I had just arrived at Starbucks, where I was to meet James D’Leon, classical pianist and featured soloist in the AZ Phil Inaugural concert at Yavapai PAC, on August 26th. I was seated at an outdoor table, preparing my notes and recorder for the interview, when I looked up to see an attractive, slender, very fit man, striding confidently towards me from the parking lot with a big smile on his face. I knew right away it was James. What ensued was a fascinating conversation with this brilliant pianist and Steinway Artist. I found him delightful, relaxed and easy to talk with.
First of all, I encourage you to visit James’ website, http://www.jamesdleon.com, where you will find details of this South Korean-born artist’s education, awards and accolades over the years. There is a video link there to several of his live performances. They are all amazing, but don’t miss the Beethoven Variations……it will knock your socks off!!!!
I mainly wanted to talk to James about elements of his approach to performing in concert, and I was also very curious about the life and business of being a classical artist, compared to what I experienced as a pop singer. But, of course, we deviated from the path I had set for our talk, and that made it even better!
After his family arrived in the United States, because of his father’s job, they moved often, and finally settled in Monterey, California when James was young. He had started piano lessons when he was four years old. I asked him when he began to feel a real passion for piano. “It really started when I was about 10 years old,” he said. “My piano teacher at the time started entering me in local piano competitions. Other kids did sports, but I did piano competitions! “ The intensity of his interest grew when he started winning more of them. And sometimes he would be awarded MONEY!!! “And for an 11 year old to win $250 in prize money was quite something,” he says. His mother told him, “You can get anything you like with your prize money.” and he laughed when he told me spent the whole check on a video disc player….a gargantuan machine that came complete with one movie. But since he had spent all of his check on the machine, there was no money for other movies, so he had to watch the same movie over and over again!”
He had good piano teachers in the Monterey area, but eventually they told him they had taken him as far as they could, and he needed to study with teachers in the San Francisco area. He entered the San Francisco Symphony Piano competition, won that, and performed with them. Then his teacher there said, “You need to move east……to Philly or New York. We are limited here in what we can teach you.” So the family moved to Philadelphia, where he studied piano, entered the Philadelphia Orchestra piano competition, and won that.
In high school he did all the things that high school kids do….he ran for the cross country team and was on the debate team as well. But always there was the question…..will classical piano be my life? Should I go for an Engineering degree (which was the big thing to do at the time)? But then his life took a big turn.
“I had a high school sweetheart at the time. She went off to a college in middle Pennsylvania where she took a class in Pedagogy with a Piano professor fromTemple University, the late George Sementovsky. She told the professor about me, and arranged for us to meet.” Professor Sementovsky invited James to his house, where he had a large room with a nine foot Steinway concert grand!!! He asked James to play for him, and after hearing him play said, “I can get you a scholarship to Temple if you keep playing like this. Study with me for a while and I’ll set up an audition.”
“Later I auditioned and won a four year scholarship to Temple.”
He continued, “This professor was the best thing about the whole time I spent at Temple. He taught me so much, and the classes I had with him were amazing. He taught me that you do things for love, regardless of what tries to box you in. I have always looked at music that way.”
He also studied at Eastman, and says the classes there were the best he ever had, although he much preferred his piano professor at Temple, because he and the one he studied with at Eastman had very different ideas about performance style.
About seven years ago, he took a big leap of faith, got rid off his booking agents, and started doing it all himself. “I realized I could do it myself…be my own agent and business manager. It takes a little more effort but since I made that decision I have been happier and more fulfilled. I get to spend more time with my eleven year old son, Allessandro, and my wife, America, because I can control my schedule and choose what I would like to do.”
James and his family moved here to Prescott in 2009. His wife, America, has a Bachelors Degree in Piano, but now works at YRMC West in the Cardiology office…she is a Medical Assistant to Cardiologist, Dr. Edward Ha, and she told James she remembers when my dog Smoky and I were a Pet Partners Therapy Team there.
As we wrapped up our conversation, James said to me, “I have a very specific memory to share with you. When my family used to drive me up to San Francisco from Monterey for my piano lessons there, my sister and I would sit in the back seat. We had an 8 track tape machine, and we had one of the Captain and Tennille 8 track tapes that we played on the drive. However, we only played ONE track….MUSKRAT LOVE…and we played it over and over and over again. Absolutely drove our parents NUTS!!!”
I LOVED hearing that story!! I laughed out loud and continued to smile about it for the rest of the day.
I have so much more material from our interview, but in the interest of time, I will save those stories for another day! Don’t forget to visit James’ website at www.jamesdleon.com!!!