Renowned Cellist Hee Won Jeon’s Global Impact on Classical Music

Cellist Hee Won Jeon. Photo from a personal archive.

Hee Won Jeon, a distinguished Korean cellist, has graced international concert stages, collaborating with esteemed orchestras that include the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Richmond Symphony Orchestra, Louisville Orchestra, Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra, Bloomington Symphony Orchestra, Mahlerian Project Orchestra, Beethoven Symphony Orchestra Hessen, and Mainz Musici Ensemble.

Jeon has performed in masterclasses and coachings from renowned figures and groups, which include the Pacifica Quartet, Natalia Gutman, Pieter Wiespelwey, Gustav Rivinius (HfM Saarbrücken), Claudia Bussian (Gewandhaus), Reiner Ginzel (HfM München), Lluís Claret (NEC), Sung-mi Im, and Ingrid Matthews (JSoM). She holds a Master of Music degree from Indiana University and a Bachelor of Music from Musikhochschule Mainz in Germany. 

Her journey led her from Korea to Canada, Germany, and the U.S., shaping a versatile musical perspective. She’s currently based in Bloomington, Indiana, excelling as an orchestra player and aspiring to become a college-level music educator. Her dedication to community outreach and inspiring young musicians reflects a passion beyond personal success.

As an advocate for classical music’s accessibility, she notes a contemporary shift towards incorporating familiar, upbeat music in orchestral performances. Through her artistry, education, and community engagement, Hee Won Jeon inspires a new generation and contributes to the evolving landscape of classical music.

In an exclusive interview, The Urban Watch sat down with Hee Won to delve into her international experience and unique perspective on classical music. 

Did you come from a musical family?

No, I was born into a non-musical family. My father is a dentist, and my mother is a secretary at my dad’s clinic. Meanwhile, my older brother and his wife manage several businesses, and my younger brother is currently in medical school. Despite our non-musical background, my parents encouraged us to explore classical instruments for enjoyment.

My mom, who loved singing for fun, significantly cultivated my interest in music. Whenever she sang, I felt compelled to join in and play alongside her. The experience of making music with my mom was genuinely enjoyable.

Can you tell me about your early introduction to music and the cello?

I began my musical journey at three when I started playing the piano alongside my older brother, who was five then. I wanted to do everything he did and spend more time together, so I delved into music. Learning the piano allowed me to bond with my brother. It was crucial in developing my musical and music theory skills, including reading sheet music, understanding rhythm, and distinguishing melody from accompaniment.

When my family relocated to Canada from Korea during my fifth-grade year, settling in Calgary, Alberta, we embarked on frequent road trips. During these journeys, my mom would play Mozart’s music, and I discovered my perfect pitch. The enchanting sounds of classical music left a lasting impression on me.

In elementary school, I was introduced to various instruments. While I had enjoyed making music with a recorder, tambourines, and castanets, I had yet to explore string instruments. When my family returned to Korea, I strongly desired to play a string instrument. Drawn to its loudness and substantial size, I chose the cello in 6th grade.

Who were your early musical influences?

During my early days of learning the cello, when our family was residing near the Chicago area in Northbrook, I met a teacher who inspired me significantly. Her passion for music and teaching sparked my desire to become like her. Motivated by this inspiration, I dedicated myself to diligent practice, aspiring to become a skilled cellist like her.

I auditioned for the advanced orchestra in my freshman year at Glenbrook North High School. It consisted of only upperclassmen, but I made the cut! One memorable experience from this period was performing Beethoven’s 6th Symphony with this orchestra—my inaugural symphony performance. The challenge of playing alongside more advanced musicians fueled my determination to become a better cellist.

Do you have a favorite composer? 

I find myself drawn to the Romantic era of the 1800s, and one of my favorite composers from that period is Frédéric Chopin. His compositions are rich with emotional nuances, providing a continuous flow of sentiments. What I appreciate most is the unpredictable nature of his music—just as you think one emotional theme concludes, another captivating element emerges. The complexity and depth of Chopin’s work make playing it a delightful experience.

