Like most preschoolers, 3-year-old Josephine Lee put up a tussle
when mom sat her down to practice the piano and violin.
But because their little girl showed such promise and passion
for music, her South Korean mom and North Korean-born minister dad
dug in their heels and pressed the practice issue.
Lee grew up in Chicago and took her family's creed of hard work
and harmony all around the globe. She was conducting her own choir
by the time she was 15 and, at 23, became the youngest artistic
director in the five-decade history of the Chicago Children's
Choir, where she has earned artistic accolades that soar off the
"From my mother, I got my passion for music. From my father,
love of community," she says. "Music has been my religion."
In 2006 the Chicago Tribune named Lee "Chicagoan of the Year in
the Arts" and last year, she took the 3Arts Artist Award, for
distinctive work in music, theater and visual arts. The same year,
Lee was named one of the Anti-Defamation League's "Rising
Stars-Women 40 and under defining the future." The year before
that, the Union League Club of Chicago designated her one of its
Since Lee took the reins of the Chicago Children's Choir 10
years ago, the concert choir has performed for dignitaries ranging
from Bill and Hillary Clinton to the Dalai Lama. This summer, the
choir sang for Beyoncé prior to trips to Argentina and Uruguay. The
choir took the stage on the 2007 PBS series "From the Top: Live
from Carnegie Hall," and landed a Chicago Midwest Emmy Award for
the 2008 documentary "Songs on the Road to Freedom," named after
The list goes on and on.
Songs of the Season
Make plans to attend the Chicago
Children's Choir Concert Choir's annual concert, which includes
masterpieces by Copland, Elgar and Handel, world music from
Bulgaria, the Philippines and South Africa, a Chanukah Suite and a
contemporary gospel work by Richard Smallwood
Sitting across from her in the transformed warehouse in the
Fulton Market District in the West Loop where Lee, now 34, her
husband Kevin and their 21-month-old son Emerson have made their
home, you would never dream you were sharing space with such an
Talking about the choir's new CD, "Holiday Harmony," in a
sofa-framed conversation area, framed by white brick walls and
black-slat floors, the small willowy Lee comes off as fresh and
unpretentious. Lee speaks in a young Midwest vernacular, not the
sort of pompous art-speak you might expect to hear from someone in
It was surreal, says Lee, wearing shorts and a tank top, to
record holiday carols, and then come out of the studio to Chicago's
warm summer streets. She cuts short a cell phone call to Kevin, the
principal of his own design, branding and marketing company, whom
she met backstage at Cirque du Soleil nearly 10 years ago. Pushing
a wisp of long black hair from her face, she pivots and shakes her
head at her son, who is fixating on the photographer's
Emerson, who spends most of every day with this classically
trained pianist, conductor, arranger and producer, astounds his mom
with what appears to be a predisposition toward pop.
"I see him doing these hip-hop moves and I wonder where that
comes from," she says with a laugh as light as a choral bell.
The layers of Lee unfold. Musical prodigy. Globe-trotting
maestra. Mom. Marriage partner. Mentor. Messenger of peace and
She is also a master at drawing out talent in kids. The Chicago
Children's Choir is a multicultural group founded in Hyde Park in
1956 by the late Rev. Christopher Moore. About 2,800 children in 45
metro schools participate in the choir program during the school
day and eight neighborhood choirs take part after school. A select
90 make up the concert choir, which collaborates regularly with
choral, orchestral, opera, theater and dance organizations,
including the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Symphony
This summer, between naps and outings to parks with Emerson, Lee
was busy being chorus master for the Lyric Opera of Chicago's
Three weeks a year, Lee is one of 10 harried parents shepherding
50 kids through foreign realms, shaping not only their vocal
chords, but their hearts and values.
"It's rigorous," she says. "It's 24/7."
The return? She sees young people learning to set boundaries for
themselves, focus on their goals and respect adults.
And she gets to be there when kids discover something living
deep within themselves. On the "Freedom Tour" in 2007, for
instance, the concert choir sang at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis,
Tenn., where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and at the
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four girls
were burned to death by fires set in 1963 race riots. Lee says
she'll never forget the impact reflected in the kids' eyes when
they visited a slave museum and sang for folks in the FEMA trailer
neighborhoods of New Orleans.
"It's one thing to read about history," she says. "It's another
thing to experience it together through song."
Lee's choral journeys link her to her own legacy. Her late
father was born and married in Pyongyang. After the Korean War
scattered the family, he moved to Chicago, where he met Lee's
It was her parents' dream that she would return to Korea and in
some way work to bring the two halves of their homeland back
A trip to the divided nation of Korea was right in tune with a
troupe dedicated to promoting peace and tolerance. In the summer of
2008, Lee and the choir became the first non-Korean civilians at
the Yeolsei Observation Platform in the demilitarized zone, one of
the most heavily armed places on Earth.
"The Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas resounded with
a beautiful Korean melody praying for peace Friday," the Korean
Teens in the choir tied ribbons to a dividing fence and sang "We
Dream of Reunification" (also called the Reunification or Peace
Song), performing together with the Seoul Metropolitan Youth Choir
at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Seoul.
"I had a very ambiguous feeling. The DMZ is all about division,
but it was so beautiful, untouched and immaculate," Tim
Geistlinger, a 17-year-old tenor, told the Korean Times.
It was a mission of world citizenship, Lee says.
"Music is a vehicle by which we communicate, cross cultural
barriers and begin the process of living harmoniously,'' she told
Korean reporters at the time. "It's through children you make
change because they are the future."
And what about the musical prospects of her own children? Lee
reveals that she is expecting a daughter, due this winter. Will she
insist Emerson and his little sister devote themselves to
That depends on whether they show enough passion and talent, she
answers. Josephine Lee the Mom then lifts the miniature frying pan
Emerson is using to perform a percussion solo and unceremoniously
stuffs it in her big, shiny, black purse.
"Not every kid has the passion to be a performer," Lee says.
"It's fine to be a music appreciator, too. If we created a world
full of performers, music would be kind of a self-serving art form,
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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