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If you'd told Michelle Nam in early November that she was on the cusp of something great, the fourth-year piano major would have laughed you out of the Schulich Music Building. Beleaguered by eye infections that made practising impossible, inundated with mid-term coursework and still reeling from a confidence-shaking run of competition disappointments, the South Korean-born Nam didn't exactly love her chances in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Standard Life competition for which she was preparing.
Yet, only a few weeks later this 21- year-old pianist found a way to impress maestro Kent Nagano and his fellow judges so entirely that, on Nov. 18, she was named the competition's most outstanding performer, an honour that comes with $11,000 in scholarships, the privilege of sitting in for a concert with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the chance to record a demonstration CD in a Radio Canada studio.
For Nam, who started playing at the age of five in a music academy in Seoul, this resonating result was especially gratifying after the persistent doubts and nagging problems she'd lived with leading up to the competition.
"I really felt depressed and I had lost most of my confidence," she admits, explaining she'd enjoyed a lot of competitive success as an under-18 performer but had begun to doubt herself after some disappointing showings in the 18-and-over tier. "When I was young, I won a lot of competitions but when you get older it's a different level. It was a big challenge for me to [succeed at] this level."
To make matters worse, not long before the competition Nam contracted an eye infection that shortened her practice schedule by a week. "On Halloween, I went out with my friends and then I slept with my contact lens in," she said. "I couldn't see anything out of my left eye. Then it moved to the right. I couldn't see for a week and I couldn't practise."
The support and instruction she received from her musical mentor, Performance Prof Richard Raymond, also contributed to her success. "He trusted me and believed in me and encouraged me to stand on my own," she said, adding that the opportunity to work with Raymond was what drew her to McGill in the first place.
"In performance, the teacher is a very important reason to choose a school. I had a master class with Richard Raymond and he suggested that I study with him. He's a special artist. He has so much passion."
Evidently passionate about classical music herself, Nam said she doesn't limit her listening likes to the works of great composers but has a sympathetic ear for jazz and pop as well. And though she's clearly at home on the piano bench, she swears she's just as happy playing online Battle Tetris, tearing it up at the club or belting out Korean pop tunes at her homeland's venerable export, the Karaoke bar.
Nam said she's not by nature competitive. "I hate competition because you can't really compare people's musical artistry and it's really stressful," she said. On the other hand, playing in front of audiences that don't include judging panels is something she said she's always loved. She's looking forward to playing with the MSO. "I'm very excited. They'll be there to listen to me, not to judge me."