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‘A very talented guy’: Teen pianist in Chicago gets ready to up his game at Juilliard

Joshua Mhoon, a Whitney Young senior, is to study with renowned keyboardist Emanuel Ax.

Joshua Mhoon, 17, practices piano last week at his home. He has been accepted to Juilliard and is raising money for his expenses at the famed New York school.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

How exceptional a young classical pianist is Joshua Mhoon? Pretty darn exceptional.

Consider that the senior at the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in the West Loop applied to seven of the top music schools in the United States, and not only was he accepted at all of them, he received scholarships from each.

“He is a very talented guy,” said James Giles, a professor of piano at Northwestern University who has been his private teacher for three years. “He has a lot of things going for him musically and intellectually. So, he’s able to play at a very high level.”

Mhoon, who will be 18 in July, ultimately picked the famed Juilliard School in New York. He will be a student of Emanuel Ax, who just happens to be a frequent musical partner of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and one of this country’s most respected concert keyboardists.

But there is one hitch. His total expenses for the first year, including tuition, housing and fees, will be $79,000, and his scholarship only covers $42,000 of that. Undeterred, he and his family launched a GoFundMe page that as of Sunday had raised $20,170 toward a goal of $34,000. (He has other scholarships that will cover the remaining difference.)

If all works out, and he is sure it will, he begins school on Aug. 24.

Urged by his mother to take music lessons at age 8, Joshua Mhoon at first favored the guitar, but “my hands were too small to fit around the neck.”
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mhoon’s success is all the more impressive considering he was mislabeled with learning disabilities during elementary school, but it was more a question of boredom. When he tested and was accepted for middle school at the Quest Academy in Palatine for gifted students, it turned out his IQ was high enough to gain him membership in Mensa International.

Though he had little interest at the time, Mhoon began taking music lessons when he was 8 at the Steckman Studio of Music in Oak Park. “My mom,” he said, “wanted me to take any kind of music lessons just for the benefits mentally, and I really wanted to play guitar because that’s what second-graders thought was cool back then, but when I went in my hands were too small to fit around the neck of a guitar.”

Mhoon didn’t want to play the drums, so he settled on the piano more or less by default, and he quickly showed an aptitude. “I don’t really remember if I immediately liked it, but it was kind of fun to mess around with my fingers,” he said. In elementary school, he had wanted to be variously a sports star, lawyer (after reading James Patterson) or president of the United States. But the turning point came in middle school when he began studying with a tough new teacher, Brenda Huang in Palatine, and came to see the piano as a potential career.

“She was on me,” he said, “and then I realized, ‘You know what, I like this a lot.’ Because she made me a lot better really quickly, and I was impressing myself. So, I decided, shoot, this has been the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had.”

At that point, he became obsessed with becoming a classical musician. He began listening to it regularly and practicing longer. At the same time, he learned Franz Liszt’s technically tricky concert étude, “Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes),” which he performed for three years, including an appearance when he was 12 on WFMT-FM (98.7) “Introductions.” (He was featured May 1 on the show a second time.)

He also used it to win admission to the Allianz Junior Music Camp in Vienna. The November 2015 event included a masterclass with famed pianist Lang Lang, whom he met backstage earlier that year after a recital at the Lyric Opera House. He was later chosen as one of 11 pianists in the Lang Lang International Music Foundation’s 2020-22 Young Scholars program.

As part of the application process to Juilliard, Mhoon’s dream school since his early teens, he had to prepare a one-hour performance video. He played selections by J.S. Bach and Beethoven as well as a 12-minute piano transcription of a suite from Stravinsky’s beloved 1910 ballet, “The Firebird.”

“It’s a monster,” he said of the suite. “Right now, it’s impossible for me to get every note right. But I prefer to miss a couple of notes and keep the artistic integrity rather than play like a robot and try to hit every note.”

After two rounds of auditions, which were done virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mhoon was one of just 15 piano students accepted. The big surprise for him was being paired with Ax, who called Giles before the admission decisions were announced.

“He just said that he liked Joshua’s audition,” Giles said, “and if Joshua came to Juilliard he would be very interested in teaching him, which is obviously a great tribute because Manny doesn’t have many students. He’s a very busy concert pianist.”

Unlike some aspiring pianists, Mhoon is not singularly focused on music. One of his surprising interests is the stock market. He has been trading securities for seven years, a pursuit he started after a summer course at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. “I love it,” he said. “I tend to be lucky, and I hold that luck when I’m investing.”

Mhoon’s favorite touring pianists from past and present are Vladimir Horowitz, Maurizio Pollini, Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Some day, he hopes his name will rank beside those keyboard stars. “I would love,” he said, “to be THE pianist of my generation.”

Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago freelance writer.