Dually Noted: Hanna Um Makes Art with the Pen and the Cello

For most, academics and extracurricular activities remain separate. For Hanna Um, MCAS ’18, they can’t be torn apart.

Her affinity for music sets her apart from the average English major, while her love for poetry adds a dynamic element to her study of music. She is currently writing a thesis on how poetry and music live in harmony. She pursues her passions with relentless vigor, yet by merely speaking to her you couldn’t fully appreciate the nature of her work.

Once she fits her unassuming frame behind the glossy finish of a cello, Um makes the instrument come alive. When she gets her small hands on a ballpoint pen, Um turns mere words into works of art. Music is her specific passion, something that she has engaged in for 15 years now.

Since childhood, Um has always lived her life through music. Following in the footsteps of her mother, Um began playing the piano at the age of 5. She picked up the cello three years later, and, driven by her own motivation, has continued to improve since. Driven by her motivation to improve on the strings, Um quit the keys to have more time to practice cello.

She chose to continue playing in college, settling on music as one of her two majors in order to more intently pursue the performance aspect of the art. Practicing as many as three hours per day, Um has developed not only an affinity for the instrument, but a love for it as well.

This comes as no surprise to her father, Hyun, who said that Um has always been passionate about the things she does, if not outright diligent in their execution.

“We just let her go,” he said. “Hanna has always strived for a challenge, and takes that upon herself.”

Um’s devotion to music came with a new passion upon arriving at BC, albeit not through typical circumstances. Striving for more than just a music degree, Um picked English as a second major for no reason other than she didn’t know what else to pick. After several semesters of exploring and taking classes, a mild interest developed into a dedication. Um throws herself into language the same way she has with music. She’s stuck with the major and intends to graduate with an Honors thesis in the topic, which perhaps proves that her stab in the dark found its mark.

Now as a senior, Um pairs her ability to read music with her love of reading words, translating one into melodic notes and the other into emotional, purposeful poetry.

Um expresses the cello through BC’s Chamber Music Society and while studying abroad during her junior year. Beginning in South Korea, where her family originates, the Gig Harbor, Wash. native found herself enthralled in a new country without the stresses of American university life. Without those stresses, however, Um also found herself without her beloved wooden instrument. She chose to leave her wooden friend at home in the States while adventuring in Asia.

Even before her cello-less arrival in Korea, though, Um found herself wavering in her love for music.

“I came to a point where everything was stressing me out,” she said. “I was pretty low in all aspects. And I thought, ‘I don’t need cello, I don’t need to play anymore.’”

In fact, Um put practically every aspect of her life on hold while studying at Seoul National University. The academics were far less rigorous than back home, and her music took a backseat to exploring her temporary home. It was a time for play, in the mental sense rather than the musical one. But still, the cello kept calling.

“Being away from it for so long only made me want to play it more,” Um said, speaking as though her instrument were an old friend. “I felt like I had to catch up for all the time I’d missed and things I’d forgotten.”

After a Winter Break back in her home state, she picked up the cell once again. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Um’s love is no different.

While in South Korea, Um was without her instrument—now, she needed it. She packed her bags and flew to Vienna—one of the the world’s classical music hubs—for another semester abroad, this time accompanied by a bulky, yet precious, four-stringed cargo. Home of renowned composers such as Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart, Um primed herself for success in the small European nation.

She used her time in Vienna to explore her love of language as well. One class in particular solidified Um’s interest in a fusion between English and music. She had wanted to find a way to merge the two passions since freshman year, but hadn’t yet found a solid intersection. In this class, she found her inspirationthe German Lied. The Lied takes classical music and pairs it with poetry, the perfect combination of Um’s passions.

“I think that being in Vienna really reignited her love for music,” Hyun said. “I think it also taught her how to keep both her passions for music and English.”

In her thesis, Um focuses on the intimate pairing between music and poetry, this time in English. In addition, she is writing a lengthy, thesis-style piece for her music seminar, and is working toward five hours of practice a day in preparation for auditions for music conservatories.

A subject of nervous excitement, conservatories offer Um a unique opportunity to continue performing after graduation in a well-renowned setting. Auditions are no laughing matter, however. Um said that veterans often practice for five to six hours per day, on top of performing and other daily obligations.

With that comes a challenge with which every student is familiar: the cat-and-mouse game of finding enough time for everything in a 24-hour day. Five hours of cello, homework, classes, thesis writing, eating, sleeping, and the occasional call home leave little time for much else, but if there’s anyone up to the challenge, at least according to her dad, it’s Hanna.

“If you understand Hanna, she’s always busy,” he said. “And she puts that pressure on herself.”

It’s that pressure that has built Um’s version of the Lied. For Um, notes and words flow together as the Danube does through Vienna. Through the lens of the Lied, poetry finds a home as a compliment to Um’s musical talentswhich has led her to a thesis and two degrees.

“To me it’s pretty easy,” Um said. “If you have two passions, you can always find a way to make them work together.”

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Staff 

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