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Rising Stars: Meet Minji Noh

Today we’d like to introduce you to Minji Noh.

Hi Minji, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
I come from a musical family and started learning the piano at age 4 with my own mother as the first teacher. At first, she “brainwashed” me into choosing a musician’s path. I’ve always loved music but hated practicing. This probably resonates with a lot of young musicians. For my undergraduate, I went on to major in piano performance at the Oberlin Conservatory near Cleveland, OH. All of my Orange County friends wondered what I was doing in the midwest. At that time, I still wasn’t sure if being a pianist for life would be the right path for me. I was easily distracted and had lots of different interests. It was in a graduate program at the New England Conservatory (Boston, MA) that I realized being a musician is indeed the chosen life for me. I was dating a non-musician at the time who hated his job, and I just couldn’t imagine doing anything just for the jobs-sake if that makes any sense. Fast-forward many years, I wear many hats as a professional musician and enjoy every aspect. I perform, I teach, and I help run non-profit music organizations. I now see that what I’d originally viewed as “distractions” of having variety of different interests helped broaden my horizons as a younger person. I still seek to learn something new every day.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Raising a musician is a costly affair for the family and my dad had a bankruptcy when I was in junior high. Even during financial struggles, my mom was determined to pay of my private piano lessons. She even asked family and friends for donations at one point. I also received scholarships from organizations like Young Musicians Foundation (YMF) that still exist today. I’m eternally grateful for my mom’s dedication, without which I wouldn’t have been able to take lessons with all of the wonderful teachers I’ve had the privilege to study with.

When I started my graduate school program at the New England Conservatory, I had to be financially independent and put my first month’s rent on credit card via Paypal (it was a brand new service at the time). Tuition was paid for with scholarships, grants, and loans, but I didn’t have money for anything else. I remember crying every day the first month I was there… being without family and friends and being dirt poor. It was during those years I learned how to be truly independent. New England Conservatory had a career center where they would post local teaching opportunities. I went there every single day to see if there’d been any inquiries for piano teachers and commuted anywhere and everywhere to work with the students. All of my friends told me that it’s nearly impossible to find private teaching gigs around Greater Boston area because there are too many musicians. They weren’t completely wrong since there are lots of reputable music schools and over 90 colleges in the area. When you are desperate enough, though, you find many ways to make things work. After a few months of struggling, I was able to establish a successful private piano studio while still being a full-time student. My own practicing suffered a bit but I wouldn’t trade that experience with anything. It taught me to be strong.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I wear many hats professionally. I’m on the piano faculty of Irvine Valley College, a community college in Irvine, CA. I manage a vibrant, private studio of young pianists. I serve on the state boards of musical organizations like Music Teachers Association of California (MTAC). I also perform frequently in both solo and chamber music groups. Most notably, I’ve been in a piano duo group named Duo Art with another pianist, Kookhee Hong, for the past 8 years. A more unique hat I wear is probably the managing of the Orange County Branch area in a pre-college chamber music program called Junior Chamber Music (JCM). JCM auditions and places young musicians every year in small chamber music groups of 2-5 students. I call it the dating service for young musicians because many musical and non-musical aspects has to be considered when I place each student in groups.

I enjoy every aspect of my job that consists of a number of part-time positions that adds up to be more than a full-time. I don’t know if it’s anything that sets me apart but I’m proud of my positive and encouraging outlook as an educator. For example, I teach at a community college where most of the students don’t show up with any musical skills because they didn’t have the opportunity to learn as a young kid. Just to give you an idea, a typical professional pianist had their start at age four and these community college students sometimes realize their need for music education at age 18 or even at 70. When I meet a student, I like to see their best future self and what is possible rather than what it is at the present condition. There are plenty of great music teachers in this world skills-wise but I like to think that I stand out in my level of caring for students as individuals that goes beyond music. This goes a long way especially when you work with the less skilled. In return, the students teach me to be a better teacher and musician and just a better human being in general.

Are there any books, apps, podcasts or blogs that help you do your best?
I’ve been reading a lot of self-improvement books since 2020. Some of the memorable ones were “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, “Make Time” by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, and “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown. Do you see a common pattern in my book consumption? The pandemic really has given me a chance to re-evaluate my priorities and daily routines. It helped me make more time for myself and my family in addition to work.

One of my favorite blogs is by Noa Kageyama. He provides a lot of interesting studies and interviews on the psychology of being a better musician.

I also love watching a lot of interviews on YouTube but they’re mostly of South Korean content.

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Image Credits

Kristina Jacinth Photography (Headshot)

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