From mini violin to the major stage, the concertmaster of The Philadelphia Orchestra was born with a violin in hand.
David Kim played his first note at the ripe age of three, where he learned to navigate the strings on a tiny 1/8-size violin. The rest is history, you could say — as he never really set the instrument down for long after that. He began studies with the famed instructor Dorothy DeLay at the age of eight and later received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Juilliard School.
Kim was named concertmaster of The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1999, where he appears as a soloist each season in addition to performing with numerous orchestras around the world and appearing internationally at such festivals as Arizona Musicfest, the Kingston Chamber Music Festival, and the Taipei Music Academy and Festival. He is the founder and artistic director of the annual David Kim Orchestral Institute of Cairn University in Philadelphia, where he is also a professor of violin studies.
But, you may be surprised to find out that this busy musician, husband, and father of two is also quite the outdoorsman — running, golfing, and hunting! — and that he manages the social media account for his adorable pooch. Read on for our interview with this fascinating talent.
" By the time I was five, I was already practicing two to three hours a day. "
What was your childhood like — and how did it impact your development as a musician?
I had a pretty intense childhood because I had a typically strict “tiger mom” immigrant from Asia. She was a pianist and quite well-known in Korea and when she found out she was pregnant with me, she decided her son would be a concert violinist — and that was that. So, my future was practically set before I was even born!
Santa brought me an 1/8-size violin when I was three years old and a teacher would come to the house every day for an hour a day. By the time I was five, I was already practicing two to three hours a day. And, by the time, I was eight, it was up to four or five hours a day. It was a lot.
My mom even bought herself a cheap violin so she could better learn and understand what I was learning. But, we argued and fought a lot — mainly because she was pushing me so hard. My parents even invested in a home recording system that was really fancy at the time; turning our living room into a recording studio. They spent their modest means on everything for my future career.
So, you kind of had a love-hate relationship with the violin?
Yes, you could say that. It has been a complicated relationship with music and playing the violin. I really did hate it growing up. But, somehow I knew it was a given in life. There was no quitting. There were moments I liked; I liked performing. I liked things like the summer camps in Aspen for nine weeks when I was with kids who were similar to me; that kind of stuff was fun and stimulating.
What instructors have made the most impact on you?
I was very fortunate to study with the legendary Dorothy DeLay who taught at the Julliard School. This started when I was 8. No matter where my parents and I lived, we would commute to New York City so I could be one of her students. At 10, we moved to South Carolina, so we literally flew every other weekend to Julliard for a full-day of classes and lessons with Miss DeLay.
What have been some pivotal times in your development as a musician?
When I was 14, my mother passed away from cancer. It was a really rough period for me for a few years after that; I didn’t play as much although I still traveled to NYC. But, I just spent a lot of time just reflecting and talking things out on Miss DeLay’s couch. I was quite depressed. I graduated from high school early and then immediately enrolled in Julliard. I was meant to be in NYC with friends who had the same type of musical backgrounds and experiences as me. So, things got better after that time.
" In order to do music well, you have to go all in, be disciplined, and get the best training; you have to seek and find mentors; you have to aspire to go to the best conservatories and attend summer music festivals around the world. "
Do you have any advice for young musicians?
I think if a young person loves music so much that they cannot live without it, then no matter what happens, they will come back to it — even if they study something else for awhile. After all, they cannot live with themselves not doing what they love.
But, I don’t relish not speaking the truth and I will say that in order to do music well, you have to go all in, be disciplined, and get the best training; you have to seek and find mentors; you have to aspire to go to the best conservatories and attend summer music festivals around the world. Also, I would urge young musicians to remember that there are so many paths to take in this crazy industry; you don’t have to be a soloist. It’s hard to sustain a lifelong career as a soloist anyway; there are lots of crossover opportunities.
What would you be if you weren’t a violinist?
Well, I like all the personality tests and evaluations. I just took the Enneagram, and I’m a 3. Threes love to be in the limelight — one of our foibles can be that we are always performing, for better or worse. I love performance, though, and I think with my personality, I would be on TV; some form of reality TV like as a host of a show on The Travel Channel or Food Network; I’m very comfortable talking on camera.
" I generally go for a two-mile run on the day of, because physical exertion helps me with performance. "
What does concert prep look like for you?
Preparation is crucial. I generally go for a two-mile run on the day of, because physical exertion helps me with performance. I then take a short nap and eat a huge lunch, but I don’t eat right before the performance. I’ll get to the concert hall early and do an hour of super-slow practice before the hustle and bustle begins; it’s a last-minute reset for the brain and fingers to engage that muscle memory.
I also find that a lot of visualization helps — everything from how I’m going to drive to the concert hall, the walk inside, and right down to how I will smile at the conductor and audience. I’m a Christian, so there is a lot of prayer involved, too; I really give it up to God’s glory.
This is a random thing, but I do not dine with fellow musicians on the day of a concert. I once was set to play a very difficult concerto in a Latin American country and I went to lunch with the principal of the symphony there and he was so intense with his performance philosophy that he really got into my head. That night, I just found myself so distracted on stage. So, the next morning I decided that I would never let that happen again. When the mind gets fatigued, the performance goes by the wayside.