Community School Spotlight: Annette Lee

Annette Lee, 17, studies harp with JoAnn Turovsky and plays in the Colburn Youth Orchestra directed by Maxim Eshkenazy. Annette, a Pasadena native, has been taking lessons at Colburn for three years.

This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

How did you get started at Colburn?
I’d always been around Colburn. My piano teacher previously had taught at Colburn before and Colburn is pretty well known in the Los Angeles area, so I’d always know about it. I take lessons here with my harp teacher JoAnn Turovksy and that started after my first meeting with her in my sophomore year when I first participated in the Spotlight competition at The Music Center. This past year, I received the Colburn merit scholarship so through that, I also play in the Colburn Youth Orchestra [CYO].

How has your experience here been?
I would say it’s been pretty great. I’m so grateful to have met my harp teacher, first of all, and that really wouldn’t have been possible without Colburn and the Spotlight competition. My experience learning from her has been pretty amazing. I really loved getting involved in CYO this past year. It’s been a really eye-opening experience because I’ve played in orchestras before, but CYO is on a completely different level with all the amazing musicians in the orchestra and the conductor. I think, overall, my experience has been pretty great.

What is it like studying with your teacher, JoAnn Turovsky?
There are a lot of aspects of the harp that I wasn’t aware of that my teacher really opened my eyes to. She has a lot of attention to detail and quality of sound. I think my tone of playing has improved greatly these past two years. She’s also super sweet. It’s been really great getting to know her and the harp family. All the students who learn from her at Colburn and USC are very welcoming, and they are all amazing at the harp. It’s been really inspiring to learn from the teacher and from all of the other musicians in her studio.

How did you get started playing harp?
I started playing the harp when I was nine years old. I’d originally started on the piano when I was four, thanks to my mom. I discovered the harp through Greek mythology. Some people find it a bit hard to believe, but that’s really how it started. I was really into reading books and in fourth grade I read about the lyre. I was like, “I really want to learn an instrument like this.” I got my parents to have me start taking lessons and that’s how it started.

Why do you love the harp?
I think the harp is a very intimate instrument. The way you play the harp, the technical aspect, is kind of similar to the piano in that you play with both hands. It also has the regular scales that a piano would have, but you play the actual strings themselves. You get to control more of the sound quality by the way you take care of your fingers. I think dynamics-wise there’s a lot of range in the harp.

I really enjoyed exploring the different possibilities the harp has to offer. It’s not only the string part you can play, but also sometimes in pieces you experiment with playing on the soundboard which produces a lot of percussionistic effects. I think the sound is just beautiful. That’s why I really love playing it.

You are performing on this weekend’s McAllister Honors Recital. What are you performing?
I’m playing Fantasy on a Theme of Haydn by harpist composer Marcel Grandjany. It’s a kind of theme and variations piece. There’s a lot of variety to the harp that you get to hear in the piece and a lot of dynamics. It’s a very showy piece. I think it’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve played so far. There’s just a lot I’ve learned about my sound production and the range of sounds that I can produce on the harp.

You were also selected as a US Presidential Scholar in the Arts this year. What was the journey like to getting selected for that?
I first applied to YoungArts after my first year participating in Spotlight. I was chosen to be a finalist, which means I got to go to Miami for a week, called YoungArts Week. I got to meet a bunch of other amazing musicians and actors and dancers and other amazing artists. That was a very inspiring week.

The next year, when I became a senior, they asked me if I wanted to audition again for the panel of judges to see if I could be nominated for a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. I went for another few days to Miami and auditioned for them. After that, I heard back in a couple of months that I had been nominated and that the rest of the process was up to the Presidential Scholars committee in DC.

I was chosen, which is pretty amazing. At the end of June, I’ll be going to DC. I’ll be receiving a medallion, I think, and getting to perform with the other Presidential Scholar in the Arts at the Kennedy Center, which is a huge honor. That’s our culminating performance. I get to meet the President and meet the other Presidential Scholars.

How did you feel when you found out?
I was in school. I had just gotten out of my first class, which was an AP computer science class. I remember opening up my phone and seeing my lock screen and the notification on, I think, my Instagram. I was very overwhelmed. I was super elated about getting chosen because this process has been pretty long. We hadn’t been informed throughout and I hadn’t heard back for a couple of months. It was kind of a shock. I wasn’t expecting it at all, but it was a good shock.

What are some of your hobbies outside music?
Until last year I used to fence. It was fun. It was a very intellectually and physically engaging sport, which I really enjoyed. I loved the team aspect to it as well because at school you have the whole fencing team. Everyone is super encouraging.

Outside of that, I do a lot of community service as well. I’m the president of my school’s Interact Club, which is under Rotary International. We’ve been doing a lot of local and international service projects affiliated with Pasadena Rotary. For the past two years that’s been a very enriching experience.

I also learn Chinese at my school. I really enjoy learning the language because I just think it’s fascinating. I am Korean-American myself and I’m fluent in Korean because my parents speak Korean at home, but it’s been interesting learning another Asian language.

Where are you headed to next year?
Next year I’m going to be attending Yale. I’m really excited for that. It’s been my dream school for a while now and I’m really excited to expand my academic knowledge and also grow as a musician. Yale has a pretty great music program so I’m excited to see what the future has in store for me.

I’ll probably be studying an academic subject for my major. I’m currently interested in the more STEM subjects. I applied for a neuroscience because I did some research outside of school the summer before my senior year at Caltech and I found the research really fascinating. I’m hoping to explore more of that in college. I’m going to be continuing music in college on the side, taking lessons from the harp teacher there, possibly participating in the orchestra. My goal is, perhaps after college, I’ll be able to attend a music school like Juilliard.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding students, faculty, and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.