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Music
January 9, 2024

Practice Hard, Play With Heart

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THOUGH STILL ONLY a teenager, Joshua Mhoon is widely recognized as one of the most promising young talents in the world of classical music. One reviewer has applauded the “bravura and panache” of the Chicago-born pianist’s fluid playing.

His rare giftedness has led to performances in some of the most famous concert halls around, along-side greats like cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Lang Lang and clarinetist Anthony McGill. As a still-too-rare minority face in the classical music world, the 19-year-old aspires to become “not just a great Black artist, but a great artist.”

What makes his rise even more remarkable is that some did not have high prospects for him. After he was deprived of oxygen at birth, his parents were told that he would likely have learning disabilities, but he was reading by the time he went to kindergarten and was admitted to Mensa, the high IQ organization, when he was 12.

Having been steeped in music since even before he can remember—his mom would play classical music with him in mind when she was pregnant—Mhoon can’t point to a particular moment when he fell in love with it. From being a child “we would listen to everything . . . there was just a love of music from the beginning.”

First trying the guitar, he discovered that his hands weren’t best suited to the instrument and switched to the piano as a third grader. Within a short time, he was winning city, state and national competitions. He has gone on to play for audiences in Europe, Japan and Turkey as well as performing at Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s inauguration.

But Mhoon’s performing has taken a bit of a back seat to studying since he went to New York City’s famed Juilliard School for the performing arts (alumni include multiple Grammy winner Jon Batiste) in 2021. He’s pursuing a bachelor’s in piano performance, with thoughts of maybe staying on to do a master’s degree.

Future focus

Why take time out like this when he’s already got an open door to the world’s greatest concert halls? “I still need a lot of growth,” Mhoon admits. “I need to mature as a pianist alone— just being better in using my fingers, in my hands, and my legs using the pedals. I felt that
I needed to grow more before I tried to make it to the big leagues.”

“I NEED TO BE EXCITED ABOUT WHATEVER IT IS I’M DOING OR IT’S NOT GOING TO
GET DONE TO THE FULL CAPABILITY.”

Plus, while he loves performing classic works as a soloist, he also has his sights on other areas. “I want to do everything when I get out of here, from composing for all types of stuff … even acting. One of the best parts about going here and being in school for me has been going out into other divisions, working with dancers, working with singers, and just having fun with all the artists here.” Another draw to Juilliard has been the opportunity to study under renowned Grammy-winning classical pianist Emanuel Ax, who teaches a select group of students there.

Part of Mhoon’s focus is based on his taking the long view, “my vision for myself for the future… I want to get as much out of this as I can so that when I get out, I will have the capabilities to do everything I’ve wanted to.”

He hasn’t entirely stopped performing, however; there was a concert at Carnegie Hall last year (“which was nice, because my family flew into town to watch”). It’s important to keep a foot in the world of live performance because “I’m not a fan of academia, especially in music. When you put it in a box, I think that’s when it sort of dies. When something becomes institutionalized, then it’s harder to grow out of that.”

Poised and on point onstage, Mhoon is easygoing and approachable away from the spotlight, carrying the label of “prodigy” lightly. “I never felt the weight of it because I never thought I was a prodigy,” he says. “I think I was naturally gifted to be able to play music and to understand it, and I think I have a very musical ear. I picked up things pretty quickly. But I never tried to compare it to anybody else, and there wasn’t that many people to compare it to.”

He puts his unawareness of how talented he was down to “the ignorance of my young self being like, ‘You know, anybody can do this.’” It felt so easy to him that he figured it must also come easy to anybody else. “When I was doing competitions, when I was listening to people, I was like, ‘Oh, they’re just as good as me.’”

Developing discipline

Not everyone has the kind of natural ability Mhoon displayed at a young age, of course, but they can learn from him about applying themselves to developing whatever level of skill they have. He admits that without his father pushing him, he might not have come as far as he has. “He instilled some discipline in me when it came to practicing; he was sort of the enforcer of, ‘You need to practice 30 minutes a day. You need to practice an hour a day.’ And I really didn’t enjoy it because it was work—and it still is.”

That can mean up to four hours a day, which he tackles with an approach that can be adapted and adopted by anyone who has to work at improving their craft. “When I sit down, I need to be excited about whatever it is I’m doing or it’s not going to get done to the full capability,” he says. He’ll work on a variety of pieces, “so, I may not like one, but I know that if I play it, it’ll make some aspect of my playing better. But I also always need to have something that I’m excited to work on, something that is fun for me, so that I can reward myself after I get done with the stuff that’s more difficult for me.”

