Tiny hands may bring a big career as pianist


Seung Shin Yoo's dreams of playing piano were nearly --ed in her native South Korea when an instructor said her tiny hands were unsuited to a career as a concert pianist.

"He said, 'Your fingers are too small,' " said the 18-year-old Laurel resident, who prefers to be known as Cindy, as she held up slender hands supported by delicate wrists.

But since her arrival in Howard County 14 months ago, Cindy has rediscovered her dream, working with an energetic Highland piano teacher who believes the girl has the rare ability that will let her become a concert pianist.

"I've had really talented students, but this is really unique," said Leslie Goldstein, who has encountered hundreds of students in her 30 years as a piano teacher.

In the past year, Cindy has won a local piano competition while earning a 3.78 grade point average at Atholton High, where she studies Latin, chemistry and calculus.

Meanwhile, she is struggling to learn English and make friends with teen-agers more interested in dating and acquiring driver's licenses than in pursuing a classical music career and academics.

In Korea, "I had my friends," Cindy said. "I got involved in dance, art and piano." But in the United States, "nobody knows me," she said.

Cindy lives with her parents and two younger sisters. Her father, Dong Ki Yoo, was drawn to this area by relatives who operate an import-export business.

She grew up in Inchon, a port city about two hours north of Seoul, and began playing piano at the age of 4.

Her parents initially expected her to play only in church. But they soon discovered that she could reproduce music she heard on television, and they sent her to study under a respected South Korean piano teacher.

For more than a decade, Cindy studied piano, strengthening her finger form and technique and competing in the demanding talent contests that attract thousands of students from across South Korea.

In her spare time, she composed her own music.

"Music is her life," Mr. Yoo said. "She composed music by herself and played it. And it was good."

But when Cindy turned 15, her piano teacher told her that she would never make it as a concert pianist because of her tiny hands. The teen-ager's reaction was mixed.

"I was kind of bored" with the finger drills, she said, "but I was kind of upset, too."

Despite her teacher's assessment, Cindy continued to play piano at home, composing her own pieces and playing alongside her sisters, ages 14 and 15. She also learned to play the violin.

It was not until Cindy met Ms. Goldstein last year that she began seriously contemplating a career in classical music.

Ms. Goldstein had been referred to the girl by a former student who had heard Cindy play. The piano teacher still remembers her first encounter with Cindy.

"Her hands were small, but there was a look of determination about her," recalls Ms. Goldstein, who graduated from the Juilliard School and studied beside violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman.

It wasn't long before Ms. Goldstein had decided that Cindy had the drive and ability to become one of the best in her field.

"She's extraordinarily strong and resilient," Ms. Goldstein said. "She's singularly focused on this activity. It's a passion for her."

Under Ms. Goldstein's guidance, Cindy is planning to attend Juilliard or the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and become a concert pianist.

In the meantime, she is entering piano competitions.

A week ago, she won the high school piano division in the Columbia Chamber Orchestra competition by playing the first movement in A minor of Schumann's Piano Concerto for Orchestra. In March, she plans to play the same piece in a Rachmaninoff trio competition at the Peabody Institute.

"It's important for Cindy to get out on stage," Ms. Goldstein said.

During lessons with Ms. Goldstein, Cindy studies Mendelssohn variations, concertos and sonatas by Beethoven and a Ravel sonatina.

Cindy especially likes the music of Ravel and Debussy, two French composers known for their Romantic repertoire.

"It's serious and romantic and fantastic," she said. "I like the feeling of that."

When she's not playing the piano, Cindy talks on the phone with her friend Cindy Chae, an Atholton High senior who speaks Korean.

The musician displays two distinct personalities, her friend said. When at school and forced to speak English, Cindy is quiet and reserved. But when she is able to speak Korean, her bubbly personality emerges.

"When she's on the phone, she's totally different," said Cindy Chae. "She's all outgoing and friendly. Because of the language barrier, she tends to act quieter."

The young pianist also has forged a close friendship with her piano teacher.

When she arrived in the United States, Cindy often would spend time at Ms. Goldstein's comfortable Highland home, playing the piano, finishing homework and eating dinners of lemon chicken.

"When I first came here, I couldn't speak English at all," Cindy said. Ms. Goldstein is "the only one who can understand me. . . . She knows everything. I don't have to say anything. She knows what I'm feeling."

And Ms. Goldstein has high hopes for her student.

"She has my strengths and sensibilities," she said. "I think she has a real strong career ahead of her."

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