When Bruce Cho came to Minnesota with his family, he couldn't speak any English except for "hello" and "how are you."
His first two years were difficult as he tried to find his way in the unfamiliar surroundings of a new country and new school. But he had the universal language of music.
"Music is such a great thing," the young musician said. "Music helps me find more new friends. Music is my life."
It was music that brought Bruce Cho to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea. He'd been showing promise as a clarinetist, and his parents wanted him to have a better music education in a larger country. They chose to settle in Apple Valley instead of a city with a big Korean population, so that he'd make American friends and learn English much faster.
Bruce Cho has been playing the clarinet since he was in the third grade. Before the clarinet, though, he tried the piano and violin, but he didn't care much for either. His mother, a piano teacher, got him a different instrument.
"At the time I didn't know what a clarinet was," he remembered. "But somehow I could just make sounds right away. It was amazing. I really liked the way it looked and the way it sounded. I just fell in love with the clarinet."
Bruce Cho is playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra during this week's Young People's Concerts. The opportunity to play with the orchestra came after winning the 2007 Young People's Symphony Concert Association competition.
Cho received word last Friday that he won an even more important competition: admission to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, one of the most selective music schools in the world. Although he had auditioned for other schools, going to Curtis had always been his goal. It came after a lot of hard work, including some very intensive practicing over Christmas break.
"I feel bad that I didn't get a chance to have more time with my family," he said. "I was stuck in the basement for two weeks and I just practiced for nine to ten hours every day. I felt like I almost killed myself, but I think it paid off because I got into the school I wanted."
Minnesota Orchestra's principal clarinetist Burt Hara has been Bruce Cho's teacher for the past two years. He said Cho has a rare combination of a personal voice and command of his instrument. Hara added that his student also has a really phenomenal work ethic. That dedication to hard work is something Hara said is often the missing piece of the puzzle for talented young musicians hoping to make it in the classical music world.
"You cannot do it without the natural talent," Hara said. "But you also have to put in the work and be smart about the decisions you make. It really takes the whole package. Bruce does possess those qualities and I think he does have a very bright future."
Bruce Cho's dedication to the clarinet has been an inspiration to many of his classmates at Apple Valley High School. There he's known by his Korean name, Gun-He. Carson King-Fournier is a junior trombone player who also has ambitions to be a professional musician.
"What I try to do sometimes is emulate Gun-He when I'm playing," he said. "It's like I had a little bracelet reading, 'What would Gun-He do?' He's really a role model for everyone. He called me on Friday and said he got into the Curtis Institute of Music. That was inspiring and I practiced three hours a day for the rest of the weekend."
Now that his college auditions are over, and he's achieved his dream of getting into Curtis, Gun-He "Bruce" Cho said he can relax a bit. However, the hard work will only continue for the determined young clarinetist.
"I'm not going to stop here," he said. "I'm going to keep moving on, because this is not the end of my goals. There are a thousand other goals I want to achieve. So it's just practice, practice."
Bruce Cho moves to Philadelphia this fall to begin his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music.
By his junior year Cho said he expects to start trying out for his dream of a clarinet position with a professional symphony orchestra.