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Recital is a chance to listen to the teacher

Piano instructor Wha Kyung Byun gives rare concert

The movies have taught us to think of the great musicians as bowing deeply in the limelight to an applauding audience. This is only part of the picture, because behind any public performance lie thousands of hours of lessons and practice. And not every important musician has chosen the road that leads to concerts and public acclaim.

The name of Wha Kyung Byun is probably not known to much of the public, but most pianists know about her, because she is one of the most successful teachers in America. As it happens, she has been married for 30 years to another prominent teacher; her husband is also one of the major performers in Boston's musical life, Russell Sherman.

Byun herself performs very rarely. Years ago she made the choice to concentrate on teaching and on creating a home life with her husband. "Russell is one of a kind," she says. "I realized I could not do everything. I wanted to preserve him, to help him to flourish, to help my students to flourish, so I gave up the performing part of my dream." But Wednesday in Jordan Hall, Byun and Sherman will celebrate their 30th anniversary by playing a two-piano recital; the public will briefly share a privilege with Byun's students, who get to hear her play at every lesson.

Over the years, 20 of Byun's students have won the Boston Symphony Orchestra's annual competition for gifted youngsters. Many of her students have gone on to work with Sherman, and some have won medals in the major international piano competitions.

"Success," however, is not a goal Byun encourages her students to pursue. "I am not interested to make young stars," she says. "I am not interested in students who only want to learn the trump-card pieces for competitions, rather than the pieces that a musician needs to know."

Her own road to music was hard, and it has left her with bedrock values. She was born in the university city of Taegu, Korea, after World War II. As a child, she had access only to a Yamaha upright piano to practice on. Because it was in a school, she had to practice at night and in the predawn hours. There was no electricity, so she had to memorize her music and practice in the dark. In the wintertime there was no heat, so she wore gloves with the fingers cut out. Printed music was hard to come by, so whatever friends could buy in Japan is what Byun practiced. She learned Beethoven's challenging "Waldstein" Sonata because it was in C Major, and she thought that was a good place to begin.

She was in high school before she heard a great pianist in person (it was Arthur Rubinstein) or a great international orchestra. She didn't sleep all night after she heard George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra play Mozart on tour in Korea: "Everything was a great event, and concerts like these made me open up my ears, my eyes, my desire."

Encouraged by teachers and family to study engineering, she did, but she never gave up music, commuting 8 1/2 hours to Seoul for lessons. She played for opera workshops and knows many operas by heart, in Korean; she played chamber music; she studied composition. By the time she was 14, she was already teaching younger musicians.

By the early 1970s, she had saved $3,000 and came to America for advanced study, starting at the Manhattan School of Music. "Then I heard a recital when Rudolf Serkin was playing the last three Beethoven sonatas, and that left me with deep questions -- this was not what I thought music was. I had to know what this was all about. I had been practicing six hours a day; I started practicing 12. And I knew I had to find a great teacher." She took a bus to Boston and auditioned at the New England Conservatory. "I told Mr. Sherman I would love to study with him, and he told me, `I would love to teach you.' "

She brought Mozart's last piano concerto to her first lesson because she had often been told how beautifully she played it. "And he used such strange words -- phrasing, balance, shaping, harmony, touch. After the lesson I stood in front of his house for two hours, thinking I had made a terrible mistake. But then I decided to stay for three months to see if I could learn something from this crazy man. Within a month I could tell I was playing better, but I didn't know how or why. Sometimes after a lesson I would walk the whole length of Newbury Street over and over again, trying to figure everything out.

"And now it has been 34 years since that first lesson, and 30 years since we were married -- years that have led me here to where I am. I struggled so much and had to change everything I thought I knew, so I think that is why I know the problems students have, why I know how to work with them."

The students and former students agree. HaeSun Paik, who now has an important international career, called from Korea to say, "She asks you not to give in to your limits, and to go beyond them. She hates academic playing; it must portray nature, come from life. She is gutsy, courageous, funny, understanding, and extremely wise." Young Ah Tak says, "Her teaching is all about how you approach music and how you reach your aim; she never says, `This is what you should do.' "

Minsoo Sohn says, "She knows the hidden song inside of our hearts, and she looks after her students the way a mother does."

Sang-Young Kim, a sophomore at NEC who recently filled in for Sherman in Brahms's D-Minor Concerto with the Concord Orchestra, says, "She cares so much that she makes us care more. Sometimes she teaches me in English, but often she teaches me in Korean. She is nice in English, and scary when she teaches in Korean!"

The prize-winning Canadian pianist Katherine Chi wasn't ever officially a student of Byun's but often played for her and coached competition repertoire with her. "She makes everything that is ineffable about music practical."

Hugh Hinton, the pianist of the CORE Ensemble (which specializes in new music-theater works), studied with Byun as a high school student. "One of the wonderful things about her is that she can work with people at all different levels of development. In my own case, she helped me with fundamental aspects of getting around the keyboard. Her ear and her mind are direct, sharp, and focused, and with a very few words she can transform what you are doing. In recent years, she has worked with more advanced students, so she is finally getting the recognition she has deserved all along."

Byun says she does not feel comfortable talking about herself. She does like to talk about Sherman. "We are very different, but he is my guiding star and he opened my world. I hear him practicing every day, so my ear is always growing, freshened and inspired; he has shown me how to be a musician."

Sherman says, "Musically she has helped me to become more responsive to the lyrical element of music. She is always singing. She is a caregiver, and her example has made me a throughtful, respectful, and decent person."

Wednesday's concert is beginning to sound like the celebration not only of an anniversary but also of a love story. 

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