Classical music, in general, holds a special place in my heart. During my undergraduate studies, I explored the connection between music and therapy, focusing on how listening to Mozart can increase your general intelligence, a phenomenon known as “the Mozart effect.” This exploration reinforced my belief in the profound influence of classical music on our emotions and cognitive experiences.

How do you connect to music emotionally when you play?

When I play orchestral pieces, especially those extending to longer than 40 minutes, I lose track of time, allowing myself to be immersed in the music’s flow. However, challenges arise with pieces containing rhythmic complexities. I must consciously remind myself to stay focused and consistently count to sync with the entire orchestra.

Solo pieces, particularly sonatas, offer a different experience. Collaborating with a pianist in these instances allows for constant communication within and throughout the performance. Over time, I’ve found that stage fright, which wasn’t an issue in my younger years, became more prominent as I delved deeper into my studies. To combat this, I prioritize intense focus and attention to detail, which significantly aids in controlling stage anxiety and shaping the music effectively.

A crucial aspect of my emotional connection with the music is making the technique comfortable. As I play, I often sing the music internally, experiencing happiness with joyful harmonies and a profound sense of seriousness when the composition demands it. When I was younger, I used to imagine colors associated with the music – envisioning shades like baby pink for cheerful tones. As I’ve matured and gained more life experiences, I draw on those emotions, identifying and incorporating them into my music. It’s like unlocking my emotion box, translating personal feelings into the expressive language of my cello.

Hee Won Jeon playing. Photo from a personal archive.

You moved quite a lot since you were a kid. How did that shape who you are today? How have different cultures influenced your understanding of music?

Growing up, my family’s inclination to move and experience different parts of the world has undeniably shaped who I am today. My parents emphasized the importance of exposing my brothers and me to diverse cultures, fostering a broad perspective on life. When we moved to Canada, we faced the challenge of speaking English. The frequent relocations, accompanied by encounters with new cultures, forged a deep connection between me and my cello. It became a constant companion, a source of familiarity in continuous change.

When I embarked on my undergraduate studies in Germany, the impact of varied cultures on my musical understanding truly unfolded. With its systemic and ordered approach, Germany influenced my musical foundation significantly. Playing a lot of Bach during that time, I absorbed the strict discipline inherent in German musical education, providing essential fundamentals that laid the groundwork for my musical journey.

When I moved to the U.S., I felt free. In Germany, there was a strict adherence to established norms. However, in the U.S., I felt liberated to infuse my ideas into my performances. I found myself exploring my style, emphasizing clean and rhythmic precision. Given my affinity for romantic music, I embraced the opportunity to inject more emotion into my interpretations.

One striking difference I observed in the U.S. was the prevalence of cellists remixing popular music, including pop, K-pop, and 80s tunes. In Germany, the appreciation leaned towards more traditional genres, such as church music, reflecting each location’s cultural nuances and preferences. This diversity extended even to orchestral performances, where I had the unique experience of playing Harry Potter background music with the Louisville Orchestra, synchronizing our music with the film on-screen—an example of the fusion of classical and cinematic influences.

You mentioned moving back to South Korea because of your love for K-pop. Could you elaborate on this? I’m interested in understanding K-pop’s role in your life, especially considering its stark contrast to classical music. How has your passion for K-pop influenced your musical journey and personal experiences?

My growing appreciation for K-pop music prompted a desire to immerse myself in the culture. This led me to research schools in South Korea, ultimately setting my sights on Sunwha Arts High School, primarily drawn to its aesthetically pleasing uniform. I envisioned attending this school while continuing to pursue my passion for playing the cello.

During this period, I felt deeply moved emotionally when listening to music, regardless of genre. I was drawn to the melodies and embraced the idea of living in the moment, whether with classical or modern compositions.

What particularly captivated me about K-pop was the music and the fashion. K-pop stars’ matching outfits conveyed a sense of unity that resonated with me. It created a feeling of community, with numerous people cheering for and connecting with these artists. This sense of community was lacking in my high school experience, where I longed to be part of groups that shared common interests and styles.

