Student Story: Theresa Kim | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation
Skip to content Skip to content

Student Story: Founder of International Music Sessions and Piano Instructor Puts Emphasis on Music Education

For Theresa Kim, Founder and Director of International Music Sessions and Teachers College student, her day begins early. First thing in the morning, she tends to her work e-mails, followed by completing assignments from her courses at TC while her mind is fresh. She then moves to the piano where she practices for two hours on her own, a ritual she has kept up since she was four-years-old. Later in the afternoon, she teaches private piano lessons until dinner time. For the rest of the evening, she can usually be found attending benefits to raise funds for her non-profit organization and others.

Theresa puts particular importance on the fundraisers. “We can’t help everybody, but teachers in general, it’s so important to go beyond the kids who are paying you for their lessons and try to do something to help kids who wouldn’t be able to get in front of you otherwise,” she says. Her routine is not entirely conventional for a classically trained pianist, but since attending TC, Theresa aimed to broaden the reach of her musical skills to meet the needs of underserved students.

Originally from Korea, Theresa grew up in New Jersey where she learned to play classical piano from a young age. Her talent took her to The Juilliard School as a Pre-College student and later as an undergraduate and graduate student in Piano Performance. Her proficiency in piano sprouted simultaneously as did her love for teaching. “Growing up, I revered my teachers, whether they be my classroom teachers or piano teachers, I just wanted to be like them. They were great role models for me,” says Theresa.

As a professional pianist, Theresa performed on stages throughout the United States and internationally both as a soloist and as part of an orchestra, joining up with conductors like Jahja Link, Zdenek Macal, Mariusz Smolij, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Seoul University National Orchestra and The Juilliard Orchestra to name a few.

Performing was never enough for Theresa, and she continued to nurture her talent for teaching through the years. “At that point I started to think about what kind of career path I wanted to take and I turned again to teaching, which was my first aspiration. I decided a degree in music education would be essential for that,” says Theresa.

By 2006, Theresa earned an Ed.M. in Music Education from Teachers College and 10 years later, she returned to TC to complete an Ed.D. in Music Education. “I thought I was done once I got my Ed.M. and then I taught a lot in various schools and privately,” said Theresa. “Five years ago I decided to start my own summer festival which required so much more than I knew I was getting into. Everything from curriculum development to fundraising and personnel management. A big part of it also was learning about education theory, so I thought that a doctorate in that area would be once again helpful.”

Theresa is now in the process of researching and writing her dissertation, a phase she is excited about. Her work looks at ex-musicians who have successfully transferred into unrelated career fields. “I’m looking for the positive traits that musicians may be transferring and developing in their musical training that’s not on their instrument. It’s been really fascinating,” she says.

Her real passion, however, is International Music Sessions (IMS), a summer festival she founded five years ago. Summer is typically a slow season for teachers and musicians, and Theresa was struck with the idea to use this opportunity to employ her colleagues while teaching kids. “From the get-go it was really important for me to make this accessible for underprivileged kids. When I thought about which population to serve, I thought, music is such a universal language, it would be perfect if we could work with international students from areas of conflict,” says Theresa.

The two week festival, which is held in East Hampton and La Jolla, California, brings students together from across the U.S. with students from countries including Afghanistan, Tunisia, Mexico, Bolivia and Israel. Theresa says, “There’s so much conflict in the world right now, and you hear so much in the news about places where the education infrastructure is disrupted or nonexistent or kids who might get a little taste of music when NGOs come in, but they’re not getting actual traction with their education.”

The IMS faculty attend fundraisers to fund not only the program but to include international students in a possibly life changing experience. “We had a student from Kenya [this year] who lives in the slums of Nairobi who never imagined ending up in the Hamptons, Long Island. Sometimes I wonder if it’s overwhelming for them. As an educator, I trust that showing them what’s possible is opening their minds. That’s really what we’re trying to do with them in the two weeks,” she said.

While part of the mission of IMS is to develop musical abilities, it also demonstrates to students with little exposure to music that they, too, can bring forth their own unique voice to music. Theresa regards the instructors in the program as peers but also as fellow global citizens. “They really embody this mission. One of the biggest achievements is that we make every child feel cared for. That’s something that we hear back constantly, because the faculty are making them feel good,” she says.

While Theresa is in charge of running the program, she has little time to teach save for a short career development seminar for older students where she discusses the more practical elements of a career in music. Her next goal is to to expand IMS into a four week program and possibly perform with the faculty in the home countries of some of their international alumni. “We get to follow through with some of the alumni we’ve worked with and they’d get to show us around their school and their home and that would make them really happy. That’s something we’d love to do this year and coming,” she says.

Her part in academia will continue, she claims, as she hopes to teach career development and arts leadership at the university level. “I think it’s a really important topic nowadays because there are expert teachers in all fields of music now. I think piecing all of that together and guiding students into that phase after school, which is so scary for musicians, [is important],” says Theresa of the unstructured job market for musicians. However far her profession takes her, music and teaching will remain at the core of her work.

Picture of Nori KatoNori Kato is a Staff Writer and Social Media Coordinator for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.

Recent Stories