Dorothee Binding interviews William Youn

Can you recall your first encounter with the piano?

William: "It was at my kindergarten in Korea. I was six at the time. We were singing songs and our teacher was accompanying us at the piano. During the break I went up to the piano and tried it out, to see how it worked. I then told my parents that I absolutely wanted to learn to play the piano. It was the time of the piano boom in Korea, like the 70s in Japan. There were private music schools where girls especially could learn piano. My sister also had piano lessons, and I accompanied her a few times. When I was eight, I went to a piano teacher – she was very ambitious. Then I had the opportunity to play for a Korean teacher who had been living in the US for 30 years. She taught at the conservatory in Boston."

What was your first meeting like?

William: "I played the Second Concerto by Chopin for her and expected her to be quite impressed. But she just kept asking for other pieces, and so I played and played. The very next day I had my first lesson with her – on the Chopin concerto. She said things that totally unsettled me. But I definitely wanted to keep working with her, because I wanted to understand everything that was possible on the piano."

With the help of a grant you then moved to a boarding school in Boston.

William: "It was a relatively small arts high school, with 200 students. It was very interesting for me there to come into contact with other art forms, like dance, the visual arts and theatre."

You were 13 years old. Were you homesick?

William: "Sometimes I missed my parents and my family. But there were always people I could talk to. My teacher was like a second mother, and I had nice roommates. Everything was completely different. I really liked that. Those years were very important for me because they were the first time in my life when I really worked a lot and hard."

Five years later you moved to Hanover, into Karl-Heinz Kämmerling’s talent factory.

William: "It was very hard for me in the beginning because I missed the close contact with my teacher in Boston. Kämmerling had lots and lots of pupils and not much time. I was alone a great deal. That was hard but a good process for me because I began to work independently."

Kämmerling was famous for the thoroughness of his technical training. Is that why you went to him?

William: "I learned very systematically from Kämmerling how playing the piano functions: which muscles you use and how best to coordinate and control movement."

Many take a different route in their musical training, first emphasizing technique, practising scales and studies, and later putting the finishing touches on their playing through musical coaching with a great master.

William: "I’m glad I first had a teacher who dealt with the emotions and then an objective, academic teacher. You could compare it to a person having a body and a soul. I believe the soul comes first."

To round off your training, you were in Como at the International Piano Academy. Seven students and ten masterclasses in one year – how is it possible to process this plethora of highly qualified but often conflicting musical points of view?

William: "Of course I often played the same piece for several teachers. They all had different opinions, but they were all dead certain that theirs was the only right way. I took away from that time an understanding that pieces can be interpreted in very different ways, that you can’t say what’s right or wrong but you must have a firm opinion. If that opinion tallies with everything else, then it’s the right interpretation for you in particular. Every person has his or her own universe."

You had a very solid and thorough training. I can imagine that jumping into active concert life was very hard.

William: "A conservatory is like an island. I was in one of the best classes in the world, but we never talked about careers. It was always only about exams, lectures, instruction, masterclasses and competitions. Competitions are very important for pianists, of course, in order to gain attention. There are only two paths for us: teaching or playing yourself – and everyone wants to play. After my studies I didn’t know where my life was leading. I didn’t want to stay in Hanover, because I was feeling very constricted. I wanted to go to a bigger city. In July I spent a week in Berlin. It rained the whole time…and then I came to Munich and the sun shone. Maybe it was fate!"