My parents didn’t buy me many trendy clothes, so I felt left out. The desire for a more inclusive community and the appeal of the distinctive school uniforms in South Korea influenced my decision to relocate. 

I envisioned being in the same classroom with the same people for several years, an appealing stability. The uniform, eliminating the need to worry about what to wear, offered a sense of belonging and simplicity. Spending three years at Sunwha Arts High School was a significant and fulfilling chapter.

My favorite K-pop band at the time was Super Junior. Ironically, I don’t listen to K-pop anymore. As a result of always playing music, I need something more calming and acoustic, like Sam Smith.

Cellist Hee Won Jeon. Photo from a personal archive.

What are some of your most significant accomplishments?

My most significant accomplishment lies in my ability to collaborate with diverse orchestras, a journey that has enriched my musical career. Unlike many musicians who may prefer the spotlight of solo performances, I find my true passion in the collective harmony of orchestral playing. Over the past two summers, I’ve had the privilege of contributing to the Eastern Festival Orchestra and working with Maestro Gerard Schwarz. This experience honed my skills and allowed my performances to be broadcast, expanding my reach and exposure. 

Contracted by esteemed orchestras, such as the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra in Kentucky and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Indiana, I find myself immersed in a whirlwind of musical activity, with three to four performances per month for each orchestra. 

Securing a place in these orchestras was no small feat. My role as a cello player proved pivotal for the Richmond Symphony, and I also have managerial responsibilities with the Owensboro Symphony. 

The conductor at Owensboro Symphony Orchestra offered me an opportunity to sit in on all string auditions. As a committee member, I could contribute my perspective on each candidate’s strengths, particularly emphasizing their prowess on the cello. The conductor also conducts for the Venice Symphony Orchestra, so I got to stay in Florida for a week and play there. 

How hard is it to get selected to be a part of the orchestra?

Securing a spot in an orchestra, particularly for cellists, is undeniably challenging due to limited positions and infrequent openings. The competition is fierce, with only eight cello spots available, and a spot doesn’t always open every year. 

For example, 25 cello applicants competed for one spot during a recent audition at Owensboro Symphony. The competition drew talented musicians from various locations.

Hee Won Jeon playing. Photo from a personal archive.

Do you have a favorite piece of music to play – which one and why?

I love to play music that I can sing. My strength is crafting melodic and lyrical passages, exemplified in pieces like ‘Swan’ by Saint-Saëns.

In my most recent recitals, I delved into the fiery worlds of Schumann’s ‘Adagio & Allegro,’ ‘Fantasiestücke,’ and Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione.’ I believe my strength lies in conveying a compelling interpretation, and these pieces provide a platform for me to connect with the audience through my expressive playing.

How has your experience been playing in orchestras? 

I am a member of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Indiana and the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra in Kentucky. Beyond these, I have had the privilege of participating in numerous other orchestral experiences. I thoroughly enjoy the dynamic of playing in a large orchestra, appreciating the diverse sounds and harmonies that different instruments contribute to the collective performance.

A pivotal moment occurred during high school when I played in the cello section for Grieg’s Piano Concerto. The complexity of the numerous musical lines and their convergence to create a cohesive piece left a profound impression on me. At that moment, I realized my passion for orchestral playing, sparking a desire to contribute to a symphony’s intricate tapestry of sounds.

You mentioned performing in masterclasses and coachings from renowned figures and groups. Elaborate on this – what does it mean, and what was the experience like?

Engaging in masterclasses and receiving coaching has been an invaluable aspect of my artistic development. These opportunities provide a platform to explore the ideas and theories of esteemed musicians. From a young age, I’ve been fortunate to attend numerous masterclasses, initially focusing on refining my sound. However, as I continued to participate in these sessions, my perspective expanded to encompass a variety of musical ideas and phrasings. While some concepts didn’t resonate with me, others served as profound sources of inspiration, guiding me toward conveying more extended musical narratives.

