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School of Music

The Sound of Change: Jihea Hong-Park on Representation and Identity in the Musical World

BYU Professor Jihea Hong-Park Inspires Musicians to Make a Difference in an Interview With The Center Studio’s Podcast

Jihea Hong-Park, BYU Piano and Keyboard Performance Professor
Photo by BYU Photo

How can music change the world? In an interview with The Center Studio’s Podcast, Jihea Hong-Park, an associate professor of piano and keyboard performance here at BYU, discussed her experience in the world of performing arts as an Asian American woman. She shared her perspective and her optimism regarding movements toward improved equity and diversity inclusion within the performing arts world.

Jihea Hong-Park was raised to believe in the value of work and faith. She said, “My late mother often reminded us from an early age that our purpose in life is to use our unique talents to glorify God and build up His kingdom.” For her, that meant pursuing music.

While she was beginning her master's degree at Juilliard in 2001, Hong-Park reached a turning point in her life following the tragic events of 9/11. “All of a sudden, I found myself confused and wondering the meaning of life,” she said. Through personal experience and self-discovery, Hong-Park determined three critical components of her identity: a woman of faith, a Korean American and a Latter-day Saint artist. She noted these characteristics as the “driving forces behind [her] desire to make a difference and to share [her] artistry with the world.”

Hong-Park and her family emigrated from South Korea to New Jersey when she was in seventh grade. Although she was active in high school academic, musical and social events, Hong-Park often wished to be around more people who looked like her, sounded like her and could connect with her cultural heritage. She finally found such a sense of belonging when she was accepted into Juilliard and met other Asian and Asian American students. As she attended college, she began to question how she could overcome the biases and assumptions placed upon her as a female, Asian American pianist. She wanted to break through misguided stereotypes and help herself and other Asian and Asian American artists be recognized for their individuality.

Jihea Hong-Park at the Piano
Photo by Hyunmin Lee

As Hong-Park has progressed through her career as a professional pianist and now as a professor, one of her focuses has been advocacy in the arts. While many Asians and Asian Americans are involved in the classical music domain, there is little to no representation in leadership positions in the music industry where important decisions are made. “Representation matters. What we see and hear in our daily encounters and experiences not only shape and validate how we view ourselves and our place in society, but it also gives hope in the possibilities of the future,” said Hong-Park. This imbalance of equity and diversity inclusion not only affects the Asian and Asian American community but also other people of color.

Despite the current imbalance of representation, Hong-Park remains hopeful as the world of classical music evolves. The Music Teachers National Association now includes the Ebony Prize for the best performance by a Black composer at its National Competition, and the Metropolitan Opera commissioned seventeen new contemporary works, including works by composers of color. Developments such as these are ushering in opportunities for new voices to be heard.

BYU has also taken steps to make diverse voices heard. In 2022, Hong-Park’s piano studio collaborated with the BYU composition seminar to develop the concert “Stories of Our Time: New Music for Piano Reflecting the Current Moment.” As part of the concert, Hong-Park collaborated with Professor Steven Ricks to perform “Overlapping Voices: Reflections on Racial Identity.” The song is an expression of Hong-Park’s internal challenge as a Korean American shown through a combination of two songs: The Korean folk song “Spring in My Hometown” and the American National Anthem. Along with Hong-Park, many students shared their own inspiring stories.

“Music is a language,” said Hong-Park. “It is a language that blurs the unspoken line and boundaries of racism. I think music, in any culture, expresses the deepest human emotions. And through music, we understand each other.”

Hong-Park is confident that today is an “exciting time to be a classical musician.” Music continues to make a difference in the world as more and more voices are heard and stories are shared. At the conclusion of her interview, Hong-Park shared her message to musicians, saying, “Music can be a powerful agent for change and together we can create a more equitable and inclusive community. There is room for everyone.”