Jinjoo Cho: 'The high point of excellence is when technique and maturity finally meet.'

January 26, 2018, 11:37 AM · Last May, I heard the US based Korean violinist Jinjoo Cho in a wonderful recital part of Playing for Formosa concert series in Taipei. If I had to choose a violinist whom I wanted to sound like, it would have been her at that very moment. Her playing was young. It was playful and at the same time controlled and the most beautiful. This recital in Taipei was my third occasion to listen to her.

Jinjoo Cho
Jinjoo Cho.

She won the 2006 Montreal International Music Competition and the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. At the finals of the MIMC, the now 27 years old violinist had a memory slip and stopped in the middle of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto no.1. When she started the movement over again the audience could see a refreshed, steely determination in her face. She had now decided to enjoy the concerto no matter what, and she sure did. What a huge gap there was between the Jinjoo Cho we heard throughout the competition and the artist we heard after her dramatic mistake!

“I remember distinctly what happened. I thought ‘oh well, this is a mess anyway so I might as well just have fun’. It was my first competition and I was only 17! Some of the other candidates were already well-established players but I was so young that there really was nothing for me to lose. To perform this incredible concerto with a full orchestra was the most exciting part. Playing on stage with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra was so stimulating that I didn’t care so much about the mess-up”.

“I was pretty nervous until the mistake. But after that I remember just having fun, LOTS of fun. Now that I think back, the sense of carefree was the perfect state of mind for a successful concert. The sensation from that night has never happened to me again. I did try to recreate it a couple times but it is probably impossible.”

After winning the MIMC, Jinjoo Cho felt she had something to prove. And it was not easy. When she won the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, perhaps she finally attained the goal. “It is ironic because those two are the only major competitions that I actually won. The Indianapolis competition was going to be my last competition, so in way I didn't really stress over it. Rather, I was thinking about how I should manage my life after the competition—getting a doctorate degree, or a job, etc.”

Today’s music world seems to require everyone to be at their top shape when they are in their 20’s. Most emphatically, Jinjoo thinks otherwise.

“I think the beautiful thing about our profession is that we can continue until we are 85 and older. My goal is to sound the best when I am in my 40’s. I have always thought that way ever since I was little. The high point of excellence is when technique and maturity finally meet. I am still on my way, looking for new inspiration to help me develop and progress”.

It is obvious that Jinjoo Cho loves learning. “I have this need to look for new information. It is a bit like an illness, and I was always like that. I’ve always had this incessant need to know. And this past year was my best learning year yet because I taught a lot.”

Teaching has changed Jinjoo’s approach to music. For the past two years she has been teaching in Cleveland and at Oberlin and she loves it. When she tells something to her students she has to remind herself to do it too. She has to be aware of her own playing, more than ever before.

“Ever since I started teaching I am listening to music 24/7 because I have to get to know the repertoire that my students are playing but I never learned. It feels like learning twenty pieces at the same time, so it is amazing! It challenges me to come up with new musical ideas. I have to come up with new angles and ideas every week and doing so makes me learn so much. You can’t tell your students the same thing every week because they will not respond anymore.”

“I have a really amazing studio and it is a real blessing. When you hear great students you become so motivated and learn a lot from them. They practice all the time and learn very fast. That is inspiring to be around!”

Jinjoo says she is more in love with the violin than ever before. Before it was never really about the instrument, but more about the music. Learning the violin was something she had to do in order to do the music.

“I always worked hard. It was never easy. I think understanding the music was in a way more natural but playing the violin was always hard and it still is. I had to practice a lot to get where I am today. But I think it is the engineering mindset that worked for me. I love to figure out the speed of my hands and match it almost mathematically to my performance. I love to figure out the mechanics. Thankfully I am not too bad at applying it when I play.”

“To play each composer with the appropriate style and language is extremely important. That is the essence of what we do and that is the priority. Everybody says ‘let’s make music’, but we really don’t make the music. The music is already there. We just read it. Our job is to interpret it well and to try to realize what the composer was hearing in his or her head.”

“There is a clear structure, tone and language for a composer. Playing in the wrong style would be like speaking a language with a very strong foreign accent: you don’t speak Schubert with a Schumann accent. If you ask the right questions, playing with the appropriate style comes naturally because music is intuitive: it is the perfect human expression. That is the most remarkable thing about music. It is so direct to our emotions that it transcends time and it transcends perspectives in many ways.”

When I first heard Jinjoo perform, I found she has an amazing stage presence, which is an incredible tool for communicating music. Just as for actors, stage presence is essential for musicians to connect with their audience.

“Looking at the music I really try to see it as a line in a script. So I am always asking myself: where is the story, how does that phrase fit into the whole piece and how many times does this emotional context come into place? Of course a performance is a combination of different things but I believe understanding context makes a more engaging performance. You try to be spontaneous but with some structure.”

“My body moves with the engineering of the violin. If I want a stronger sound I actively use bigger muscles. It is not just a natural reaction but a planned movement. I want to get it right because if you are just reacting sometimes the actions comes too late. You have to know what is coming ahead, almost like a choreography.”

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