Psychology of an Olympian

Korean violin legend Kyung Wha Chung turns 70 on 26 March. In the wake of the recent Winter Olympics where she performed at the closing concert, she looks back at her career as an ‘Olympian’ of the violin and reflects on what it takes to perform at this level whether an athlete or musician. Her new CD Beau Soir is released on 23 March

Watching the Winter Olympics from PyeongChang gave me an enormous thrill. As a musician, I recognise that determination to give one’s all, that uncompromised focus and that spirit of camaraderie.

Musicians and athletes are hard-wired in surprisingly similar ways, which might not be obvious at first glance. For both, the ultimate goal is the best performance – in terms of timing, grace and strength, though in music there is another vital element: emotional engagement with the audience.

This is not to say that watching an athlete running with all their might and heart is less moving. On the contrary, often it is overwhelming to observe human beings at the peak of their ability.

Both music and sport demand a technical ability brought about by exercise, self-discipline, repeated practice and a steely commitment. Timing is everything – split seconds are the difference between failure and success, winning and losing.

Failure and success – these are two sides of the coin that we are both trained to live and die by as musician or athlete. Running the four-minute mile or playing Chopin’s Minute Waltz could be said to be similar. But what gives the real Olympians the edge over their peers? What enables any high achiever in the premier league to perform at their utmost?

I have always been a high-achiever and this started early on. Brought up in a musical family where our mother instilled in us a level of ambition, I knew I had to do my best and anything less was a failure. At the age of nine, I remember a performance, which I felt was a disaster. I was so ashamed of myself that I locked myself in my room for 24 hours.

I grew up in Seoul, which was suffering terrible devastation in the aftermath of the Korean War. Though Korea nurtured my initial love of music, it did not at the time offer an international level of music education, so my mother decided we should go to the US. I won a place to the Juilliard School when I was 13 and studied with Ivan Galamian, who instilled in me a new layer of discipline – he was even more uncompromising than me. When I asked whether I could go to church on Sunday, his reply was “I am now your god”. I had entered the super-league – my student colleagues were Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. Both seemed to have a natural genius. Me, I had to train relentlessly.

Kyung Wha Chung with a young student © Guri Arts Hall
Kyung Wha Chung with a young student © Guri Arts Hall

After winning the Leventritt Competition in 1967 at 19 I had to live up to the expectations this created. When I stood in for an indisposed Itzhak Perlman to make my London debut with the LSO and André Previn at the Royal Festival Hall, it changed my life. To this day, I remember that energy on the stage – it was electric. From that evening, I had the opportunity to work with the best orchestras and conductors in the world and I was immediately signed up to a record contract with Decca. I won further prizes and awards – you could say I was the first Asian musician to make it into the top international tier of soloists.

For more than 30 years it was a charmed life; although even then I couldn’t listen to my own recordings, as I never thought they were good enough. I knew I had to perform to win everyone’s heart. But technical excellence doesn’t guarantee emotional engagement. Technical excellence is only the start. Making a connection with an audience is a very different matter.

Then my career came to a halt suddenly 15 years ago due to a finger injury that forced me to lay down my instrument for more than a decade. It was the first concert I had cancelled; as a performer I would give everything and, above all, never pull out, so that nearly destroyed me.

A period of reflection followed this enforced retirement. I had to completely reconfigure my value system to understand this perceived “failure”.

I had to learn a new skill: mentoring young musicians. I returned to my alma mater, Julliard. My values are now changed, giving me a better understanding of what is and isn’t important, and I want to share this knowledge and experience with others, especially as nowadays young musicians are exposed to so many more demanding pressures.

Last month, I was back on tour performing in Rome and Abu Dhabi with Tony Pappano and his magnificent Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orchestra. The lyricism of Brahms’ Violin Concerto is so ideally suited to the ‘singing’ qualities of this Italian orchestra. The concerto is full of yearning: it makes you cry with joy. Euronews TV’s Musica programme filmed it in Rome and broadcast my interview on International Women’s Day.

Where my life is different from an athlete is that my career has had longevity. With 65 years of playing the violin, I am incredibly blessed still to be able to perform for the public. What hasn’t changed is that the audience will get my 100% commitment. Above all, I know that my role as musician is to bring the message of peace, which is so important for all of us now on both sides of the Korean border. Musicians and athletes have all been united in this ultimate goal.