Piano Provides Healing Touch For Shirley Yoo By Leslie Rice Shirley Yoo said she viewed her April 23 piano recital as a closure to her college career. For an hour and half she played Debussy, Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, all from memory, with her singular, graceful intensity. When she finished, the audience of fellow Hopkins students and admirers rose and she received a standing ovation. Yoo's final concert came a week after learning she was awarded Hopkins' Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts. The cash award is given annually to the graduating Hopkins senior in the School of Arts and Sciences or Engineering, or to the fourth-year student in the School of Medicine, who has demonstrated excellence in the arts. "When she played Bach and Beethoven it was very good, very cerebral, done perfectly," said Ruth Aranow, who has been Yoo's academic adviser and friend for the last four years. "But when she played Debussy and Chopin, she did it with such emotion that it brought tears to my eyes. And they were not tears from my pride, but from responding to the emotion of her music. Truly she was so ethereal, like a willow tree bending in the breeze. Very soon, Shirley will be an international soloist." The Sudler Prize committee, which consists of administrators and faculty from Homewood, the Peabody Institute, the School of Medicine and university president William C. Richardson, awarded two other graduating seniors, Nolan Love and Delee Kim Har, the President's Commendation for Achievement in the Arts. Har is the founder and leader of the Hopkins male a cappella group, the All-Nighters. Nolan is the founder and leader of Some Things Coming, an alternative rock band the committee judged one of the best Hopkins has ever produced. For Yoo, the award is both an honor and a help. The prize will come in handy this summer when she travels to London to study and vacation with friends. In the fall, the Phi Beta Kappa student will begin studies at the University of Maryland Graduate Program in Music, a fellowship offered to only one student in the United States each year. She's embarrassed to tell this story because she thinks its corny, but when Yoo was 4 years old, for Christmas she was given a gift certificate to a toy store from an uncle. She chose a toy organ and began banging away on it as soon as she returned home. Shortly afterward, her parents noticed she was playing tunes on the toy organ entirely by ear. "My parents wanted to wait until I was 7 or 8 before starting me on piano lessons, but after a while it was clear that I wasn't going to wait so I started taking lessons when I was 4," said Yoo. When she was 9, her father traveled to Korea to teach a seminar at a university. It was 1983, and he boarded the doomed Korean Air Lines Flight 007. The sudden, tragic death of Yoo's father to a terrorist bomb forever changed her and the way she would approach her music. "I think I always felt I was different from other children," she said. "Partly because I was going to all these competitions at a young age and partly because my father died so suddenly and I was forced to cope with those emotions," said Yoo. Since then, Yoo has found some healing through performing musical memorials for relatives of victims of Flight 007 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City and Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh. Later, the absence of her father was one of the reasons why Yoo's mother chose Raymond Hanson, who lived in Washington, D.C., as her daughter's music instructor. Not only was Hanson an esteemed musician and teacher, but she also felt he would serve as a paternal figure for her young teenage daughter. "Well, he's in his '70s, so he's more of a grandfather really, but he's a very important figure in my life," said Yoo of Hanson. Twice a week, she traveled from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. for lessons with him. Although she was accepted into a number of prestigious music conservatories, Yoo chose Hopkins and was enrolled in Hopkins' Bachelor of Music program, which meant a full undergraduate courseload and an independent study of piano, directed by Hanson, on the side. "I really wanted a broader education," explained Yoo, who took courses like Calculus III, Advanced French, Macro-Economics and International Development. "I felt that if I went to a music school like Peabody, my focus would be too narrow. I think there's more to life than just music, and I wanted to be open to other subjects and experiences. It helps my music by making it fuller. Music isn't about simply practicing 10 hours a day." Yoo said she learned a great deal of what music means to her during her college years. "Before coming here, I wasn't given much choice about music," she explained. "My mother would make sure I practiced, make sure I arrived at my lessons on time," she said. "But when I came here, for the first time it became my music. I really began to appreciate playing and being able to express myself through this instrument." Yoo is convinced she can't verbally express herself very well. She searches for the perfect words to name what she feels about her father, about her talent. She can in fact express herself quite well, and her listener is often touched by her poignant and earnest manner as she tries to articulate how she feels about things. But the truth is, she'll never be able to match the way she communicates through words as perfectly as she can with a piano. "Playing the piano can be so exposing, but it's so wonderful when you feel you have communicated something you feel profoundly about," she said.
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