Graduate Center Alumna Is the First Asian Woman on the Juilliard Piano Faculty

February 21, 2023

By Abe Loomis

Soyeon Kate Lee embraces her roles as a teacher, musician, and role model.

Soyeon Kate Lee is standing next to the grand piano
Soyeon Kate Lee (D.M.A. '18) (Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Earning a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Graduate Center has given Soyeon Kate Lee (D.M.A. ’18, Music) exactly what she hoped for: a deeper connection to her art and a new career as a professor. A celebrated pianist, she is the first woman of Asian descent to join the piano faculty at the Juilliard School.

“I thought of myself as a very intuitive musician, and I wanted to be able to explain why I’m making those choices and have it, in a way, justified by the score and by the stylistic content,” Lee said, describing her decision to pursue a doctorate. “And on a much more practical level, the state of academia is such that even if you’re a teacher who teaches applied piano, you just can’t really apply for jobs unless you have a doctorate.”

Learn More About the D.M.A. and Ph.D. Programs in Music

Lee, who is teaching this year at both Juilliard and the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music before starting exclusively at Juilliard in the fall, says her appointment to a faculty position at Juilliard (where she says formal tenure is not granted, but de facto tenure prevails) is both a dream come true and a win for representation.

“Currently, many of the piano students in conservatories and universities across the United States are of Asian descent, so it is even more meaningful to have someone on the faculty who represents their ethnic background with whom they can identify,” said Lee, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees and an artist diploma from Juilliard. “I feel a huge responsibility to serve as a role model, particularly for the many Asian female students. And as women are still a minority in higher education faculty, it means a great deal to me to be able to embrace my role as a dedicated teacher and musician, and, equally importantly, as a mother of two young children.”

Lee started learning piano as a child in her native Seoul, South Korea. When her father was offered a job at the University of West Virginia, Lee and  her family moved to Morgantown, West Virginia. There, Lee had an experience that affirmed her eventual avocation.

“I was 9,” Lee said. “I was the only Asian kid, as far as I could tell, besides my sister, and I really had no friends for about two years. I didn’t speak English very well, and I was just trying to get used to this life of loneliness. I started meandering through these little practice rooms at the University of West Virginia and taking piano lessons from this wonderful teacher who was there, and she gave me Debussy’s Children’s Corner and there is a piece called ‘Serenade for the Doll.’ I was practicing, and I just felt myself crying. And I didn’t even know what about it touched me. But I think that’s when I discovered that I have, unbeknownst to me, this connection to music.”

Lee went on to win international piano competitions, to perform at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and to solo with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the San Diego Symphony. She has been praised in The New York Times as having “a huge, richly varied sound, a lively imagination and a firm sense of style,” and The Washington Post lauded her “stunning command of the keyboard.”

“I will always be grateful to the Graduate Center ... All the professors, the entire administration, I felt, were so helpful and supportive, making it easy and feasible for me to actually do this.”

At the Graduate Center, Lee found an academic home that allowed her to maintain her rigorous performance schedule even as she deepened her knowledge and burnished her academic credentials.

“I will always be grateful to the Graduate Center,” she said, “because I felt like even when I was a student in residence for those two years and I was trying to juggle a lot of concerts with my studies, all the professors, the entire administration, I felt, were so helpful and supportive, making it easy and feasible for me to actually do this.”

She studied primarily with Distinguished Professor Ursula Oppens (GC/Brooklyn, Music) and Richard Goode but learned from other faculty too. A course on Beethoven taught by Emeritus Distinguished Professor Richard Kramer (Music) shaped her relationship with the composer and made her think about music much more deeply, she said.

Jobs seminars offered at the Graduate Center helped prepare her for the successes that have followed. She also appreciated that the Graduate Center, with its midtown Manhattan location, attracted diverse students and kept her close to a vibrant arts scene.

“The Graduate Center is in the middle of the city, and you have access to almost every great cultural experience,” Lee said. For an artist in particular, but really for anyone, Lee believes, such resources offer both inspiration and the raw materials for reflection, connection, and creativity.

“Stare at a painting, go to a dance concert,” she said. “The dots will somehow connect. You never know when those things will present themselves in their full view.”

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