Performance days follow something of a pattern. With the concert typically being in the evening, he’ll get as much sleep as he can. He’ll have a banana in the morning and some fish (“hopefully salmon”) later in the day. The rest and the diet are all about aiding optimal brain function. He doesn’t get nervous before taking the stage, “because I know that there will be an end, and after that there’ll be nothing I can do to change anything,” he says. “So, I just go out with nothing to lose, almost.”

He also steps out in the confidence that he has worked hard to hone his natural skills. “I have to carry that with me to every performance. Not in a self-serving way, but just to reinstall [the thought]: I am capable of doing what I came here to do.”

While he wants to perform at his best, it’s not just about being polished, he says. “I haven’t done competitions since middle school, because I think some of the best performances are ones that are unpolished or are not finished . . . when you’re comparing it to others that are polished, it doesn’t look great, but there’s something nuanced about it that can be really magnificent.”

Mhoon is not being nonchalant about performing, however. He always has three people in mind when he plays: himself, the audience member and the composer. “My mom always said, when giving a performance, no matter how small or how big it is, always do your best, which is something that I’ve made it a rule to live by.

“The person performing can’t just think about themselves… that’s sort of self-serving. What I’m doing is giving the audience an experience and giving them a space to feel their own message.” He also has a sense of responsibility to the composer, to present their work at its best. “It’s a triangle,” he says of the motivation to do his best.

Musical mentors

What about the criticism that the classical music world is rooted in white privilege, some even saying that it’s racist? Well, you can’t dispute that it is a Eurocentric genre, Mhoon says: “All the music that is majorly played was written in a certain time of Euro-centricity or racism, if you want to call it that, and that’s about 90-95% of the music that’s programmed in classical concerts.”

But he believes that now “it’s definitely way more feasible and possible to make it as a Black artist and to be discovered—or rediscovered… what’s being discovered and picked up now is that there is a lot more music written here by Black people that hasn’t had a chance to see the light yet or get the recognition it deserves.”

Mhoon points to Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic, the first African American to hold such a place with the celebrated orchestra. They both attended the same Chicago music school (at different times), and McGill is now one of Mhoon’s mentors.

There is a Chicago connection with another musical inspiration: Florence Price (1887-1953), who was the first Black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra. “Her music is being published again and it’s being picked up internationally from different orchestras and programmed.” Mhoon also mentions Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), a Black composer who moved to America from Canada and “wrote some incredible choral music as well as piano solo music.”

Being in New York is also giving Mhoon an opportunity to immerse him- self more in the jazz world. “Being able to play that music is important for me as I get older; it’s something that I’m more connected to because that is the Black American music,” he says. He names Bill Evans, Miles Davis’s one-time pianist, Monty Alexander and Ahmad Jamal as some of his heroes.

As a huge movie fan, Mhoon has the big screen in mind when he talks about composing in the future. He sees it as a way of introducing some of his peers who may be unfamiliar with it to his classical world.

“Some of my friends who are not versed in the classical canon, which is like our repertoire, they’ll bring up a movie soundtrack and it will have music that I play on it; Debussy is in a lot of movies. Chopin. That’s a big connecting point for people that aren’t in this genre.” Away from his practice and studies, Mhoon enjoys video games, trading stocks and basketball—the latter at some level of risk. A self-admitted “pretty aggressive” player, he’s had his share of finger and thumb injuries. He wiggles the thumb on his left hand by way of illustration: “It’s been jammed so many times I can move it in a different way now… and it honestly makes my thumb really flexible for playing a piano.”

JOSHUA MHOON: MY WAYMAKERS

My upbringing was really community-oriented, so I can’t call out one or two without feeling bad about not calling out the others. My parents for sure: My mom was the person whose idea it was to do music in the first place. Without her, I don’t think anybody would’ve ever suggested that I do music. Then my dad, for pushing me and putting that discipline in me to do better.

The Merit School of Music [in Chicago] and all the people there, where I took lessons from 8 to 18; that was a community where I saw people from every back-ground, learning music [together]. The Lang Lang Foundation, which flew me out to experience Austria, Vienna, with a bunch of other students from around the world. It sort of set up another community for me and also allowed me to branch out, to experience new cultures, new things, as well as teaching from Lang Lang himself.

JOSHUA MHOON’S MIDDLE EIGHT

Quick-fire questions on food, feelings, fashion and more.

Favorite book: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

Favorite food: Italian.

Last time you cried: August (a girl).

Favorite clothes: I love shoes.

Ideal chill day: Sleep in, watch movies, eat good food.

Trading advice: Have an idea of what you want to make off of an investment and if you’re happy with it, don’t get rid of all of it if it’s a good investment, but definitely don’t hold on to everything.

Three words that best describe you: Fun. Open. Humanizer.

Which country would you most like to visit: New Zealand, just because it looks pretty.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.