Interview by Isabelle Feldman
This piece features accomplished conductor and music educator, Yoon Soo Lim, or Mrs. Lim, as I know her, who is my teacher in more ways than one. She works at the high school I attend, and we continue to communicate with each other often, even now as our relationship has been redefined by virtual standards in response to COVID-19. Today I sat down with her (as I have many times before, only this time through Zoom) to discuss topics such as her Korean American upbringing, gender stereotypes and discrimination in the classical music scene, and her journey to achieving personal growth.
// What is the formal title of your current position and can you explain what that means?
Yes, so the official title of my position is the Oaklawn-Tuttle Director of Vocal Music, and I work with students to make music. I work specifically with choirs, teach digital music and music theory classes, and am also an advisor to a small group of students.
// What is your ethnicity/background? Are you and your family religious?
I am Korean American. My family immigrated to Cheltenham, Pennsylvania from Seoul, Korea when I was in grade school. And I was raised as a Christian.
// What were your parents like growing up? What were their values and how did they affect you?
My mother and father were non-traditional as Korean Asian parents. They weren’t too strict in their rules, and supported me without hesitation. They always made me feel like I had a choice in what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. My parents really valued family and working hard. They believed that we were given our talents to help others and bring them joy –– which is why they really encouraged me to pursue music –– something I had always loved. The way they loved my brother and I has really shaped the way I look at life. My family is what is most important; it is what often motivates me. I am so glad that they instilled that in me from such a young age. I feel really lucky.
// Did you knowthen [growing up] that the career you have now was the one that you always wanted?
No. Growing up, I always thought I was going to be a doctor. Sometime before I started college, though, my parents actually sat me down and questioned that dream I had of being a doctor. They had always taken notice of how, in their eyes, I had gravitated towards music. They asked me, in a supportive way, if I was sure that that wasn’t what I wanted for myself, and I realized that I wasn’t sure. So, I changed my plan. I took post-grad music classes and learned of different healing philosophies through song and eventually found my way to teaching high schoolers.
// How did you separate your career from your relationship as a newlywed and a recent mother? How did you prioritize your own goals and aspirations?
Well, I was really fortunate to have a strong support system. My husband respected that I had my own path in terms of my career and passions. Even with that support, though, things were hard, and I really had to work. I would have my grandmother watch my children while I taught undergraduate courses as a post-grad. Oftentimes, we, as women, feel like we have to make a choice between having a career or a family, but I worked really hard to have both. It was important to me that I could decide for myself what my future looked like.
// Advice for women and girls who don’t have strong support systems?
Know that we all have to make sacrifices sometimes and difficult choices, you want to feel proud of the ones you make. Make the best choice for you, think through things always, and lean on the people that you do have. If you have a partner, for them to support you or you to support them, it can’t be a choice. It has to be unconditional. I think a big part of growing up is just learning to make things work and happen for yourself with or without someone by your side.
// Did you ever face any sort of discrimination in your pursuit of a career because of gender or race? If so, how did you deal with it? What advice would you give to other women and girls about it?
Yes. In my line of work, you see very few professional women as conductors, but if you look at preschool music teachers, for example, you see almost all women. The classical music world has historically been a “man’s world.” So, to be a female minority in this industry has been really hard. I have had to deal with a lot of hate and hurtful comments. I felt a lot of times in my career that I didn’t have the option to speak out against them and that a lot of the pain that I felt wasn’t being validated, but rather dismissed, excused. I consider myself to be a strong woman, but at the time that meant just brushing things off. As I have grown up, though, I’ve realized that to be truly strong –– you have to be vulnerable –– as it is so important to healing and connection.
// What advice can you give to young women or even older women who are hesitant to pursue the career of their choice because of risk or because (for older women) they think it’s’ too late to pursue their passion?
For older women –– it’s hard to switch careers later in life, but you know who you are and how you run. If you’re passionate about something and you really believe in it, go for it. At the same time, though, you have to be realistic and honest with yourself in your pursuit of that goal. For younger people, you have to follow your heart and try to make whatever you’re crazy about possible. If you love something and it makes you happy, you can never be failing at it.
// What does empowerment look like to you?
To me, empowerment comes from knowledge, from education and listening. Knowing means that you can problem solve and be better for it. It also looks like sharing your own philosophy –– being confident in your own right, while still being receptive and humble towards others. I take empowerment from the mentality of “I can be better tomorrow than I was today.” -GGH