Pandemic teaches violinist a new tune

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, January 14th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we are so glad you are! 

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: COVID-19 silver-linings.

BROWN: The coronavirus and the pandemic shook up everyone’s life in one way or another. Many of those changes were painful and hard. But turns out, some were for good. 

WORLD’S Sarah Schweinsberg has our story.

AUDIO: [Screechy violin]

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Violinist Gaga Won has a new student. The little girl has the look of a deer in headlights. 

Her eyes stare straight ahead—wide and brown. Her legs are stiff. 

WON: So don’t lock your knees. 

Gaga Won encourages her to relax. And focus on the strings and her fingers. 

WON: Good, so holding a bow. Thumb. So these two fingers are here and then pinky on the rest. 

Won stands in front of her. Her black bobbed hair pulled into a ponytail, arms wrapped in a bright gold sweater. 

She reaches out and repositions the violin and the bow in the student’s arms. Won reminds her to start beats on a down-bow. Then the up-bow. 

The young girl gingerly scratches the strings of her violin. 

AUDIO: [Screechy violin]

Won shows the student how to move the bow with confidence. 

AUDIO: [Won playing]

On a second try, the student’s violin starts to sing. 

AUDIO: [Student playing]

It’s one of the many small victories that makes teaching music so fun—an experience Gaga Won didn’t plan on having. 

WON: I don’t usually live here. My parents live here. But I usually live in San Francisco. 

Here is Fort Dodge, Iowa. 

Won’s family left South Korea for the United States when she was 12 years old. 

They first settled in Michigan. The family didn’t speak English. And they didn’t have much money. 

WON: When you first move into like, in a different country, you know, it’s you always have a hard time like trying to survive. 

Won had started to learn the violin and piano in South Korea. In America, her mother told her they could no longer afford lessons. A year later, she took up her instruments again until her mother got sick and she had to quit. 

That’s when a kind teacher stepped in. 

WON: I just like happened to like, saw my teacher on the street. And then my teacher was like, oh, Gaga, are you not showing up and lesson but then, I couldn’t really speak English very well. So I was just, start crying. Told my teacher that. My mom’s not well and he offered me free lessons for a year or two years. 

With the help of her teacher, Gaga Won earned a scholarship to a music boarding school. Then to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Then to the Yale School of Music. 

All along the way teachers taught her, pushed her, critiqued her, encouraged her. Won can remember the way each one affected her playing and her life. 

WON: I think it’s really important to have like a really, really good relationship with a teacher. Yeah, then then it will like spark.

After Yale, Won moved back to San Francisco. There she auditioned for parts in prestigious orchestras. She toured Japan and Italy, playing in front of large audiences.

MUSIC: [Won playing violin]

Won loved playing the violin. She loved her music community. By most professional violin standards, she’d arrived. But life was still a rat-race. 

WON: I thought like, if I reached this then like, I’ll be I thought I’ll be happy I’ll be done. But then they’re like, if you go up there, there’s more. It’s just like never ending.

MUSIC: [Won playing violin] 

Then the coronavirus came to San Francisco. It quickly shut down the city and its music scene. 

WON: I was suffering so much during the pandemic in San Francisco. 

After nearly eight weeks of lockdown, Gaga Won began asking herself why she was paying to live in a city where she couldn’t work. 

So she decided to return to the small city of Fort Dodge, Iowa where her parents run a South Korean restaurant. 

WON: So coming home was kind of a relief. 

She tried to work in the restaurant, but she got in the way more than she helped. 

WON: I was so like, useless. 

Then a music teacher heard she was back in town. She asked Won to take on some students of her own. So she began teaching violin and piano. 

AUDIO: [Piano playing, instruction] 

Won gives lessons at an old piano. A young boy with a blond buzz-cut calls out the names of notes.


Today, another small victory. Gaga Won can tell he practiced this week. He’s usually quite creative with his excuses. 

WON: So you actually practiced this time. (Clapping) Good job! High Five.  

Won says when she came  back to Iowa, she thought she’d return to San Francisco as soon as possible. But now, she plans to stick around. 

So many teachers poured into her life. Now, it’s her turn. 

WON: I’m actually glad I get to teach here. And I am supporting all my students and you know, the community. I also learned a lot of things when I did the teaching. 

And she’s enjoying the peace her new town offers and the time with her parents. 

Things she never knew she needed—until COVID opened her eyes. 

WON: I did miss a lot. And I miss performing and stage. But I think staying with my parents. It also kind of helped me stay calm more, rather than only thinking about the future, I think I’m more focused on now.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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