Legendary pedagogue Wha Kyung Byun has mentored piano prodigy George Li at NEC for over fifteen years, from the Prep school through graduate study, building a special teacher-student bond along the way.
Master teacher Wha Kyung Byun ’74 MM knew George Li ’19 MM (Harvard-NEC), ’22 AD was special even as a little boy. The two first met when George was 12 years old:
“He was already a young artist — his eyes were sparkling, full of curiosity and looking for something,” she says, 15 years later. “I still remember vividly, thinking ‘this person has his own universe in him.’ Even when he was young, I could talk to him as a musician — I never treated him like a child.”
George’s talents, on triumphant display in his December Carnegie Hall performance, have been nurtured at NEC as a child prodigy in NEC Prep, through his college studies in the dual-degree Harvard-NEC program where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at Harvard while earning his Master of Music at NEC, through the completion of his Artist Diploma this past year.
George reflected on how studying at NEC helped him develop his musical skills from a young age and introduced him to his teacher, Wha Kyung:
“For me, NEC has been my musical home since I was 9 years old. I have been blessed through my life to have such an incredible environment to grow as a person and a musician. Chamber music at NEC Prep was integral to developing my musicianship and communication with other people and fellow colleagues, to learn how to listen to others, and to mold and meld sound together into a cohesive whole. Being at NEC is also a remarkably stimulating place, as there are so many talented musicians and artists.
And of course, NEC is where I met Ms. Byun, who has been my guide and teacher of music and life since I was 12. She has helped me and countless others to aim and reach beyond what we think we’re capable of, and has been our muse and guiding light in a world filled with challenges and wonder.”
“When he touched the piano, it started to vibrate — everything was full of life”
Wha Kyung herself is an alumna of NEC who has taught generations of accomplished pianists. “I taught George all these years,” says Wha Kyung. “It's a journey we both found very exhilarating, very inspiring. I have said, ‘now you are independent, you should try to find your own way — you know where I am, I am always here and can help you if you need.’ Since then, he has returned many times to refresh his spirit.”
Her advice on the day of the Carnegie Hall performance underscores her supportive approach: “I told him, ‘you have to be yourself. As long as you find yourself, I don't have to worry about anything.’ I know when he is himself, miraculous things happen.”
“NEC is a garden with very rich soil”
Wha Kyung likens NEC to a garden where young artists’ talents, skills, and dedication can be cultivated — a uniquely supportive environment to discover, develop, and explore one’s own artistry.
“NEC is a very unique place. For many faculty and students who come to our school, the first thing they say is how family-like it is here. People are friendly, they try to help and support you. I've been here more than 50 years, since I was a student myself, but that atmosphere never changed.”
George Reflects on Studying with Wha Kyung Byun
George’s own reflections and insights into how Wha Kyung has shaped his work as a musician and growth as a human highlight the power of their musical bond:
“As a teacher, she constantly challenges me and gives what I need most to nurture and develop on my own musical path, drawing influences from a multitude of timeframes, cultures, and personalities to give me inspirational references when approaching musical passages.
As a person, she is a model for who we all strive to become, an endlessly strong but caring and empathetic human being, purely emanating and breathing music. She embodies the motto of the musician’s code (to quote the great Mr. Sherman): ‘…despite this appeal to find and to celebrate your soul and its destiny, one must be constantly reminded that the highest of human qualities are charity and compassion.’
I am eternally thankful to NEC and Ms. Byun for helping me become the person and musician I am today.”
Triumph at Carnegie Hall
New York audiences who came to Carnegie Hall on December 9 experienced George’s artistry firsthand as he performed an uplifting dance-themed program of Schumann, Ravel, and Stravinsky. Audiences were impressed and moved by his performance, demanding four encores — a rarity in the world of New York classical music. NEC President Andrea Kalyn described his performance in a word: “magical.” NEC Provost and Dean of the Faculty Ben Sosland raved: “I can't personally recall the last time I was so moved in a piano recital. He played with extraordinary sensitivity and command.”
Longtime NEC volunteer and former Board member Eloise Hodges highlighted how George’s talents have been honed through his NEC studies, commenting “he is a marvel. As he plays, he radiates the exquisite training he received while at NEC and his true joy for performance. And how he goes from fiery passages to ones as smooth as silk is utterly remarkable.”
One can only imagine where George’s talents will take him next. Reflecting on George’s future, Wha Kyung remarked: “An artist's career, like tomorrow's weather, you don't know what will happen. If he keeps growing, he will be able to contribute to not only the musical community, but humanity as well. I'm looking forward.”
Words by Katie Ingegneri