It was March 2012. Twelve-year-old Samantha Yoon ’18 stood behind two tall, white double doors waiting to enter the stage, heart pounding, hands sweating. This was it, the historic hall that only the best in the world play in. Dozens of thoughts ran through her mind: this is what she practiced for, all the hard work and months of preparation — it was finally going to pay off. She couldn’t let herself down, she couldn’t let everybody else down.
Her name was announced. The doors opened. She walked through, carrying a cello almost as big as she was, and took in the sight before her. White cream walls surrounded the stage and in the center, a large grand piano stood, jet black and perfectly polished.
Everything was silent. All thoughts of nervousness and “what if’s” seemed to dissipate. Her mind was blank. Once she reached the center of the stage, she turned to face the audience. What seemed like endless rows of velvet green seats filled her vision; in each one a face stared back at her. A few she recognized: her immediate family, first cousins, second cousins, aunts and uncles, friends.
The lights dimmed. A spotlight centered on her. Looking back behind her, she nodded to her pianist, took a deep breath and began to play at Carnegie Hall for the first time.
A few years later, already an accomplished cellist, Yoon was selected for the second time to play at Carnegie Hall through the American Protegé International Concerto Competition. While the rest of her peers took their mid-year assessments, she flew to New York for her performance in Weill Recital Hall Dec. 19.
Born into a family of mostly musicians, she began her cello journey at age six. She picked up the instrument after a suggestion from her mother, and she saw it as nothing more than just an instrument, another activity that children were supposed to do.
“My mom actually played the clarinet, and my older sister actually played the piano for 10 years, so I think my mom just wanted me to play something,” Yoon said.
Back then, she had no clue that the instrument would become such an important part of her life or that it would eventually lead her to the distinguished concert hall.
For the next nine years, Yoon practiced daily and took private lessons twice a week.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, she would stand facing her teacher in a white-walled room, focused on her cello playing. To the left were her cello cases for traveling; to her right was her ever growing collection of trophies and awards. In the back she kept bow rosin, extra strings, tuners and sheet music, which were stacked on top of each other like office papers.
In sixth grade, she auditioned for American Protegé, an international competition for student instrumentalists, for the first time. She was recommended by her teacher, Sylvia Seunhee Kang, to audition, and after making it through as a finalist, she performed at Carnegie at age 12. In her first taste of the “big time,” Yoon reached a place that many professionals only dream of.
Playing at Carnegie meant playing at the same venue as some of the top musicians in the world, such as Yo Yo Ma.
“Carnegie Hall is one of the most important concert venues in our country,” upper school symphony director Mark Hilt said. “I mean, when the New York Philharmonic wants to sound good, they move to Carnegie Hall.”
Inspired from her first performance at the hall, Yoon decided to audition again this year, but in the next age category. This time she would be competing against cellists four to five years older than her, with four to five years more experience and training. However, despite the age disparity, she still qualified for the second time with her audition of “Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, opus 107” by Dmitri Shostakovich.
“It was an honor and an amazing opportunity to perform the first time, so I wanted to audition again. I think I’ll continue to audition in the future after this performance as well, maybe in different genres of music,” she said.
For nearly a decade, she has dedicated at least one hour per day to practicing cello in addition to lessons twice a week. It was not a surprise to those who have worked with her that she was competitve and even rose above those more experienced than her. Yoon’s ability to focus and her dedication to the instrument elevate her to a standard above most her age, Hilt said.
She has also entered many local competitions, which have helped prepare her for the pressure of high-level performance.
In the summer of 2011, she entered a contest where she came off stage feeling insecure about her playing.
Due to her past losses, Yoon was unsure about the results of the competition. She felt that if she lost, she would let her parents down. However, at the awards ceremony, they called up the grand prize winners, and to her surprise, a loud, clear voice called out ‘Samantha Yoon!’ through the speakers.
“As I went up on stage to accept my trophy, I made sure that there was no wax in my ears,” she said. “I was in awe. From then on, every moment I get on stage I play my best and pour out everything that I have practiced for, so that in the end, I do not have any regrets. Playing my best with confidence was the best reward that I could get. This experience shaped me into the confident player that I am today.”
Though many students, such as her close friend Erin Lee ‘18, consider Yoon as another “musical prodigy”, her instructors noticed that she remains down to earth and always continues to find areas to improve.
“She’s very…she’s not humble, but she’s very realistic and thankful almost, about what she’s done. She knows what she’s done but she doesn’t have to show it off,” said Hilt, “She knows it’s in her and that it’s part of who she is as a human being, but she doesn’t have to brag about it. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.”