I’ve had the privilege of taking masterclasses with renowned figures such as Natalia Gutman, among others, in Germany and the United States. These experiences were private and public coaching sessions where individuals from the audience could observe and learn. It’s fascinating how every performer has a unique interpretation based on their life experience and personality.

As my journey progressed, I transitioned into teaching masterclasses myself. These sessions involve a combination of cello playing and academic exploration of composers’ lives. 

Additionally, I teach regular lessons and sectionals where we delve into specific pieces as a cello section. In these settings, I focus on conveying the intended sound and offer insights into the composers’ backgrounds. For younger students, I emphasize making the material engaging and involving everyone in the audience, whether they are musicians or not. Masterclasses vary based on participants’ requests, and I aim to have weekly lessons and monthly sectionals to ensure a comprehensive and enriching educational experience. 

Do you enjoy experimenting with different styles of music or collaborating with musicians from other genres?

Absolutely. Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Soul Revue, exploring their remixes of various music genres. The experience was not only enjoyable but also remarkably upbeat. In this ensemble, singing took the lead, but what struck me was the incredible support provided by strings and brass to enhance the vocal performances. It’s fascinating to witness how the accompaniment influences the singers, allowing them to sound different based on the musical context.

Can you share a story about a particularly challenging piece you mastered and how you accomplished it?

Slow practice is the key to achieving perfection in playing any challenging piece. If a difficult technique works at a slower tempo, it will undoubtedly translate into success at a faster pace. Slow, deliberate practice has proven instrumental in refining my right- and left-hand techniques.

One notable challenge I faced was mastering orchestral excerpts, particularly those from Richard Strauss. These excerpts demanded both intonation and rhythm, rhythmic perfection, and specific articulation. Initially, I approached these excerpts by playing in tempo, focusing on achieving the correct intonation and rhythm. However, I soon realized there was more to the pieces than just these elements; the rhythm needed to be crystal clear and perfect. This is where slow practice became my ally. Although it required time and patience to reach the faster tempo, the meticulous work invested in slow practice paid off in achieving the rhythmic precision and articulation needed for these demanding excerpts.

Do you have any rituals or routines that you follow before a performance?

Before every solo performance, I have a ritual crucial for my preparation: I take a short nap a few hours before the concert. Typically lasting around 30-45 minutes, this nap is a vital recharge for my body and mind. Taking a nap helps me relax, ensuring I step onto the stage with a fresh mindset and renewed energy.

Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations you are excited about?

I’m thrilled to be involved in several exciting projects and collaborations. I’m receiving invitations to play with different orchestras nationwide, each with its unique musical ‘color.’ I’m particularly looking forward to playing with the Venice Symphony; it’s my first time collaborating with them. I’m excited to discover the distinctive musical identity they bring to the performance.

In addition to orchestral engagements, I have a unique project with some friends—a trio group comprising violin and piano. We’re planning to explore some remixes for fun. We will share the music on platforms like YouTube and social media channels. I also have some solo recitals planned for the spring that I look forward to. 

What are your long-term goals/dreams as a cellist?

My long-term aspirations as a cellist encompass two significant facets. First and foremost, I have a deep passion for playing in orchestras, and my goal is to continue thriving as an orchestra player. The collective energy and synergy of orchestral performances resonate with me, and I aspire to contribute to renowned ensembles in the long run.

Simultaneously, I desire to become an educator, particularly at the college level. I dream of becoming a music professor, sharing my knowledge and experiences with aspiring musicians.

How do you hope to inspire others through your music?

An unforgettable moment in my musical journey occurred during my time in Germany, playing with the Mainz Musici Ensemble. We performed in the mountains, on a property where people of all ages with disabilities and health illnesses gathered. I distinctly remember interacting with a young boy who, despite having a tube to help him breathe, approached me with curiosity and amazement, asking about the instrument in my hands. That encounter left a profound impact on me, and it sparked a desire to be someone who could bring the joy of music to people facing challenges.

