For July we are shining the spotlight on CCM student Alex Youn who is off to start his undergraduate studies at Harvard this fall! We are very proud of his hard work. It was great to ask him some questions about his experience with music over the years, and how he thinks it shaped him. He was also nice enough to share his college essay with us, which he wrote about guitar!
How old were you when you started guitar?
I first became interested in playing guitar when my grandfather bought me a toy ukulele from a Hawaiian souvenir shop when I was 5 years old. After hearing me play my own renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and other songs, my mother decided to enroll me into guitar lessons.
What drew you to taking classes at CCM?
Before joining CCM, I first studied at the Longay Conservatory and the Northern California School of Music. I later transitioned to taking private lessons at my house, and although I learned a lot in those experiences, I did miss the structure and community of a guitar school/conservatory. At that point in my guitar career, CCM provided me exactly what I wanted and more. Quite honestly, joining CCM was one of the best decisions I could have made. The incredible knowledge and support of teachers and the inspiring level of talent amongst students across the board are really second to none.
What are some of your favorite memories with the guitar? Most proud moments?
My favorite memory with guitar, as in the most formative experience I’ve had with guitar, has got to be the 6 weeks I spent at Interlochen Arts Camp during the summer before my freshman year of high school. Before then, playing guitar was burdensome, as I considered daily practices as merely items to check off my daily to-do list. However, Interlochen and the artistic prodigies I met there inspired me to use music as a medium of communication to simply tell a story and express personal emotion in a unique, musical manner. In short, I discovered an intimate relationship with music and guitar that I will certainly cherish forever.
How do you think your musical education has influenced your character over the years?
Over the years, through my experiences with guitar, music has most importantly taught me to remain humble, to be patient, and to think creatively. Music truly is the universal language that has the tremendous ability to connect individuals and bridge communities, and as a musician, I have learned to not take advantage of that power but to instead treat that responsibility of creating music with due respect.
Any recommendations for other students?
Be honest with yourself. We’re all pulled in a variety of directions, and in the midst of that frenzy, I learned that in trying to keep every plate spinning, I had to reflect on how important guitar is for me. Since I profoundly valued music and my experience with guitar, I had to ensure that the work I put in during practices and lessons corresponded with my desire to improve as a musician. If playing guitar ever feels like a chore, I would recommend to stop and reflect on why you even started playing in the first place. Hopefully, you’ll find the same enthusiasm for music you had when you first picked up guitar. But, at the end of the day, just have fun. Play songs you enjoy listening to. Find creative ways to practice. Take ownership of what kind of musician and person you aspire to be.
“We’re still going,” I reassured my mother, as blood welled up through the deep slit that streaked across my fingernail. I’d spent fourteen years filing my nails to achieve the perfect tone and the last six months polishing my repertoire to win this classical guitar competition. Amongst the bustling commotion of tardy passengers in the San Jose Airport, I stood in silence and tried to adjust my expectations. After a flight to Dallas and a trip to the local 24-hour CVS, the clock read 3:00 AM, while I delicately dabbed droplets of Krazy Glue along my nail. Only my mother’s undulating breath and the buzz of the motel lamplight broke the early morning tranquility. Five hours later, as I stepped onstage with clammy hands and a racing heart, a distant memory emerged: being alone.
Unlike most other campers, only two factors—parental persuasion and the possibility of a forgone opportunity—spurred me to attend Interlochen Summer Camp. I wasn’t the next Shostakovich or Angelou or Leibovitz; I never considered myself a true artist or felt especially invigorated when I played guitar. At Interlochen, though, my peers composed multi-movement symphonies in the woods, perfected exotic accents in the shower, and crafted poetry in the cafeteria. Stripped of all familiarity and thrust into a world I initially failed to understand, I asked myself, “How much do the arts really mean to me?”Honestly, at that time, not much.
From day one, I regarded this contrast as an alienating disadvantage. Loneliness led to depression until, on the verge of quitting, I stopped calling home and began to write. One sitting turned into hours, hours into a daily routine. Flipping through my dense journal, I read between the lines and began to see how I had created my own isolation. The genuine artistic passion of others wasn’t a legitimate reason to estrange myself; rather, it was an invitation to see how far music could take me. Gradually, my hours of practicing seemed less tedious, my conversations with campers less forced, being at Interlochen more meaningful. Those six weeks in the Michigan wilderness taught me to be comfortable in my vulnerability, to revel in the unknown.
So, as I stepped onstage at the 15th Annual Texas Guitar Competition three years later, I quelled my nerves by recalling how I could embrace doubt, leave “what’s going to happen?” unanswered, and still be okay. My split nail wasn’t an excuse to quit; it was a ticket to see what I was made of. As before every performance, I sat down, prayed a Hail Mary, took a deep breath, and let my fingers fly. Maybe my Krazy-glued nail helped me focus more on the sound I produced. Perhaps it compromised my tone. I’ll never know—causality is ambiguous like that—but I went home encouraged by the third-place trophy I’d earned and even happier that I hadn’t let a broken nail break me.
The desire to express myself, especially when I can’t find the right words, has always drawn me to classical guitar, which has grown into much more than just a hobby. There’s something about “Danza Brasilera” by Jorge Morel that always makes me groove. There’s something about “Romance” by Johann Kaspar Mertz that gives me all the feels. But, if a “groove” and “the feels” were all I got from playing guitar, I would’ve quit long ago. I can always replace something that brings me joy but never something that has shaped me into who I am. I feel privileged to practice my craft every day because of what it has given me: the knowledge of who I am and a glimpse of who I can be—whether alone or with a broken nail.