Interview with Won-Bin Yim, former violinist with the Argenta Trio

Conducted by Forrest Hartman



Name: Won-Bin Yim

Age: 57

City of Residence: Cincinnati, OH

Years with Argenta: 1986 to 1990







Forrest: Where did you grow up?


Won-Bin: I was born in South Korea, and I came to the United States when I was 14, moving to Baltimore, Maryland, to study in the prep division of Peabody Conservatory. I studied music there on Saturdays, and I went to regular schools on weekdays.


Forrest: Was music the reason you came to the U.S.?


Won-Bin: Yes, for furthering my violin studies.


Forrest: When did you start playing violin?


Won-Bin: I started when I was 3 or 4 years old.


Forrest: Can you remember if it was you who had an interest in music or if it was something your parents suggested?


Won-Bin: It was a combination. I thought the violin would be a nice toy to have, but my father had a bigger idea about it. Soon came the violin teacher and practice. As a boy of 3 or 4, I didn’t think about those things.


Forrest: Were your parents musical?


Won-Bin: My father was an educator at a university. He wasn’t musical, but he enjoyed music. My mother did not have formal musical training, but I think she had musical tendencies.


Forrest: Why did you start with violin as opposed to another instrument?


Won-Bin: At that age, looking at the windows of the instrument store, I liked the shape of the violin.


Forrest: There are probably more children who start an instrument and quit than there are those who take it seriously. Did you consider doing anything besides music as a career?


Won-Bin: In elementary school, I think I had options open. But I was doing pretty well as a violin student of a young age compared to other students of a similar age. I was winning competitions, and I was encouraged to study abroad. At that time – this was 40-some years ago – the level of violin training in Korea wasn’t as high as it is now. Now, it is very high. All the top talents were going to either the United States or Europe to study.


Forrest: So it was your success that convinced you to stick with music?


Won-Bin: At an early age, yes. I was encouraged. But later, when I really, really fell in love with music making, I was glad that I chose that.


Forrest: Did you come to the States alone?


Won-Bin: My father was still working at a university in Korea, and my older sisters were in California working on their master’s and doctoral degrees. So, they helped me settle down in Baltimore. Then, I was a boarder with a family.


Forrest: Age 14 is pretty young to leave your family behind. Was that difficult?


Won-Bin: When I look back, it may have been a plus for my violin playing, but for the psychology of a young boy of 14 years old… it wasn’t a very happy time.


Forrest: Was it culturally difficult for you or had you done a lot of language and cultural studies in advance?


Won-Bin: I had one year of English class in junior high school in Korea, so I was able to communicate when I got here, but everything sounded so fast. At home, because I was studying and practicing most of the time and my parents were very protective of me, I wasn’t used to a lot of the things that I had to encounter when I got here on my own. It meant growing up in a very quick time.


Forrest: How long did it take before you started feeling comfortable here?


Won-Bin: Every year it got better as my English got better and I got used to a lot of things. After four years, I was able to function pretty well.


Forrest: During that time were you able to go back to Korea for visits fairly often?


Won-Bin: During that time, there was a lot of tension in the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is a communist country, and South Korea was democratic but also ruled by a very strict and very authoritative government. So, they had a restricted travel policy. If I went back, I think I would have had to stay until I finished my military requirement.


Forrest: So once you came to the U.S., you were pretty much stuck here?


Won-Bin: Right. I think I went back after nine years.


Forrest: Does that mean you didn’t see your parents for nine years?


Won-Bin: Just about. They came for, I think, a one- or two-week visit. My father was on a list where the government felt he was important enough that they didn’t want him to leave the country. So, they put a restriction on his travel.


Forrest: That must have been a tough time.


Won-Bin: Yes, and we didn’t have e-mail, Facebook or texting. Even with the telephone, we had to go through an operator during that time. Luckily, my older sisters were living in California, so I was able to visit them a couple times a year. 


Forrest: Can you talk about your education beyond Peabody?


Won-Bin: At Peabody, I was studying with a well-known violinist who taught at the conservatory. So, for my undergraduate degree, I continued to study with him at Peabody. For my master’s, I wanted to have some change. Around that time, Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard was producing a lot of very high-quality students. Some friends I know went to study with her, and they were telling me really, really terrific things about her teaching. So, I auditioned, got accepted and went to study at Juilliard for my master’s. Then, I felt that I wanted to study a little more. They have a program called Professional Studies where you don’t have to take classes but you can take lessons and study chamber music and orchestra. I did that for two years. I still felt that I wanted to learn more, and the only degree left was a doctoral degree, so I applied and got into the doctoral program there.


Forrest: Both your master’s and doctoral degrees are from Juilliard?


Won-Bin: Right. By the time I arrived in Reno to teach, I had completed my doctoral classes, but I hadn’t finished what we called, at that time, my doctoral document. I completed the degree two years after I got to Reno.