Music is a powerful force that unites people, bringing warmth and happiness. I’ve harbored a passion for helping those in need from a young age. This experience reinforced my commitment to bringing the gift of music to those who may not have easy access to it. I realized that I derive immense joy from helping others succeed in life. To achieve this, I understand the importance of reaching higher heights in my musical career, always keeping this aspiration close to my heart.

I engage in community outreach efforts in the United States, particularly in elementary schools where children from the fourth grade explore musical instruments. It brings me immense joy to introduce kids to the world of music and inspire a new generation of musicians through orchestral outreach programs.

For individuals who may be hesitant to pursue a career in music due to financial concerns, please provide an example of how a classical musician can make a living. What practical paths or strategies can help classical musicians financially support themselves while pursuing their passion?

For individuals who may be hesitant to pursue a career in music due to financial concerns, some practical paths and strategies can help classical musicians financially support themselves while passionately pursuing their art.

One avenue is to seek festival opportunities actively. Many festivals offer covered tuition, allowing aspiring musicians to make valuable connections, forge friendships, and collaborate with fellow musicians. I wasn’t aware of these programs until I came to the States, but after my first year, I discovered many opportunities, made lasting connections, and had an incredible time playing music while sharing it with others. Building connections in the music community is crucial; festivals provide fertile ground for that.

Teaching and auditioning are also viable paths. Teaching not only allows musicians to share their expertise but can also provide a stable source of income. Auditioning for orchestras and other musical ensembles is another way to establish oneself professionally and financially in classical music.

I understand some individuals may have concerns about pursuing a music career, especially when financial stability is a primary worry. In my journey, I faced resistance from my parents, who were not initially encouraging about my pursuit of music. However, as a child, I realized that playing the cello was my life’s consistent passion. It’s important to recognize and understand one’s true calling.

For those who face discouragement, I’d like to share a story I came across during an interview with an actress who did her undergraduate studies in business. She secretly auditioned for roles while keeping them from her parents until she secured a significant opportunity. This story highlights the importance of following one’s passion despite external pressures.

Hearing firsthand experiences can be transformative, potentially changing minds or solidifying one’s determination to pursue a music career. It’s about balancing passion and practicality, leveraging opportunities, and building a network to sustain a fulfilling and financially viable musical career.

How do you see classical music evolving in the contemporary landscape?

In the contemporary landscape, classical music is undergoing a fascinating evolution, particularly in response to the preferences of younger generations. Today’s youth are more familiar with upbeat, fast-tempo music, and orchestras adapt by incorporating pieces that resonate with them, such as movie music. This approach caters to the current musical tastes and serves as an educational bridge, introducing the younger audience to the foundations and sophistication of classical music.

At orchestras like Owensboro, there’s a deliberate blend of movie, pop music, and classical pieces, often featuring familiar tunes like Beethoven after the intermission. This eclectic mix enhances the educational aspect of classical music, making it more accessible and enjoyable for diverse audiences.

Hee Won Jeon at rehearsal. Photo from a personal archive.

The contemporary landscape also witnesses collaborations between classical music and other art forms, such as dance and movies. Notably, Disney movies and social media influencers like @hausercello on Instagram contribute to the fusion of classical music with remixes and Spanish elements. Social media platforms play a crucial role in fostering continued appreciation for classical music and providing accessible avenues for learning more about it.

There’s a prevalent trend of integrating classical compositions into various forms of media, from advertisements to pop music. For instance, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, is often featured in pop music and advertisements. While this crossover is exciting and broadens classical music’s reach, it’s essential for people to understand the roots of these compositions and appreciate the rich history and complexity that classical music brings to the table.

Visit Hee Won Jeon’s website:

Demi Vitkute

Co-Founder & Editor

Demi Vitkute is a New York-based journalist and editor who’s passionate about reporting on the fashion industry, its problems, and its changemakers. She’s a founder of The Urban Watch Magazine and has written for The Washington Post, Inside Hook, and Promo Magazine, among others. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Emerson College.

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