Becoming a violin virtuoso

Heemin Choi, Hnatyshyn Foundation award winner

- September 27, 2011

Heemin Choi with his weapon of choice. (Danny Abriel photo)
Heemin Choi with his weapon of choice. (Danny Abriel photo)

Like many of Dalhousie’s incoming first-year students, Heemin Choi had a tough time deciding where to continue his education post high-school. The universities and colleges he was trying to choose between weren’t necessarily the usual list: Dalhousie, The Cleveland Institute, Julliard…

But let’s start at the beginning.

“My dad first brought home my violin when I was six,” Mr. Choi tells me when we finally get a chance to chat (he’s got a jam-packed schedule). “That was two years after I moved here from Korea.” He doesn’t recall expressing any special interest in the violin at such a young age. He guesses that his father chose the instrument because he himself was fond of it.

Mr. Choi studied with a local violin teacher until the age of 12, then began taking lessons from Dalhousie Professor Philippe Djokic (who teaches violin and viola and leads the chamber orchestra). He was appointed concertmaster of the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra at 15, and played as a soloist when Halifax hosted the Canada Winter Games. Last year, he took third place at the National Kiwanis Competition; this year, he came away with second.

Despite all that, Prof. Djokic is adamant that, “Heemin is really a completely normal kid. He’s been involved in sports… lots of community stuff.” Claims of complete normalcy notwithstanding, Prof. Djokic does admit, “I only take a very few exceptional students.”

“It didn’t help that was a huge procrastinator in high school,” Mr. Choi says of his high-school student/violinist double life. “There were a lot of late nights.”

He also evolved some unique coping strategies for the stresses of auditions and performance. “The only thing I can’t do is eat really good food before I play,” since he once ‘blanked’ in a performance following a gourmet dinner when he was 11.

Now? “I always eat snacks or junk food before I play.”

Finding his place

Mr. Choi graduated high school last spring, which brings us to the quandary posited earlier: where does a violin prodigy go to grow into a full-fledged virtuoso? The Cleveland Institute, Julliard – or somewhere else?

“Most Canadian students think that American schools are better,” says Prof. Djokic of Heemin’s tough decision. “Canadian schools are equal now, I find. But it’s hard to get rid of that. There’s a stigma.” Of his students, Prof. Djokic says, “I’m always encouraging them to try, at least, for the best schools. I consider Dalhousie one of the best schools as well, but you have to be impartial.”

Mr. Choi, of course, applied to many schools besides Dalhousie. But when he was offered a good scholarship to the Cleveland Institute, he chose not to take it, and instead came to Dal to continue studying with Prof. Djokic. “He’s just accomplished so much in his career,” he says of his teacher. “We’re pretty lucky to have him here in Halifax.”

An unexpected award

That’s not the end of the story, though. Before even taking his first class at Dalhousie, Heemin was nominated by Dal’s music department for the Hnatyshyn Foundation’s prestigious Developing Artist Grant – and received the scholarship.

“Right after school ended, almost, a lady called me. I thought it was just another telemarketer,” he says. When he realized the real reason for the call—that he’d received a grant valued at $10,000—he says, “It was a good feeling, but totally unexpected!”

“It’s definitely very prestigious for the department,” says Jaqueline Warwick, the music department’s chair. “It’s a great recognition of the calibre of the strings program… to get this kind of recognition and support for a developing student is a huge thing.”

When he finishes at Dalhousie, Mr. Choi has an eye on taking a master’s degree from another music school – Julliard, the Cleveland Institute, or the New England Conservatory.

“I’ve always wanted to try composing and conducting, but it’s pretty terrifying, that stuff…for now, it’s just another of those goals that I tend to try and accomplish.”

For the time being, he’s happy to be at Dalhousie. “Mr. Djokic is really one of the finest teachers around and there’s still a lot I can learn from him.”


All comments require a name and email address. You may also choose to log-in using your preferred social network or register with Disqus, the software we use for our commenting system. Join the conversation, but keep it clean, stay on the topic and be brief. Read comments policy.

comments powered by Disqus