Story by James S. Kim
Making a career change at the age of 30 might raise a few eyebrows. If the career change meant joining the Army, that might raise a few more. If the career change meant joining the Army and leaving behind a career as a classically trained musician, that would downright turn heads.
But that’s exactly what Spc. Anne Pyungan Cho did. When Cho spoke to KoreAm by phone from Afghanistan last month, she was just a few weeks into her nine-month deployment there. A resident of Los Angeles, she works as an automated logistics specialist and supply clerk at Kandahar Airfield. Her decision to trade in evening gowns and concert halls for Army fatigues and the landscape of a war-torn country is one that she says is layered with her love of music, desire to give back to the U.S. Armed Forces, as well as her faith.
Every Sunday, with her own free time, she leads the worship for three different services and practices with the choir on Wednesday and Saturday nights, although fighting might put these on hold. She said she hopes that she is able to help provide fellow servicemembers with some peace and comfort.
“I’m enjoying playing music [here],” said Cho. “Music is really strong—it can move people, it can encourage people.”
Cho’s relationship with the piano began at age 5, while she was growing up in Korea. She had a knack for the instrument, with a natural talent for sight-reading music, and would often play piano at her church.
After immigrating to the U.S. in her late teens, she attended Union High School in Santa Monica and, by her senior year, was considering applying for Juilliard at the behest of an instructor. But her family insisted she stay close to home while her grandmother was battling breast cancer. So, Cho decided to pursue a music scholarship at Pepperdine University instead and managed to secure an audition.
The day of her audition, she had prepared two pieces to play before the music professors, but the response was less than enthusiastic. Before she left, however, another professor handed her a piece to play for the group. It was one that Cho hadn’t seen before and was considered a complicated piece.
“When they asked me to play some more songs, I was like, sure. I’ll just do some sight-reading, which the professor didn’t know was my strength,” said Cho.
Cho nailed the piece perfectly, then another, and another, as the professors eagerly fed her music books. “Everyone changed their minds,” she said. “They were clapping, they were saying, ‘Oh my God, you are the pianist we are looking for.’ And then I got the full-ride to Pepperdine.”
Her first year at Pepperdine proved to be difficult academically and emotionally, especially after her grandmother, with whom she was very close, passed away. After taking some time off from college, she returned to earn her music degree, and her career soon took off after that. Pepperdine eventually hired her as its music director, and she became one of the youngest ever to hold an adjunct faculty position at the university.
Cho, a self-described workaholic, was working four days a week at Pepperdine, while also performing at concert tours in Germany, Italy and Australia. She also had the chance to perform at the renowned Carnegie Hall. In addition, Cho traveled the world through her church on short-term mission trips, during which she developed a different calling as a musician—one that led her to a recruiting office last year.
She had long admired the Korean War veterans she met in Korea and the U.S.
“I was honored by their sacrifices and what they did for us as a country,” she said.
Then, after her global travels, she added, “I had opportunities to see other countries where the U.S. helped.” Cho thought it was her turn to give back.
While her job as a supply specialist in Afghanistan isn’t glamorous, Cho said she is right where she wants to be as a musician and member of the Armed Forces.
“I think the experience I had from Pepperdine, and even in Korea, built up and made [me] who I am today,” she said. “I find myself more excited and motivated every day here. I’m doing the same thing, just in a different place for a difference audience—not at Carnegie Hall, but in Kandahar.
This article was originally published in the October 2013 issue of KoreAm Journal.