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Blind pianist earns doctorate with wife’s 9 years of help

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Memorizing music by Chopin, Rachmaninoff and other composers is difficult enough. Not being able to see the music would make it nearly impossible for many people.

When pianist Young-Ho Ahn, blind since birth, graduates from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with his doctor of musical arts degree, the accomplished pianist knows he has walked a more difficult road than most and he knows he also had help from a special person, his wife Young-Keum.

Young-Ho will graduate, along with more than 300 other students, in Southwestern’s 200th commencement exercises Dec. 8 at Travis Avenue Baptist Church near the Fort Worth, Texas, campus.

The graduates also include

— Mark McClelland, an attorney and former Green Beret who fought in the Vietnam War. McClelland has also been a missionary to Guatemala and worked with Sandra Day O’Connor.

— Zbigniew Wierzchowski and Edyta Wierzchowska. They are from Poland and will return there after graduation to minister. Zbigniew is an artist and musician.

— Sue Yang Dubiel of Korea, a soprano soloist who has performed with the Fort Worth Symphony on numerous occasions. She is married to the assistant conductor of the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet.

— Larry and Beth Cochran. A rarity at Southwestern, father and daughter will be graduating together. Larry will receive a diploma studies in theology degree, and Beth will receive a master of arts in Christian education.

Young-Ho, a native of South Korea, attended schools for the blind most of his life. At 17, he became a Christian and began developing an interest in Christian work. He entered Seoul Theological College and Seminary to study piano and soon became a teacher at the United World Mission for the blind. It was there that he was encouraged to study in the United States.

Before Young-Ho could begin memorizing the music for his juries, or presentations, he needed to have it translated into Braille. Some piano scores are available in Braille from the Library of Congress and commercial sources, but much of the translation work has been done by his wife, Young-Keum Ahn.

“Her main job was reading the materials and translating them from books into Braille,” Young-Ho said. That involves meticulously crafting each note, pedal movement, tone, pitch and octave change. Young-Keum has done this for her husband over the past nine years throughout his master’s and doctoral work at Southwestern.

Robert Smith, associate professor of piano and Young-Ho’s instructor, said that Young-Ho has conducted two 20-minute juries each semester. Although some music is reused, Smith estimates that Young-Keum has probably translated more than three hours’ worth of music into Braille.

Young-Keum’s translations are very accurate, Smith said, adding that usually only a few minor corrections had to be made. Not bad, Young-Ho and Smith said, for someone who has no formal music training.

“I don’t think we had more than four or five mistakes in any piece,” Smith said. “Those were where a note was off, or an octave change was missed. That was more fun than a problem.”

Most music composed in the 20th century must be transcribed by Young-Keum.

“The 20th-century music is a lot harder to translate,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s too hard.”

Though Young-Ho’s blindness presents many challenges, Smith said, it is not Young-Ho’s nature to complain.

“Most students struggle to get something memorized, but he can’t play it all if it’s not memorized,” Smith said.

Smith said the challenges faced by Young-Ho were more than just in getting piano pieces ready. Like all Southwestern doctoral students, Young-Ho was expected to write at the doctoral level and to comprehend Turabian style, the writing style used by the seminary.

“His wife was following rules she didn’t really know,” Smith said. “She had to learn what was needed for the papers.”

What some people might call challenges for the Ahns, Young-Ho refers to as inconveniences.

“It is so much more time-consuming compared to other students,” he said. “I have to always take somebody [to the library or labs]; that kind of thing makes it inconvenient.”

But that doesn’t translate into bitterness, he emphasized.

Young-Ho plans to remain in the Fort Worth-Dallas area after graduation.

“I plan on teaching, performing and ministry,” he said. “I will try to do all of them and also continue to work on arrangements of hymns for piano.”

Young-Ho is already at work, serving as minister of music at Dongsan Baptist Church, a Korean congregation, in Grand Prairie, Texas.

“I am opening my door; this year I plan on staying here,” he said. “I could go back to Korea and teach, or stay here. I’m waiting on the Lord to decide.”

Now that he is finished with his doctoral studies, Young-Ho and Young-Keum say they plan on having children and continue to serve God through the rest of their lives.

No matter what the future holds, Young-Keum knows translation work will be part of their ministry.

“I’m not finished,” she said. “There’s still more going on.”
(BP) photos to be to be posted in the BP Photo Library by Dec. 11.

    About the Author

  • Roy Hayhurst

    Roy Hayhurst is director of denominational and public relations services for GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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