South Korean Classical Guitarist Bokyung Byun Has Seen Tremendous Success Since Moving to the U.S.
Photo: Choo Sangyeon Studio
From the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Mark Small
South Korea–born classical virtuoso Bokyung Byun (aka “Bo”) is riding a wave of musical achievements. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard, a doctorate from the University of Southern California, and winning some big competitions, Byun is now focused on launching her professional career. This is a destination she’s moved toward steadily since making her stage debut at age 11.
Concert appearances and competition wins in Korea brought Byun recognition in her tender years. At 13, she traveled to the U.S. to participate in the junior division of the 2007 Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) International Youth Competition and netted the top prize. In 2018, she became the first woman to win the acclaimed JoAnn Falletta International Concerto Competition, and in 2021, she won the GFA International Concert Artist Competition. In addition to a cash award, the GFA first prize includes a year-long concert tour of the U.S. and Canada. Add to the list of accomplishments the recent release of her second album, Bokyung Byun: Guitar Recital, on the Naxos label.
Byun’s journey with the guitar began very early. “My mother and I were folding laundry and watching TV and landed on a channel giving guitar lessons,” she recalls. “I was about five or six at the time and asked my mother if I could play guitar. I had started on piano, but it wasn’t really clicking with me. She wanted me to play some kind of music and was excited that I wanted to try something new.”
Byun began with classical guitar at the outset. Her family moved quite a bit, and a year after beginning lessons, she found herself in a new city with a different teacher. She credits both instructors with giving her a solid technical foundation. In a YouTube video, she appears as a prodigy with an impressive tremolo on Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” at age seven. Before becoming a teen, she went to China and spent two years at a boarding school for young guitarists. Her teacher there, Chen Zhi, routinely brought his students to the GFA competitions to meet people and compete. A prescient Zhi chose Byun to play in the aforementioned 2007 GFA competition in Los Angeles.
“I was surprised to win,” she relates. “At that age, you have no way to gauge your level. I knew my playing was all right, but I didn’t know where I was compared to the other kids. Winning was a nice validation.” Afterwards, she returned to her home in Korea. Her parents were very supportive of her talent and ambitions, but as non-musicians, didn’t know what her next step should be.
“My dad reached out to people everywhere to figure out the right path for me,” she says. “He emailed links to videos of me to some of the big names in classical guitar. Many replied and were encouraging. Some said I should apply to the colleges where they taught. Bill Kanengiser of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet said I should come over and he’d teach me. I had already taken the Korean equivalent of the G.E.D. and had my high school diploma, so I had that year to just do what I wanted. I moved to America when I was 15 without college plans. I lived with a host family and took lessons with Bill for a year. That gave me a chance to see what it was like to live in the U.S. and to learn English before going to college.”
Byun’s original idea was to attend USC, where Kanengiser is a faculty member, and continue studying with him. The woman in her host family encouraged her to also consider Juilliard. When Byun learned that Sharon Isbin was teaching there, she decided to apply to both USC and Juilliard. “I had listened to Sharon’s CDs a lot back home and figured I should audition there,” she says. “I really liked New York and wanted to try something different, so I ended up going to Juilliard in 2011.”
Byun was just 16 when she entered the prestigious music school and ultimately stayed for five years, earning both her undergraduate and master’s degrees under Isbin’s tutelage. “I was still unaware of a lot of things when I started with her,” Byun says. “She taught me about phrasing and how to make music. She is very meticulous about every phrase. I feel I owe everything I do now to her and really appreciate all I learned from her.”
Byun followed up with doctoral studies at USC with Kanengiser’s LAGQ colleague Scott Tennant. His approach was to present the big picture of guitar playing and help her learn to trust her musical instincts. “I’d ask Scott if what I was doing was right and he would say, ‘Well, if it sounds right, then it’s right!’”
She feels fortunate to have had these renowned teachers in the right sequence, crediting Kanengiser for getting her to engage more deeply in music, Isbin for guidance on musicality, and Tennant for helping her develop a healthy outlook as a musician.
