Face of Defense: Prodigy Trades Music Career for Army Service
By Army Staff Sgt. Ray Kokel
15th Sustainment Brigade
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Sep. 6, 2013 A soldier serving here on her first deployment was a musical prodigy as a child, and walked away from her job as a music director at Pepperdine University to serve in the Army.
Army Spc. Pyungan Cho practices with her church choir on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Aug. 31, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Raymond Kokel
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Army Spc. Pyungan Cho, a logistics specialist assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 15th Sustainment Brigade from Fort Bliss, Texas, was born in Seoul, South Korea, and started playing the piano when she was 5 years old.
“I was first taught at church,” Cho said. “It was a gift I had the opportunity to learn.” When she was 18, her family moved to Los Angeles, and her music career took off.
“I had a great instructor who wanted to take me to Juilliard, but my family insisted that I stay,” she said. “My grandmother had breast cancer, and my family needed my help to take her to medical appointments.”
As it turned out, Cho said, taking care of her grandmother helped her music career. “I would play for her, and she would pray for me,” she explained. “It was her prayers that made everything possible.”
At her parents’ request, Cho auditioned for music professors at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “Here were all these men and women, masters in their craft, judging whether I get a full ride to a higher education or not. I played two pieces of music that I had practiced. When I was done, a professor told me they would call me in two weeks.”
But before she could walk out, a professor handed her a thin music book and asked her to play it for the rest of the group. Cho said she did not know that it was a complicated piece and would be the true test of her abilities. What the professors did not know, she added, was that she had a talent her previous instructor identified as perfect pitch.
“When someone has perfect pitch they can hear a note and recognize it by name,” Cho said. “As I read the book, I could hear the notes playing in my head.”
Although it was the first time she had played that particular work, Cho played every note perfectly. One after another, Cho recalled, the professors gave her more books to play, and their moods changed right before her eyes.
“Suddenly they went from ‘We’ll call you in two weeks’ to ‘You have to come to our school,’” she said.
After the audition, Cho said, she walked outside to where her father was parked.
“When I got inside the car, he told me my grandmother had a vision of me in a cap and gown holding a diploma,” she said. “I told my father how it went, then we got out of the car and prayed on the steps of the school.”
Cho later graduated from Pepperdine with a bachelor’s degree in music. She has played at Carnegie Hall, and she performed in front of thousands of people around the world during her time at Pepperdine. She even earned a job as the youngest music director ever at the university.
But despite her successful career in music, Cho said, she joined the Army because she wanted to give something back to the United States.
“The United States, through the help of its military, built schools and hospitals in South Korea,” she said. “That is why Korea has been able to grow so much more as a nation.”
Cho spends much of her off-duty time here practicing with her church choir and performing for religious services on the base.
“Music is a powerful thing. It can make you happy, and even cry,” she said. “I’ve been so blessed in my life, and it feels great to be a blessing for others through my music.”
Cho said she plans to go to Officer Candidate School and play for the Army Band as she continues her military career.