Jungwoo Ryoo was 8 years old when his parents left the South Korean city of Daegu to move to the countryside, where his father owned an orchard. Moving meant that Ryoo had to give up the piano lessons he loved: In the country, there were no piano teachers, let alone pianos. When his family moved back to Daegu six years later, academic pressure was such that Ryoo was too busy for the piano. He came to the U.S. for college, and after getting a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Kansas, Ryoo embarked on the academic path, balancing career with family—he has three sons, Hojin ’21 IST, Eugene ’22 IST (co-founder of the Willard Building Band, featured in our May/June issue), and high school senior Youngjin.
Ryoo, who worked as an IST professor at Penn State Altoona before being named chancellor at Penn State DuBois in January, came back to the piano only in his late 40s. “Call it a midlife crisis, but I thought, ‘If I don’t do this, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life,” Ryoo says. He signed up with his sons’ piano teacher, Anne Marie Hildebrandt, and set himself an ambitious first assignment: Mastering Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor. “My teacher told me, and I knew this, that being an adult learner, I may never become a professional pianist—but that didn’t matter to me. My goal is to enjoy the music and be able to really perform well in front of an audience, even if I am an amateur,” he says.
Two years and countless hours of practice later, Ryoo finally performed the nocturne. In the time since, he’s tackled many other demanding pieces, including Beethoven’s Sonata “Pathétique,” Claude Debussy’s Arabesque, and another Chopin nocturne. Ryoo plays every day: He has both an upright and a grand piano in his house, and he keeps a digital keyboard in his office. He sings, too: On his YouTube channel, Ryoo and his friend Rick Kazman, a professor at the University of Hawaii, perform harmonized duets of popular songs.