Award-Winning Pianists Inspire Their Students at SMU

Hyae-jin Hwang

She’s won the top prizes at national and international piano competitions, but for this music educator at SMU, nothing is more exciting and rewarding than being in the classroom with her students.

Hyae-jin Hwang, lecturer in piano pedagogy and the director of SMU’s piano preparatory department, was born and raised in South Korea, where she found joy in singing with her music-loving family. She chose piano as an instrument because her family had an old upright. 

“I started just for fun, not knowing that piano would become my lifelong devotion and commitment,” she said.

Hwang first came to the United States to study music in high school as an exchange student. She returned to South Korea for a year before traveling back to the United States to study with Michael Baron at Florida Gulf Coast University. After graduation, Hwang continued to the University of Michigan to study piano pedagogy and performance, where she trained with her mentor Joanne Smith and earned master’s and doctoral degrees.

While a student, Hwang won top prizes at the Los Angeles Liszt International Competition and Music Teachers National Association Competitions. She performed in the Royal Palace of Caserta, Italy, with the Ars Flores Symphony, and in Carnegie Hall as a winner of the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition. Hwang also made a recording of William Horne’s Bagatelles for Alto Saxophone and Piano, which was released after a long delay in 2021.

Hwang has focused her energies since graduation on the education of young musicians. 

“Once I started studying pedagogy at the University of Michigan, I started to see this whole new world of teaching, the art of teaching,” she said. “I immediately felt the connection with children. … Ever since then, my heart is always set on working with children.”

At SMU, Hwang works with gifted young teachers pursuing their master’s degrees, graduate and undergraduate students, and grade-schoolers in the piano preparatory program, who she endeavors to teach more than how to become better musicians.

“We ask them to demonstrate a sense of time manage skills and discipline, perseverance, and responsibility, which are very important life lessons to learn,” she said. “(Performing publicly) requires a lot of preparation and self-knowledge and mind control.” 

Hwang explained that she’s prouder of her students and their achievements than of her own. The list of her students’ accolades includes top prizes at the Carmel Klavier International Competition, Dallas Piano Solo Competition, University of Texas Arlington Fall Piano Contest, Youth Piano Duo Competition, Charleston International Music Competition, Settenote Online Piano International Competition, and American Protégé International Piano and String Competition.

“I miss performing,” Hwang said. “I miss my audience. However, it’s just such a huge joy to work with my students. My long-term goal is to be remembered as a teacher who really cared and helped my students, just like how I remember my own teachers.”

Catharine Lysinger

As a 9-year-old growing up in Preston Hollow, Catharine Lysinger remembers performing on a piano in the basement at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. Years later, the room where she performed became one of her first offices.

“Coming back here and being hired and working here was just really an amazing full circle for me,” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I’d get to teach here.”

Now in her 20th year at SMU, Lysinger is a professor of practice at the Meadows School. Her colleagues at the Texas Music Teachers Association named her pre-collegiate teacher of the year in 2014, and she was nominated for the SMU Provost’s Teaching Recognition Award in both 2013 and 2017 in recognition of her commitment to excellence and dedication to teaching.

Lysinger is grateful for the performance opportunities that have come with her position at SMU. Highlights are the Brancaleoni Festival in Italy, where she was on the inaugural faculty and has taught since 2016, as well as masterclasses and a recital at the Tianjin Conservatory and East China Normal University in Shanghai, China.

Lysinger has earned numerous accolades for her piano performances, including first prizes in the Music Teachers National Association National Young Artist Competition and the Wideman International Piano Competition. She credits those wins largely to instruction she received from her mentor, University of Houston professor Nancy Weems. 

“(Without her guidance,) I didn’t have the vision to even enter it or prepare for something like that or how to refine that performance,” Lysinger said.

Lysinger reimagined the education of young pianists in the piano preparatory department at SMU when she came to the university in 2004. She “reversed everything,” so students who had moved as a group through material were freed to learn at their own pace.

Many of Lysinger’s graduates have built studios, and some families have stayed in the program for as long as a decade. 

But the achievements Lysinger is proudest of are those of her own children, Abby and Zach, both of whom plan to pursue careers in music. 

“You can do it all, and your children will be OK,” she said.

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