Backstage with The Avett Brothers' Joe Kwon

Cellist Joe Kwon (IAC 97) gave up on music. After spending much of his youth training with a private instructor, playing in regional symphonies, and studying at places like Interlochen Center for the Arts and the Eastern Music Festival—he gave it up. First slowly, then all at once. In college, Kwon eventually changed majors to focus on a money-making career in the computer sciences, and that was that.

That very well could have been the end of the story, but Kwon found life outside of the arts to be unfulfilling. After quitting his job at IBM he found himself bartending and playing with bands on the side. Eventually his talent and as he puts it—his “gift for gab” landed him a session gig with the North Carolina-based folk rock band The Avett Brothers. That gig morphed into a tour with the band, and eventually earned him a spot as a full time member of the group.

Below is a portion of an interview Kwon gave with Interlochen before The Avett Brothers’ Aug. 10, 2018 concert at Kresge Auditorium. 

Interlochen: How did you end up playing cello?
Kwon: I started playing when I was nine years old, which is not that early. I took a music psychology class in college and they said that starting at age three is optimal for your ear training, which is when many of these superstars start. As soon as they’re able to hold the posture, it’s like, “Put a violin in their hands. Put a keyboard in front of them.” That’s what happened to me. When I was three, my mom tried to teach me piano, and I was a very defiant three-year-old, so it didn’t last very long. So, when I turned nine, that’s when it all started with cello. Mom woke me up and put me in the car, and I was like, “Oh, cool. We’re going to the mall.” And instead we stopped at this 1950s ranch-style house, a very standard house in Hyde Point, North Carolina. I get out and I’m like, “Ok, where are we?” and she’s like, “You’re taking cello lessons.” That’s it. People don’t believe me when I say this, but I was like, “I’m going to be a cellist when I grow up.” After that first lesson it made so much sense in my hands.

Interlochen: Did you ask your mom why she chose cello for you?
Kwon: This is something that my wife and I have discussed a lot, because there's so much of my history in my past with my family and our immigration to America. There are questions that you don't ask in Asian cultures. You don’t ask your parents, “Why did you do this?” because they just expect you to trust them. So, I never asked, “Why cello?”

Interlochen: Do you come from a musical family?
Kwon: My mom was a pianist and a vocalist. My father was a conductor and a vocalist. My sisters played piano.

Interlochen: What was your cello training like up to that point?
Kwon: I was fortunate enough that my parents could afford to put me in private lessons. In my high school, there was no orchestra—only band. My cello instructor was adamant that I needed to be playing with an orchestra. So, my parents took me to the Greensboro Symphony Youth Orchestra. I auditioned as a middle schooler, and I remember being sat as fourth chair. I remember being so angry at being fourth chair that I made sure to make first chair the next summer.

Interlochen: Do you remember the first concert that you ever gave?
Kwon: When I was 10, I gave my first concert for my 5th grade graduation. My mom accompanied me on piano. We played Ravel’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, and I repeated the repeat twice. That was the only mistake that I made. My mom told me that. She was like, “So, why did you want to play that a third time?” I was like, “What?” I was a kid. I was nervous. Apparently not nervous enough.

Interlochen: How did you learn about Interlochen?
Kwon: My cello teacher, Rubi Wentzel (IAC/NMC 29), told me about Interlochen and Idyllwild Arts Academy. She said, “These are the two reputable high schools for performing arts.” In 1997, I was the North Carolina Governor's Scholar, so I ended up coming here for summer camp. When I came to Interlochen, truly, I saw kids my age playing at my level, and it totally crushed me. I thought maybe I wasn’t going to be a cellist because they were so much better. It was both inspiring and defeating. It’s weird how that happens.

Interlochen: You stopped playing music. How did that happen?
Kwon: I attended a few other summer camps, and generally, I’d show up and be first chair. I’d walk in and be like, “Cool, I’m the best here, too,” which, as a classical musician, is the worst mentality to have. In classical music, as you know, the person that works the hardest is the one who wins. They’re the ones that move up in the orchestra and get solos, you know? So, I slacked off, and I didn’t get into any of the music schools that I wanted to.

Interlochen: You ended up getting a degree in Mathematical Science. How did that happen?
Kwon: I attended University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and I played in the orchestra there. About 13 or 14 people from our family attended UNC, so it just sort of made sense. I was just kind of depressed that I couldn’t get into the music schools that I wanted, and I started giving up more and more of my time to other things that were not music, like socializing. At that time, people were getting signing bonuses for computer sciences, so I somehow made the choice to go the path of making money. I ended up getting a tech job working for IBM. I hated it, and it was then that I started to realize that I should be playing music.

Interlochen: How did you end up back in playing music?
Kwon: There were people in my life telling me, “You don’t play cello anymore, and you’re so very good at it.” Do you know how when you’re a kid, you start working so hard at something that it starts being more work and less fun? That’s how it had gotten for me. I was like, “I just don’t want to play music anymore.” But my buddies were like, “How about you just play along with me while I’m playing music?” I didn’t know how to do that, but a friend got me playing Neil Young with him, and that’s how I came back to it and fell back in love with playing music non-classically. Once I was far enough away from classical music, I started getting interested in classical music again because I realized that I missed the structure. I missed practicing. I missed that kind of practicing. You’re so much more critical about every breath and movement, fluctuations in tempo, nuances in slurs, or however the bow structure is going to be. Everything is so much more zeroed-in when you practice by yourself. I missed it. By that time, I had already left IBM. I was bartending and playing with another band on the weekends. But I didn’t ever think that I would be doing it professionally again.

Interlochen: Once you got back into playing classical music as an adult, did you find the experience any different?
Kwon: There were pieces back then that I knew that I couldn’t play very well. Now I’ll go back and I’ll find myself being like, “I really want to work on that really difficult passage of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major.” I’ll think to myself, “I didn't play it very well back then, but I bet you I have a better work ethic now. I bet you I could get it.” That’s what it comes down to: It’s not skill. Every student at that camp could play that passage. You work on it long enough, and you’ll get it. It may take someone a day to get it, it might take me a month to get it. That’s the thing. I’m starting to realize that it doesn’t matter that I’m not the best. It doesn’t matter that I’m not the greatest cellist out there. It doesn't matter. I have more fun on stage than anyone ever will.

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