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Shedding nerves, Dillingham sophomore becomes a state piano champion

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

Dillingham sophomore Jae Lee took his homegrown piano prowess to the state level this month, performing a classical Mozart piece for judges at the ASAA Solo and Ensemble Music Festival in Anchorage.

His performance of the Turkish March earned him state-champion status in classical piano.

“I was very nervous,” Lee said. “I thought I might accidentally mess up during the performance, but it actually went better than I thought it would.”

The Alaska School Activities Association invites student musicians from across the state to share their vocal and instrumental talent and compete in their chosen categories.

Lee was one of eight Dillingham youth to attend. The other seven were members of the choir, with one choir member also performing a solo.

Lee chose classical piano for the challenge and beauty it offers. 

“I enjoyed listening to music by Mozart,” Lee said. “And I enjoy the classical genre.”

The complexity of classical composers offers a level of difficulty that pop music doesn’t seem to have, Lee said. He also often finds it to be more compelling to play and listen to.

“It’s serene and it has expression in it, unlike some music,” Lee said.

Lee is motivated by the challenge of learning a piece of music until he can present it to the world in the way it was intended when it was written. He also said his support system helps keep him working toward new musical goals.

“My parents and my tutor kind of played a role in my championship,” Lee said. “They encouraged me and helped me out and gave me support.”

As far as where piano might take him, he’s not sure, but he is constantly working on getting better and mastering new songs and styles.

“For now piano is just kind of a hobby,” Lee said. “But it might become something. I might try in college.”

Dillingham schools music teacher Ricky Lind has Lee in band class, where he plays clarinet. But the young musician hones his piano skills on his own.

“What sets Jae apart from the regular piano students that we have here in town is that he hasn’t taken formal lessons for a couple of years now,” Lind said. “He practices on his own at home. That says a lot.”

During the actual performance, the fact that Lee memorized his entire piece also set him apart, Lind said.

“I noticed the judges favor students at the state level that memorize their pieces,” he said.

To get an invitation to Solo and Ensemble, students must earn a superior rating from the judges at their regional competition, Lind said.

Lind grew up in Dillingham, where music motivated him to succeed. Music director Judy Mowery-Ingle was instrumental in his education, he said, and he tries to pass on the wisdom she gave him to today’s Dillingham youth. 

“I try to be like her every day,” Lind said. In that way, he is trying to carry on a tradition of music opportunity and nurturing in the Southwest.

That is difficult, however, when small rural schools don’t have access to the instruments and instruction larger ones do.

Music is a vital part of a diverse education, Lind said, offering options to students of many varying skills.

“It’s important especially in our community,” Lind said, “because we are a hub, that we have this opportunity for students.”

A student that doesn’t excel in academics or sports might be very gifted in other areas — be it music, arts, technical skills or other abilities.

“So that it’s not how smart you are, it’s how you are smart,” Lind said. “There’s some student in our district that’s meant to be a concert pianist or an opera singer or a first violin chair. But what if they never get exposed to it and they never do it?”

His hope is to help provide diverse opportunities so students like Lee can find their own ways of excelling.

“It’s really rewarding to come back and work with the teachers that were once my teachers also,” Lind said. “It’s interesting to see new practices in place that are now becoming tradition.”

Lind wants to be an even bigger part of shaping those new and remaining traditions, and is currently pursuing his administrator’s degree. He hopes to bring that educational experience and skill back to his home region.

Lee has been playing piano for 10 years now, and plans to bring his classical music to the state level again next year.

“I’m already practicing a piece right now for next year,” he said.

This story first appeared in The Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com