"It was too late to resume [violin] studies": Wan Heo shares her composition journey
Photos provided by Wan Heo
Wan Heo is a Korean composer and a violinist whose compositions have been performed in South Korea, Italy, Singapore, Spain, and the United States. Her recent commissioners include line upon line, New Music On the Point, highSCORE festival, VIPA (Valencia International Performance Academy), among others. Wan is doing research on Korean ancestors' appreciation to nature by recording sounds at historical sites in South Korea, with her first work on this project, From Air to Mind, being presented at Composition In Asia conference at University of South Florida.

Attending an arts middle school as a violinist, Wan chose to transfer to a public middle school after finishing her first year, as she thought choosing a career at such a young age would leave her with one option. "It was too early to decide what I would do for my whole life and … just keep that as the only ability for so long," she begins.

Going to a private foreign language high school, the young musician didn't have access to music because of the rigorous academic schedule. Very stressed, she realized that she needs to go back to music, enrolling in an arts high school. Heo reckoned it would be too late to resume pursuing a career as a violinist, she switched to composition. Wan's real decision to become a composer was made only after graduating with a B.M. in Composition from Ewha Womans University in South Korea, when she realized this is something she wants to continue doing, and she applied to study abroad.

The composer didn't know a lot about music schools in the U.S., but she knew she wanted to study there. Having a teacher who earned his degrees at the Eastman School of Music, University of Michigan, and University of Southern California, Wan turned to him for advice. "He was actually the one who really helped with the application," she says. "I relied on his recommendations [and] he gave me the list of schools based on my portfolio, TOEFL score, and everything else."
Looking back, Wan admits that the list changed a lot during her Master's studies: she came to the conclusion that those institutions were "probably not the [ones] that I wanted to go [to] because my music style changed a lot" from that time. In her words, when applying to Florida State University, she didn't have any information other than that it was an academically-focused school, which she thought was a great opportunity to try pursuing a career in teaching before she goes any further, and there were great teachers.

Speaking on the differences of studying composition in South Korea and the U.S., Wan mentions that many institutions in her home country are heavily focused on European avant garde contemporary music. "Their teaching style in general is very strict and their own style of music [is] rooted from their teachers, [which] they want their students to also pursue," the composer notes, describing how her own professor, while sharing a lot of knowledge on new contemporary music, wasn't exposing her to wider perspectives.

When coming to FSU, Heo studied with Clifton Callender, with whom her own musical style changed over time. "The teachers in the U.S. institutions are very able to find [out] about their students' needs, what kind of music they're pursuing, and then help with that," she notices. "[This makes it a] more customized version of education."

Before starting her Master's degree, Wan tells me she wanted to question herself as to what kind of career she wants to build. Her thought process was simple: the composer wanted to give it her all in composition, and if that wouldn't work out, she would come back to her home country and work in a different industry. When Heo came to the U.S., she fell in love with studying there, as it encouraged her to think more deeply about musical ideas. "It felt like I [was] changing positively, so I naturally thought that I'd do these five years and become a better composer and teacher," she elucidates on her decision of doing a PhD.

Bienen was one of the two schools in Wan's top list, the other being UC San Diego. "The reason I chose those programs [was due to] great teachers and interesting topics for their coursework," she says. "The form[at] of coursework at Northwestern is mostly seminars and they're talking about specific topics in new music [that] I want to learn about." Another vital factor was funding. Conversations with graduate students that went to these universities fueled Wan's determination even more.
Beginning her PhD at Northwestern University Bienen School of Music, Wan conveys it felt disappointing having to do that online. "I was so excited to get into the program that I really wanted to be involved in, and then the pandemic happened and I [now] have to stay in my country and study remotely," she explains. "It affects that first moment that you're getting closer to the faculty members and your program."

The composer mentions that it's sad missing being a part of a supportive community, which was also one of the main reasons why she chose Northwestern. At the same time, Wan enjoys the topics and discussions that happen during seminars and shares that there are no problems in communicating with professors and classmates. "I couldn't imagine composition lessons online - send[ing] a picture of the score and talk[ing] about that - but it surprisingly worked well," she says. Moreover, the faculty are very understanding and build their curriculum in a way that students can follow their own pace.

The Korean composer is also busy with research: her country's cultural music traditions. "It's not about music itself, but more [so] the ideas behind that," Wan tells me, depicting how the art of a specific class of people during that period was deeply related to the thoughts of them. Wan's hope is exploring the philosophy behind why the society made music a very important element in their studies at that time. The other part of research is finding out the ways in which Heo's ancestors enjoyed music, which would usually be performed outside, within nature, or in solitude.

Wan recommends paying close attention to your musical style, the styles of the institutions you are looking to apply to, coursework that you'll take, teaching opportunities, and following the careers of alumni as that represents what your career would look like after your degree.
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