When Woori Kim Smith was in elementary school, she loved playing tennis and dreamed of becoming a professional player. But her coach said her backhand would never be up to par to compete on the professional level.
So, instead of pursuing a career in tennis, Kim Smith dedicated her life to playing piano.
Now, at the age of 34, she made her debut at Carnegie Hall Monday night with a program dedicated to one of her favorite composers, Claude Debussy.
“It’s a dream come true. It’s amazing. Honestly, I [was] very nervous and at the same time, it’s a very mixed feeling. I knew it’s just not the end of my career. It has a very significant value, Carnegie Hall. It’s just one of the opportunities,” she said.
James Tocco, who was Kim Smith’s teacher for five years at the University of Cincinnati, planned to make a special trip to New York to see Kim Smith perform there.
“It’s always very gratifying for me to see a student go out into the world and make her own way and be successful. I always want my students to live up to their potential. For someone who had great potential, such as Woori Kim, I’m always open to a certain level of achievement, and I think she’s on the right path for that,” Tocco said before the concert. “I’m very much looking forward to her performance.”
Kim Smith’s Carnegie Hall concert was the second in her trilogy of Debussy performances.
The first was a faculty recital at Liberty University last week, where she performed a solo piece as well as a duet with her husband, Curtis Ryan Smith, who also is a professor at the university.
The third concert is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. March 28 in LU’s Oldham Recital Hall, where the couple, along with their respective students, will perform Debussy pieces in a two-hour marathon recital.
“When I watch her play, it’s refreshing for me because it’s so beautifully done, but it’s also different than how I might do it myself,” Smith said of his wife. “It’s refreshing to hear a completely difference voice that’s piano. She has many qualities that I am, in a good way, quite envious of as a pianist.”
Kim Smith said Debussy is her “affinity type of composer.” She studied his music while working to receive her doctorate degree. The composer also shares the same birthday as Kim Smith.
Besides her love for Debussy’s music, Kim Smith also chose to perform his work because this year marks the centennial of the French composer’s death.
Before a concert, Kim Smith said she’s “super nervous” but as she steps onstage, the nerves go away.
“I try to enjoy the moment and try to capture the ambiance of that. When I’m ready and when I come on the stage, I try to leave all my burdens out there and try to be myself,” she said.
Growing up in Busan, South Korea, Kim Smith said she was surrounded by music, both in church and at home with her mother, a public school music teacher. She started playing piano when she was 5 and originally wanted to become a church pianist.
“Whenever my mom scolded me or my dad pushed me to study or I had friends fight or a bad day, I always just played piano. Piano is my refuge or my honest friend. Any time I was gloomy, my mom just tried to get me into the piano room. I think it’s a very honest friend and at the same time an unforgiving friend,” she said.
After the main pianist at her church was unable to play one Sunday due to an emergency, Kim Smith, who said she was 6 or 7 at the time, stepped in and played without previously rehearsing with the choir. She said many people told her to try playing music as a profession.
Since then, she has dedicated her life to studying, practicing and performing piano music and doesn’t see herself stopping any time soon.
“I always think the musicality and the spirituality is an endless lifetime journey, so it’s endless study. It makes me so humble and also makes me curious [as to] what’s next,” Kim Smith said. “I’m still growing. I’m still learning. It’s an endless journey, so I love it. I’ll take the challenge. I’m super blessed and fortunate to have an opportunity to perform and teach at the same time. I hope it continues.”
Husband Curtis Ryan Smith describes Kim Smith as exuberant and a “very transparent and sincere artist.”
“She doesn’t know how to be anything but herself. She doesn’t know how to do anything but tell the truth about how she feels and what she thinks,” he said.
Kim Smith graduated from Seoul National University in South Korea and came to the U.S. in 2006 to study at Indiana University-Bloomington, where she earned her Master of Music degree and performer’s diploma. From there, she went to the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati for a doctorate in musical arts and an artist diploma.
“She was always, always very well prepared for her lessons. She was the kind of student that I could not dictate ideas to and tell her what to do but actually discuss problems with her,” Tocco said. “It was always stimulating to work with her. She was really a powerhouse among the students of her class.”
After graduating with her doctorate, Kim Smith started teaching at Liberty University in 2014.
Kim Smith said she learns as much from her students as they learn from her.
“Students come up with brilliant new ideas, even some repertoires or techniques I have never thought about, so we are teaching each other. My students help me out to expand my knowledge,” she said. “I find so much joy in their growth and their progress.”
Balancing the time between being a professor and a performer has posed some challenges, Kim Smith said.
“After dedicating an entire day of teaching, even though I have the time to practice all my stuff, I am caught up with all my students’ problems. I couldn’t separate myself as pianist Woori Kim Smith. It’s tremendous, the challenge of the mental shift,” she said. “I’m still learning how to manage [my time]. I have to be very wise on setting my practice time.”
To avoid distractions from her job, Kim Smith said she practices either early in the morning or late at night when she can isolate herself.
“[Playing piano] makes you sometimes very isolated and very self driven. At the same time, you are controlling [the music] as if you are the conductor of the entire music,” Kim Smith said. “In the solo field, you can present your own world. In the ensemble setting, like group piano, you can do all the exciting activities and piano duos.”
Kim Smith also is a part of a piano duo team with her husband. Because the instrument is often used for a solo performance, working as a duo can come with its challenges, Kim Smith said.
“We are doing a piano battle or like a piano duel. Sometimes our two egos clash, so we argue and fight a lot while we are rehearsing because pianists are used to playing a lot of solo music. [Being in a duo] gives me a good opportunity on how to collaborate and listen to each other,” Kim Smith said.
Although playing together isn’t always easy, Smith said, “there’s no greater joy than” performing with his wife.
“No two people are alike, and certainly no two pianists are remotely alike. We often say that we end up in the same place when we play, but we get there in a different direction,” Smith said.
Kim Smith has performed in several states and countries, including New York, Colorado, California, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, Japan, the Czech Republic and Scotland. But her dream is to play in Paris, where Debussy started his career.
She said she doesn’t expect “huge things” in her future but will take any opportunity that comes her way.
“If I dream up some impossible, intangible stuff, it just kind of gives you more disappointment easily. I just live my life.”
“I’m still growing. I’m still learning. It’s an endless journey, so I love it. I’ll take the challenge."