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Playing From The Heart 

Hyeonah Kim, a 19-year-old student at the Gracias Music at Mahanaim School, performed at Carnegie Hall days after doctors in South Korea removed a 20-pound malignant tumor from her stomach.
Half Hollow Hills photo/Jacqueline Birzon

The 1.3-gallon ovarian cyst growing inside 19-year-old Hyeonah Kim weighed heavy in her stomach. Kim, a student at the Gracias Music at Mahanaim School in Huntington, was three weeks away from the debut of her award-winning piano solo at Carnegie Hall when she learned that the malignant tumor was growing inside her small body.

As the mental and physical anguish began to set in, Kim said it was faith in God that kept her strong and focused, and carried her through an intensive surgical procedure in her native South Korea to arrive in New York just three days before her May 19 performance.

Kim, now enrolled at the Mahanaim School’s piano program for a year and a half, came to the United States to pursue a post-secondary education. College admission in South Korea, she explained, is highly competitive. She said that admission is often contingent upon networking and connections one has with staff at a university. The Seoul native said that lacking connections, she was put at a disadvantage, and chose to continue her musical studies in America.

Encouraged largely by her piano instructor, Anastasia Detik, Kim entered into the Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition in April. The annual contest was designed to allow aspiring pianists with an artistic vehicle, through the opportunity to perform at featured venues, to transition into the professional performing realm. The prize of the contest is the chance to perform at one of the most revered recital halls in the country: Carnegie Hall.

Having made her decision to enter just two weeks before the entry deadline, Kim poured her heart into perfecting Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 18.

At the time, Kim realized she had put on some weight—20 pounds, to be exact—but brushed it off and thought it was a consequence of overeating. She changed her diet and tried to lose the weight, but couldn’t shake her physique that looked like she had “been pregnant for six months,” her translator, Glen Heim, explained. Kim can speak English but required Heim’s help to communicate complex ideas.

Eventually, Kim went to Huntington Hospital for a medical assessment of her painless, inflated stomach and after an MRI, realized the true nature of her condition—she had a malignant, endodermal sinus tumor swelling inside her.

With no insurance in the United States, Kim was left with no choice but to go back to South Korea for the surgical removal of her tumor.

In physical and emotional limbo, having just submitted her solo DVD for Bradshaw & Buono’s consideration, Kim arrived in Seoul the same day the competition results were posted online.

On May 1, Kim learned she was selected over hundreds of other pianists at the collegiate and professional level to play at Carnegie Hall. She vowed then and there, from behind her computer screen, that she would recover from the surgery in time for the May 19 recital hall performance.

“I was wondering if it is all going to work; it’s important to believe that it will work and have faith and it will happen,” Kim said. “In all aspects it’s very important to have faith… I believe in God so when I practiced and played the piano I think about the Bible, and my heart likes that.”

And recover she did. Three days before her solo debut, Kim returned to New York to light up the stage at Carnegie Hall in front of an audience of her friends, professors and peers.

“At first I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t perform at the hugest hall [at Carnegie] but even just to reserve that hall to perform is so expensive. Since I was young I’d always heard it was every pianist’s dream to play there, and no matter what hall it is, just being there, it was great,” Kim said.

Following her performance at Carnegie Hall, Kim stayed at Mahanaim for the duration of the semester until her declining condition forced her to return to South Korea for further treatment. She received three months of chemotherapy. After what she described as a “successful” recovery period, Kim came back to Huntington in September to continue her studies at Mahanaim.

The pianist said that from a young age, playing the piano was her vehicle for mental escape. As an 8-year-old growing up in South Korea, the piano was a popular activity for many girls her age. Admitting she lacked the self-confidence to show the world her talent at the time, Kim remained quietly disciplined when it came to her piano studies.

Her mother would encourage her to take out frustrations with her social life on the piano, not on others, and playing the piano became Kim’s way of coping with stress.

“When I hear myself making progress [on the piano] it relaxes me; it’s the most fun thing for me,” Kim said.

Kim is already gearing up for another shot at recognition as a pianist, working on a performance submission for a competition in Switzerland.

After she completes her five-year certification program at Mahanaim, Kim said she hopes to stay in America and pursue a career as a pianist in metropolitan cities.

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