Forrest: Even people who don’t know very much about violin have probably heard of Dorothy DeLay. What was it like studying with somebody of that caliber?


Won-Bin: The first impression I got was – considering how famous she was and how many of her students were having incredible careers – she was very open, humble and considerate. That was something I was surprised by. Also, she was one of the smartest people I ever met. Her thinking process was very well organized and, up to that point, I wasn’t thinking in a very organized manner. I think that is one of the most important things that I learned from her.


Forrest: At one point you even worked as an assistant to her, correct?


Won-Bin: Yes. During my four years in Reno, I had several communications with her. The summer that I left Reno, she invited me to work with her as her assistant at Aspen Music Festival. I had been there as a student when I was in the graduate program at Juilliard School. I did that and enjoyed it, and I had a lot of conversations with her about teaching. At the end of the summer, she asked me if I wanted to come to Juilliard Pre-College and work in a similar capacity. So, I did that. Later, in addition to assisting her class, I had my own class in Pre-College and I assisted her in the College division.


Forrest: Is that job what convinced you to leave Reno?


Won-Bin: That came after I had already left Reno. I had tremendous fun while I was in Reno. It was my first full-time job. I had a great time. I was a poor student before that living in New York. In Reno, I had my own car and I didn’t have to share an apartment. I used to walk every night around Virginia Lake, and I thought, “Wow, this is much better than walking on the Manhattan streets.” The people were great, and I played lots of concerts. I was able to experiment with many things in teaching, playing and organizing… About a year before I left Reno, I was coming back from a recital in Carson City. It was, I think, January, and the next day I was supposed to fly to Houston for a concert. I slid on the highway on ice, and my car went off the highway and landed on someone’s ranch. I had a compressed fractured vertebrae, and the doctor recommended that I should just lie down for one month. But I was young, energetic and restless. After one week, I started playing concerts, and in the long run it didn’t do me good. I think, because my back was weak, I was using the wrong part of my body when I played, and I started to have some physical discomfort. Being in that job, I had to do a lot of playing, so I wanted to change something to see if that would help the injury to heal.  


Forrest: How long did it take for the injury to heal?


Won-Bin: It’s still healing. During the next 10 years, it got really bad. I was losing control of my bow when I played, but it was very subtle. At the medical tests, the test results would come out normal, but I knew it wasn’t normal… For the next 10 years, my hand was slowly healing. For one year, I was teaching at Wichita State University, and I was also concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and a member of the faculty string quartet. I didn’t know it before, but it was an even busier schedule than in Reno. Also, at that time, I was going to Juilliard School to teach every other week. My body was just too tired. When the University of Cincinnati job that I have now opened up, it was mainly a teaching position, and they have nonstop flights from Cincinnati to New York. So I applied.


Forrest: You are still not 100 percent recovered from the injury?


Won-Bin: Right. Now, it’s almost healed. Since Wichita, I have played very few concerts waiting for it to heal. When I look back, I missed playing concerts, but it also made me focus more on the teaching side. I had a really good situation for that and a really good mentor to learn from.


Forrest: Now, you are settled into doing a lot of teaching in Cincinnati. Since you are almost completely healed, do you anticipate playing more concerts?


Won-Bin: I hope so, especially chamber music, which I love. I was doing a lot of that when I was in Reno. I have been participating in teaching in different summer festivals. In one festival in Korea, I was also a dean. Last summer, actually, I organized my own small festival in Cincinnati for three weeks. I had fun, so I anticipate a combination of teaching and – as my injury heals – more and more playing, along with summer festivals. Just out of necessity, I conducted a couple of times for my church, and I had fun. So, I think I might slowly venture into more of that.


Forrest: When you started teaching at UNR, you immediately joined Argenta, correct?


Won-Bin: Yes. Pianist Ron Williams and cellist John Lenz played as a trio when Roy Malan was a visiting faculty. When I came there as a full faculty member, I think Ron was excited to have a full-time resident violinist so he wanted to have a really active trio performance schedule. One of the first things he wanted to do was name the trio. He came up with the idea for the name Argenta. I asked him, “What does it mean?” He said, “It means silver, and because there is silver mining nearby that would fit.” I remember the first season or second season, we had seven different programs. That means I was learning 20 trio pieces in one season. I was also with the Reno Philharmonic and Reno Chamber Orchestra as concertmaster.


Forrest: What sort of repertoire did you focus on?


Won-Bin: We covered them all. We did Haydn. We did Mozart. We did a lot of Beethoven. We did Schubert. We did Brahms. We did Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich, Schuman and others.


Forrest: John says the two of you did some playing outside of Argenta as well.


Won-Bin: Yes. I was going to Korea a lot for concerts then. The summer right after I left Reno, I invited him to play chamber music concerts with me in Seoul, Korea. We also played a lot of string chamber music performances with the colleagues from the Philharmonic. One time, we had Brahms Horn Trio on our concert program, but John had his lips smashed from playing basketball, so we had to postpone that performance.


