Sioux City Journal
By David Vernier
September 26, 2014
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Music is a way of living for violinist Jennifer Koh

Jennifer Koh started a lot of activities as a 3-year-old – ballet, rhythmic gymnastics, diving, swimming and the Suzuki violin. Her parents wanted her to experience everything.

Only the last two stuck.

“I was a horrible dancer,” Koh said, calling from New York City. “I still have two left feet. It’s really quite appalling.”

While she doesn’t swim competitively anymore, she enjoys a dip in the pool as well as yoga when she’s not mesmerized by the instrument she loves. At 37, her fingers deftly dance on the neck of her violin. The soloist’s body bobs and sways with the sounds of her repertoire, ranging from classic to contemporary.

Koh, who will perform Saturday with the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra, always knew she would have music in her life but never expected it to play such a big part or be a means to make a living.

An only child, she didn’t come from a musical family.

Both of her parents grew up during the Korean War. Her mother’s family fled North Korea and escaped to South Korea as refugees. They focused on schoolwork and not much more. The opportunities were not there to awkwardly plié in a tutu, tumble on a mat or draw a bow across the strings of a Suzuki violin.

“When they had me and came here, they told me they wanted to give me everything they didn’t have when they were growing up,” she said.

Growing up outside of Chicago, Koh began playing the violin by chance, choosing the instrument in a Suzuki-method program only because spaces for cello and piano had been filled.

She made her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11 and went on to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the Concert Artists Guild Competition and an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Her mother and father placed her in classes and programs, and from there, teachers became mentors and nurtured her talent from a young age.

“I’m not one of those people that knew they would make a career in music. It was unfamiliar in my familial life, within my family, to actually be a musician,” she said. “I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t come from a background from where people were musicians as a career.”

Her first violin teacher, Jo Davis, taught Koh everything she knew. When the time came, Davis did all the research to find someone who could take her promising pupil, then 8, to the next level of playing and performing.

For a year, Davis drove an hour to take Koh to lessons with the new instructor.

“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be in music,” Koh said. “I can say that about all my teachers actually. The kind of guidance and mentorship they gave me, I feel really incredibly grateful to them.”

In recent years, she’s taken on a couple different projects exploring Bach’s music and influence. She continues to commission and premiere new works.

Through an online video series, she’s sharing an inside look at life as a concert artist. “Off Stage, On Record,” produced in collaboration with “Strings” magazine, explores topics of creativity, collaboration, self-care, managing a busy schedule and more.

“It’s a lot of practicing,” she said. “At home, in hotel rooms, in dressing rooms, everywhere. Give me four walls and a roof and I’m there.”

For Koh, playing the violin is about love, and it’s a lifestyle.

“Being a musician to me is about being a musician 24 hours a day. It doesn’t stop when you leave the practice room. Every experience adds to your musicianship,” she said. “It’s about remaining open, and it’s about empathy in the end.”


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