Min Kym | 'The instrument just seemed to complete my life'

Min Kym | 'The instrument just seemed to complete my life'

Min Kym and I are looking closely at a black and white photograph, taken when she was seven years old. A tiny child in white socks, she is playing the quarter-size violin tucked under her chin with the demeanour of a virtuoso. “I’m playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto,” says Kym, after studying the position of her hands.

Born in South Korea, Min Kym, now an elegant and engaging woman in her late thirties, was a child prodigy. As she records in the first half of her intense and elegiac memoir, Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung (April, Viking), she began playing the violin at the age of six; her family had recently relocated to the UK for her father to take up a mechanical engineer post. Kym’s mother, a child of the Korean War and a classical music lover, initially hoped violin lessons would keep her younger daughter quiet. “I was kicking my heels, watching my sister play the piano and I think I was being a bit of a pain, so my Mum said: ‘Why don’t you learn something as well?’”

Her first lesson was life-changing. “People talk about that first rush. I’ll never forget the first time I picked up a violin. I didn’t realise it then, but what I was feeling was love.” For a Korean child, trying to adjust to an alien culture, thousands of miles from the bulk of her family, the violin provided a kind of anchor. “The instrument just seemed to complete my life,” she recalls.

The rapidity of Kym’s progress was extraordinary. She passed Grade 2 after eight weeks of playing, and a month later, Grade 4 with the highest mark in the country. At seven, she became the youngest ever pupil at the Purcell School of Music. Her family began to make sacrifices in order to support her fledgling career. “Already it was being made very clear to me, what they thought I was, what they thought I’d become.” With the obedience and conformity traditionally expected of a Korean child, Kym followed the path that was being laid out for her. Occasionally, as Kym’s violin increasingly did her talking for her, a warning note would sound: “I would hear the words ‘child prodigy’ said of me all the time, and sometimes I used to ponder: What does that mean? I was aware that it was causing a sort of distance.”

At the age of 11 she won her first major international competition, and despite yearning for “a normality that was denied me”, her teens brought increasing amounts of foreign travel as she gave recitals around the world. “Min the violinist getting ahead... Min the person going nowhere,” she writes of this time, when a starry career as a solo performer and recording artist beckoned.

Then, at the age of 21, Kym fell in love. Having played a succession of increasingly fine violins throughout her early career, she was offered the chance to buy a 1696 Stradivarius. Gone contains a wealth of fascinating detail about violin anatomy and what makes Stradivarius violins so special - and so often the chosen instruments of virtuoso soloists. “The sound has a purity and an open, bell-like quality. When you play a Stradivarius, there’s this glow, this whoosh around the note which is unmistakable,” Kym tells me.

Devastating insight

Each Stradivarius violin also has its own distinct personality. And the 1696 Strad that Kym played that day felt destined for her from the beginning. “The instant I drew the first breath with my bow, I knew,” she writes. “Now I held the violin that would be the key to my art, that would will me to produce all that I could produce...this was marriage till death do us part.” It was like meeting her soulmate. “It was quite small, with narrow shoulders. For me that was perfect, because I don’t have terribly big hands. Physically my violin and I were just so compatible; an incredible fit. And this hypnotic, silken sound came from the top register and I just fell in love with it straight away.”

The violin cost £450,000. In order to buy it, Kym remortgaged her flat and took out a huge loan. It was another three years before she found the perfect bow to go with it. For the next 10 years, she and her violin played big concert venues around the world. Aware of the instrument’s inherent sensitivity and fragility, Kym hated to let it out of her sight, even briefly, and not only because of its value. “All loved violins sound beautiful to their owners, just like every baby is beautiful to every mother,” she writes.

And then in November 2010, with Sony about to release Kym’s recording of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, calamity struck. Drinking tea in a café at Euston station, Kym allowed her boyfriend at the time - the unhealthy control he had over her is evident in the book - to persuade her to unhook her violin from its customary position, with its strap wound securely around her legs, and move it to the side with the rest of their luggage. “I was fed up... I was in a bad mood and he wore me down,” Kym remembers.

Unbeknown to them, professional thieves were circling. Moments later, the violin had gone. The title of Kym’s memoir refers both to this dreadful moment and to its far-reaching consequences, not only for her career but for her state of mind and sense of identity. “There were fathoms beneath me, cold and dark,” she writes. Following the loss of her violin, Kym entered a period of deep mourning, shutting herself in her room, wearing black clothes and expunging music from her life. When the theft hit the headlines, the press reports compounded her agony by making light of it: “A violin worth more than £1m was stolen from a brilliant musician when she stopped for a £2.95 sandwich,” as the Daily Mail put it. As Kym relives the moment of the theft seven years later, her eyes brim with tears. To this day, she is haunted by dreams of her lost violin.

Devastating insight

The second half of Gone reveals both the fate of her Stradivarius and how its owner recovered from the trauma of losing her soulmate. The process was an immensely painful one, but with the hiatus in her career, Kym was able - for the first time ever - to properly reflect on her life to date: her strange, even dysfunctional childhood (“What is a child prodigy? A means to another’s end”), her long-concealed eating disorder, and the nature of her former boyfriend’s control over her. “The violin was a crutch. It was the thing that supported me, and once it was gone, I realised that I’d almost built my life on sand,” she says, with devastating insight.

In time, Kym started to enjoy music. Eventually she played again; at first “just for the love of playing”. She also found a new partner, an Amati: a “Sleeping Beauty” of a violin which had lain unplayed for 100 years. She is preparing to relaunch her solo career, and to coincide with the publication of Gone, a soundtrack will be released by Warner Classics on Spotify and Apple Music, featuring recordings from an tape made when Kym was only 11, to the Brahms Concerto recorded for Sony.

Writing Gone has been a healing experience, Kym tells me. “It took me such a long time, but eventually I discovered a voice that the violin had completely taken over. This supressed, repressed person came out. But the stronger that person became, the more I realised I needed to talk about this. And now I’m talking to everyone.”