Blind Korean Violinist Kim Ji-Sun Hopes to Heal With Her Debut Performance in Hong Kong
Korean violinist Kim Ji-sun sure knows how to give a great performance—after all, she’s been performing since she was just four years old. Now, at 25, she’s set to treat Hong Kong audiences when she makes her debut performance in the city on November 28 as part of Festive Korea 2021. Unable to see since birth, Kim boasts both an inspiring journey and an award-filled musical career as a violinist.
She is the first blind person to enter Manhattan School of Music’s two-year graduate program. Before that, she also won the grand prize at the VSA International Young Soloists Award, earning an opportunity to perform at the John F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts. As if that’s not impressive enough, Kim also plays without a music stand—that is because she memories the entire score before performing on stage.
Ahead of her first performance in Hong Kong, Tatler talks to the brilliant violinist about her inspiring journey so far and what’s next for her.
When did you first pick up the violin and what made you decide to continue playing it?
My parents bought me the violin when I was four. When I held the violin for the first time, it felt like my best friend because it was small and fit my hands comfortably. I remember how it made me feel happy when I started to play, even if I was so young. It has been my best friend since then and I never put it down.
You were unable to see during birth. What challenges did you face while pursuing being a violinist?
Since I cannot see my posture, establishing a good posture was the biggest challenge. For example, I cannot see if I am using the straight bow, so I have to solely rely on what I hear and make good judgments based on the little difference in the sound. It really trained me to hear with more sensitivity, so it gave me a positive effect, too.
Do you have a favourite piece that you like to play?
I like playing Cesar Frank’s violin sonata. For some reason, I feel very close to his music and I feel like it represents my life story. It has so many different characters changing capriciously but in a very organised way. It’s calm, passionate, mysterious and comforting at the same time.
It’s also the piece that gave me such comfort when I was going through one of the toughest times in my life. When I hear the harmonic progressions at the beginning of the piece, it immediately calms me down. It’s my healing music whenever I feel down.
You memorise the entire score before going on stage. Can you tell us more about that?
I read music by braille and memorise them measure by measure. Interestingly, I shouldn’t really listen to the piece before I read the music. If I listen to the recording before reading them in braille, it confuses me and takes longer to memorise the piece. Also, it’s easier to memorise the solo pieces than chamber music or orchestral music.
For example, when I played in the orchestra concert in October, I was assigned to play the second violin part, and it was challenging to memorise the entire concert repertoire. Had I listened to the symphony before I read the music, it would have been more difficult for me to memorise the second violin part.
You joined the Hanbit Performing Arts and even became a concertmaster until 2014 at such a young age. What were some of the things that you learned there?
The most helpful skill I learned at school was to play chamber music. [Hanbit Performing Arts] is a school for visually impaired students, so I learned how to play together without looking, but by breathing together and feeling the pulse together.
You’re the first visually impaired musician to enter the Manhattan School of Music in New York for your graduate studies. How has the experience been so far?
It’s challenging but inspiring to be able to play with so many great musicians and inside bigger groups like the full orchestra concert. The school also provided me with many help such as giving me music in braille in advance and providing me with a person to help me navigate the dormitory and cafeterias at the beginning of the year. It’s not only a school with excellent students and faculty members, but I feel that they care about each student and help them succeed.
You were scheduled to make your debut at the John F. Kennedy for Performing Arts in Washington after winning the grand prize at the VSA International Young Soloists Award. Tell us how you’ve been preparing for that.
One of my mentors recommended the competition to me and helped me apply, and I was very happy to be chosen as the first prize winner among all the arts areas such as classical, jazz, dance, art and more. In addition to the prize money, I was given an opportunity to play solo at the Kennedy Center, but it was postponed due to the pandemic. I am hopeful that things will go back to normal soon and I will be able to play at the Kennedy Center soon.
How do you stay positive amidst all the challenges?
I have a sincere trust in God and I believe that he guides me and helps me throughout difficult times and I will eventually overcome them. Also, it is always the biggest encouragement when I receive positive feedback from audience members.
Can you tell us more about your upcoming performance in Hong Kong?
Three years ago, I played a concert in the Carnegie Hall in New York City. One of the audience members who was friends with [pianist] Michelle Kim told her about my performance and Michelle, who was living in New York City at that time, made an appointment with me at once. When she listened to my recording, she said she wanted to invite me to Hong Kong someday. Indeed, she officially invited me to the HKGNA festival, and I'm going to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Youth Orchestra, and play chamber music with the principal violist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Andrew Ling.
It’s your first time performing in Hong Kong, how do you feel?
I am very honoured to be invited to play in such a renowned festival at a great venue. I’m especially grateful it was very difficult to be in Hong Kong due to the pandemic.
What should the audience look forward to in this concert?
I assume that because of the pandemic, a lot of people are going through a hard time emotionally and they didn’t have the chance to go to concerts as often as before. I’m playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto which is a concerto that I have been playing since when I was young so I can play it with ease. Also, like most of Mendelssohn’s music, he started writing this piece when he was young, and its character is youthful and cheerful.
I hope this concert gives the audience members an opportunity to put their worries away and heal their souls that might have been suffering due to the pandemic.
What’s your message to aspiring musicians?
I know the music world can be competitive and sometimes feel like the Olympic Games, but I hope they always think about what music really is and why they chose to become a musician in the first place. I hope no matter how long they play and how much they achieve in their career, they never lose their integrity in music. I think the biggest gift of being a musician is to give other people happiness and love.
Kim Ji-sun is performing at the HKGNA Music Festival finale concert, ‘An Ode to Hope & Resilience’ on November 28. Tickets are available at HK Ticketing here.