A Woman with Purpose: Jung Kwak

A Woman with Purpose: Jung Kwak

It started with a dream of becoming a pediatrician and finding an instrument that would help her along with studies and work that led young Jung Kwak to find her true passion, the Harp.

She started playing at age 11 and within three years was wowing the music world as a featured soloist with the Seoul National Symphony. After years of dedication and hard work, Jung is now recognized worldwide as one of classical music’s most talented artists.

Jung continues to pay it forward playing with the only harp ensemble in Korea, Harpyday, organizing concerts and events to highlight new talent. The ensemble also performs a yearly benefit called Sharing Love, which donates all proceeds to benefit the Hansarang Orphanage, a home for disabled children.

As Jung Kwak continues to lead with purpose, she enters each day with the thought that there is nothing that is impossible in life. We took a moment to speak with this inspiring woman to hear about her beginnings, lessons she has learned along the way, and what inspires her.

A Woman with Purpose: Jung Kwak

- What caught your interest in the harp?

My dream was to be a medical doctor, a pediatrician. And I wanted to learn an instrument that would help me to release my stress at work and to play for my little patients in the future. My grandmother always used to call me ‘Cheonsa’ which means angel in Korean. And she always mentioned that she wanted me to play the harp since the angels play it. I started playing the harp when I was 11 years old, and I just fell in love with the instrument. I knew from a young age that this was my destiny.

- Can you explain to us the magic of the harp?

Heavenly sound. It is so soothing, calming, and almost magical. Also, the look of the instrument is just stunning. It is the only instrument that can get applause by the audience when the stagehand moves the harp on to the stage before the artist comes out.

- What is the purpose of music?

I think music enriches one’s life. We are surrounded by music everywhere and music is closely connected to our daily lives. Any movies, dramas, animations will not be memorable without music. Music touches your emotion and makes it possible for you to be honest to yourself. Music makes you to be faithful to your emotion and helps you to realize your thoughts and feelings.

- What is your most memorable performing experience, and why?

Every concert is very special to me, and I have so many great memories. In 1997 when I was still a student, my professional debut was with Maestro Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the very first time they visited Korea and I was very honored to be the concerto soloist for my dream conductor. Since I was young, my grandmother and I listened to Maestro Zubin Mehta’s recordings, as he was also my grandmother’s favorite conductor. It was a dream come true moment!

- What is currently playing on your phone playlist?

None. I don’t like to listen to music on the phone. A lot of my daily life includes practicing and teaching students and hear music intensively all the time. When I am away from the harp, I like to give my ears a break. But I do love to go to concerts because live music of any kind touches your heart.

- During the pandemic, people, as always, turned to music for solace. Why is music so comforting?

You can relate to the melody no matter which language you speak or where you are from. Music is a universal language, and that is why all different kinds of music comfort and touch people’s heart. Not only just by listening, I saw so many happy faces when people learn and play an instrument (including voice) as well. Music is the greatest language that one can empathize with one another.

- Some people still judge the harp as an otherworldly, traditionally, quite feminine and almost heavenly instrument. What is your objection?

The harp is portrayed as an instrument for women, however over 70% of the great masters of 19th and 20th Century were men. Mr. Kyo Sook Lee who was the very first harpist in Korea was a man too. For sure, it is a heavenly instrument. But a harp can be dynamic and powerful instrument as well. It has so many possibilities that people don’t realize beyond the heavenly look and the calm sound.

- Can you tell us something about the idea behind the Harpyday Ensemble, that you founded in 2002?

Harpyday Ensemble is the leading professional harp ensemble in Asia. My dear students at that time came up with the idea of a harp ensemble. The ensemble is very unique, since it not only performs but organizes the Korea International Harp Competition and Korea Harp Festival, which actively promotes the harp to the general public. With Leader Sunyoung Bang, Executive Director Yoonmi Ji, Yaesong Jee, Jeongi Jeon, and Soomin Yoon, it consists of the leading next generation of Korean harpists.

- What project are you currently working on?

Every December, I give a benefit concert series with the Harpyday Ensemble & friends called ‘Sharing Love’. This year will be the 10th concert. The entire profit of the concert is donated to ‘Hansarang Orphange’ which is run by the Green Umbrella Child Fund. ‘Hansarang Orphanage’ is an orphanage for disabled children from 0 to 7 years old. I fell in love with the children in 2009 when I went there with my students to volunteer. When I was pregnant, I was diagnosed that my child will be disabled. Luckily when my son was born in 2008, he was a very healthy baby. I was so thankful, and it changed my view on life and music completely. I felt that it was my destiny to not only give pleasure to my audience but also to help. Through the donation of the ‘Sharing Love’ series, many children have had surgery and can live a better life.

- What's the biggest lesson you learned through your work as a musician and how did you learn it?

Diligence and sincerity. There is no betrayal in constant effort and hard work. Through steady practice, you develop persistence and resilience which I believe are the most essential characteristics in life.

- If you could share a message with your younger self, what would you say?

“There is nothing that is impossible in life.” If you really want something and strive for your best, you can achieve anything. It does not matter what kind of work it is, always give 200% or more. This was my mom’s motto, and she always stressed it on me. Also don’t be scared to face new challenges, even failures, as all experience will bring valuable lessons in life.

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