Forrest: You seem to have fond memories of your time in Reno.


Won-Bin: I had a great time. My apartment was right by Virginia Lake. That means it was also right by the Peppermill. I remember late snacks at the dining area with the then-conductor of the Philharmonic, Ron Daniels. After the concerts, we would unwind and eat there along with some other members. Sometimes trumpeter Paul Lenz joined, which was always fun.  


Forrest: Do you remain in touch with many of the musicians from Reno?


Won-Bin: I hear about them from time to time. Last fall, at the College-Conservatory of Music here, I was talking to a graduate piano student who finished his undergraduate degree at UNR studying with Jim Winn. I asked him about the school and the people I knew.


Forrest: It’s a small world because you used to be the concertmaster of the Chamber Orchestra and Philharmonic. Now, John’s daughter holds those roles.


Won-Bin: Ruth.


Forrest: Yes.


Won-Bin: I taught her when she was young, and I heard that from somebody. I thought that was neat.


Forrest: You were one of her teachers? I didn’t realize that.


Won-Bin: Yes, before she was in college. This was when she was in 7th or 8th grade.


Forrest: Could you tell then that she was going to be very good?


Won-Bin: She was very musical, and she loved music. But a lot of things happen between that age and when one decides on a career. I thought if she kept developing, she was going to have a really good career.


Forrest: Reno was your first teaching job. Since that time, you’ve taught at a lot of different places, including Juilliard and your current school, the University of Cincinnati. Do you find the atmosphere in the schools different?


Won-Bin: Quite different.


Forrest: In what way?


Won-Bin:  For example, in Cincinnati, the College-Conservatory of Music has 1,400 students, and 700 of them are music students. We have, this year, 90 violin performance majors. They are coming from all over the world. For violin alone, we have three full-time and three adjunct faculty members. We have two orchestras, and a string quartet in residence that specializes in coaching chamber music to string students.


Forrest: By contrast, do you remember what the numbers were like in Reno when you were here?


Won-Bin: At that time, I covered violin and viola.


Forrest: You did both?


Won-Bin: Yes, but I only had one viola student. Also, some of my students were not performance majors. There were also music education majors, and there were people with other academic majors who were taking violin lessons. I taught all the violin lessons.


Forrest: It sounds like a much smaller department? Did you like the variety that a smaller program offered, or is it easier to be more focused like you are in Cincinnati?


Won-Bin: That time for me was great, and it gave me an opportunity to experiment with many things. The department chair at that point, Mike Cleveland, encouraged me to do many things. So, it was great. I think it was the second or third season I was there, Nightingale Concert Hall opened. The hall has a really good sound response, so I enjoyed playing there. Along with that, we had new teaching studios, so that was good, too. It was great to get to know other faculty members and work with them closely. I think that was really good for me at that time.


Forrest: It sounds like you’ve carried things that you learned during that period with you throughout your career.


Won-Bin: No doubt. It was a great help. I especially cherish all the friendships I made and how people were nice to me when I was there. One of the things that attracted me to Reno when I initially met people was that I had a really positive feeling about the colleagues I would be working with. I was, however, surprised by the atmosphere when I went there for an interview and recital for the job. Everywhere I went, there were slot machines.


Forrest: You hadn’t seen that before?


Won-Bin: Never. So, I was asking, “Is there any place that there aren’t slot machines?” There were two places: churches and schools.


Forrest: I’ve talked to other people who are shocked by that as well, especially when they see them the minute they get out of their planes at the airport.


Won-Bin: Yes. As soon as you get out of the gate, there’s the sound.


Forrest: You’ve had a lot of students go on to win prestigious awards and get jobs with major orchestras. How rewarding is that for you?


Won-Bin: It’s a very good feeling. I am trying to help my students not only in improving their violin playing, but in leading them to be better people. In any school there is a range of talent, so I try to get them to be better as a person and reach a higher level as a player than when they started to study with me. I enjoy that interaction with students. There was a time when students getting big prizes or big jobs meant more to me than now. It’s good, but life is more than winning prizes.  


Forrest: Do you often stay in touch with students after they stop studying with you?


Won-Bin: One of the positive feelings I get is when they invite me to their weddings or stop by before they get married with their fiancés. Also, when they ask me for career advice after they’ve left. That’s a very positive feeling.


Forrest: What do you have planned next for your career?


Won-Bin: I like to keep learning and I like to try different things to keep my motivation in music going. At the same time, I can also contribute to the maturing of young people as students. I will continue to teach but hopefully at a higher and higher level. I hope that the healing of my hand gets more and more complete, so I can express my ideas to my satisfaction when I play. I also find great enjoyment doing other musical activities. Slowly, I may venture a little bit more into conducting and organizing my festival. Let’s see how that goes.