The Competitive Life
In interviews before her wins at the 2018 Falletta and 2021 GFA competitions, Byun expressed that she was trying to get back to the feelings she had at her earliest competitions. “I was stressed out doing competitions during my college years,” she says. “I realized that I had so much more fun in the GFA youth competition because I just wanted to show what I had practiced for the whole year. So I changed my mindset and that made competitions more enjoyable for me. As I saw it, all the players probably deserved to win; it’s just what would happen that day or what the judges liked more that day. You just do your best and the rest is up to chance.”
Preparing the set repertoire for any competition dictates what the players need to work on the preceding year. Additionally, the selections each player chooses to show their musical personality must be technically demanding enough to impress the judges. Byun found herself putting away pieces she really wanted to learn that would not be advantageous to play in a competition.
After winning several international contests, Byun has made the decision not to compete anymore. “I won two major competitions and the reason for doing them was to get some exposure, she says. “Now that I’ve done that, I want to leave the scene and focus on what I will to do as a musician.”
The repertoire any performer chooses for concerts and recordings helps to define their artistic identity. “I like music from all periods, but my jam is mostly 20th- and 21st-century music,” Byun says. “When I was younger, I played a lot of music by Sor and Giuliani from the classical period. I’m probably rebelling against that now by feeling I’ve had enough of it, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it in a few years.”
She has a fondness for the music English guitar legend Julian Bream introduced to the world and so has played Benjamin Britten’s challenging Nocturnal and William Walton’s Five Bagatelles. She also enjoys the Segovia repertoire. Onstage, on video, and on record, she generally champions works of recent vintage. Her latest album features Celil Refik Kaya’s Guitar Sonata No. 1 in D Major (2017), João Luiz’s “Prelude No. 4” (2018), Angel Lam’s Little Snow (2021), and Claire Assad’s “The Last Song” (2010). She also included 20th-century works by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Manuel Ponce, and Baroque-era composer Carlos de Seixas.
Byun currently lives in Los Angeles, and in May of 2022, she accepted a faculty post at California State University, Fullerton. She shares hard-won advice on practicing with her students, stressing that they not create a daily routine of practicing for a predetermined number of hours. She knows that playing for long stretches without a break can be harmful and instead encourages musical rather than hourly goals. “I had an injury when I was younger and had to stop playing the guitar for a month,” she says. “That scared me, so now I will play for an hour with musical goals in mind, then I take a break for about a half hour before going back to practice more. Depending on my workload, I will do three to four short sessions a day.”
Many of the musical goals she sets entail identifying and isolating problem passages in the pieces she’s learning. She first searches for the optimal fingering and then works the passage slowly, steadily bringing the music up to tempo in subsequent practice sessions. “I look at a problem. If it’s a scale, I figure out if the trouble is in the right or left hand or in the way I am thinking about it. Half of the time I find I’m making something harder than it should be.”
Around her teaching schedule, Byun is traveling to fulfill the bookings of her GFA tour and getting a taste of the touring life. “I used to have concerts here and there, but it seems like I have a concert every weekend now,” she says enthusiastically. “I’ve never had a full year of concerts on the road. This feels very real and I am excited to see how I will handle it.” Like many traveling musicians, she loves the time onstage and visiting new places, but finds getting her guitar onboard an airplane can be a bear.
With her formal education and competition days behind her, Byun is charting a course toward a musical career encompassing performing, teaching, and more. “I am trying to think more broadly now,” she says. “During the pandemic I felt a little useless as a guitarist. I feel now that I want to give back to society in some way. I’m not sure how I will achieve that with the guitar, but we’ll see.” As she has done throughout her life, Byun will rise to the challenge and figure this out too.
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Byun plays a 2019 Dieter Müller cedar top with Brazilian rosewood back and sides and a 640mm scale length. She uses Augustine Paragon Blue high-tension strings.
To discover ten more rising stars of classical guitar, go to acousticguitar.com/10risingstars.
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