Cello Lessons

The Path to Music

How do you become a musician?

When I was growing up, practice was a battle of wills between my mom and me. She won some battles; I almost won sometimes. I began playing cello primarily because I knew I would never be better than my sister at violin. She worked harder- a lot harder – so she was always going to be better. I wasn’t really happy about practicing. In my defense, I was in first grade, so … yeah, Mom won.

Leo’s Student Jacob earned his Songbird Wristband!

Leo’s Student Jacob earned his Songbird Wristband!

I played cello throughout elementary and middle school, but I didn’t actually enjoy playing until I had a group of friends who played instruments too. We played in quartets and played chamber music together, and finally, around the same time, Mom’s perseverance started to pay off. I started to enjoy because, finally, it started sounding good, and I was having fun. I continued to play throughout high school and college, but it never occurred to me to pursue it as a career.

After college, I spent a few years in the military, and when I returned to Fresno, I reconnected with my high school orchestra teacher, John Morrice, who invited me to join a community orchestra. The timing of his offer was, shall we say, inconvenient. I had inadvertently broken my cello, and it was still being repaired. The loaner cello I had was really, really, really bad. But I ended up playing in the orchestra, and this really, really, really bad cello turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

My stand partner in the orchestra was an older gentleman named Jim Warwick. Jim was an emeritus professor of philosophy from the University of Colorado. He was a good cellist and a man with a very giving nature. After a few months of watching and listening to me play, he gifted me his cello with one single caveat: “If you take further studies in music, I will gift you my cello.”


“It’s been 10 years since Jim gifted me his cello,

and the course of my life changed in

unexpected ways”

Leo and Chris with Anthony Melchiorri, host of Travel Channels Hotel Impossible

Leo and Chris with Anthony Melchiorri, host of Travel Channels Hotel Impossible

This was not a small gesture. Jim’s cello was an award-winning instrument and had tremendous value. Cellos of this type routinely sell for the same price as mid-level luxury vehicles, without the depreciation. Unlike cars, cellos go up in value as they got older. When I met Jim, what I did not know was that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and he wanted his cello to be used to further a young cellist’s career. In my case, it would start my career. And to accept his gift, I went back to school and got a master’s degree in music from California State University, Fresno.

It’s been 10 years since Jim gifted me his cello, and the course of my life changed in unexpected ways. I began teaching music privately out of my home, having around 40 private students. At the same time, I invited other teachers to teach siblings of my students in the other rooms of my house. About four years ago, my ex-fiancée introduced me to Christopher Scherer. Our partnership would eventually lead to the foundation of the United Conservatory of Music, Fresno. This past January we had about 90 students; by the end of this year, we will have well over 300.

Yes I did give my mom a hard time about practicing- obviously I’m not angry about it! Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have considered being a musician, but today, not only do I teach in a wonderful school, I get to work in a community of music teachers in Fresno. Music has always been here before, and it will be after me. I really never expected to be a musician, let alone encourage others to be a musicians. But at UCM we are doing just that, hiring musicians to be teachers, teaching the next generation of patrons(!), and with a few of those students … musicians … although their path to music may be more surprising than they imagined.


-Leo Kim