cacophony of gasps filled the music hall, followed immediately by a palpable hush. I was grateful that my new seat was close enough so I could fixate on Yiruma’s fingers glide across the 88 keys. His hands were powerful in their perceived lightness, moving swiftly then softly back and forth, up and down, as if he were weaving fine silk in a gentle breeze. I wondered how many times he had to play that song before it felt and looked so effortless. What a moment! Right before my eyes and inside my ears was the piece I’ve long been trying to polish being performed by its creator! I’m certain I wasn’t the only one who got a little teary as the “River” ebbed, flowed and crescendoed before reaching its bittersweet finale. If the spotlight were shone on me at that moment, you’d see me struggling to suppress the so-called “ugly cry.” I was completely moved and inspired.
You’d never guess Yiruma had flown from Korea the day before the show. His performance was flawless and full of energy. Since I wasn’t able to sit down with him for a private interview, I was invited to a special meet-and-greet after the show. Photos with the artist were not permitted, but a long line of fans, including myself, were each allowed to briefly say hello and have something autographed. The journalist in me was prepared with a single, pointed question.
“How does jet lag affect your performance?”
“I think it actually helps,” Yiruma told me. “It has a way of making me focus harder.”
Then he had a question for me.
“Do you play?”
(Trying not to stammer) “I’m learning ‘River Flows in You’ and loving every single, finger-stumbling minute of it. Thank you for this incredible song!”
“It’s really not difficult,” Yiruma warmly assured, as he autographed my press pass in elegant silver ink. “I wrote it that way so everyone can make it their own.”
As the clock approached midnight, I waved goodbye, sauntered to the nearly-empty parking lot with my friends who were just as giddy as I was, and couldn’t wait to get back to Mom’s piano.
*Yiruma means “achieving God’s will.”
Paul Lee Cannon is an award-winning journalist whose work has been published in Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and KoreAm Journal. In 2000, Paul successfully reunited his mother with her sister after more than 40 years of separation. His essay about being mixed-race Korean will be featured in the forthcoming anthology, 1/2 Korean: Our Stories. Learn more about Paul at paulleecannon.com.