She thanks God for only giving her 4 fingersLee Hee-ah looks like an average 19-year-old who loves playing the piano. She also creates beautiful melodies despite having only two fingers on each hand and no legs below the knees.
Posing with her mother, Woo Kap-sun, Ms. Lee says, “I love to have my picture taken. I guess I was born to be on stage.” Then she launches into Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu.” Indeed, this young woman shines brightest when her hands are touching the keyboard.
“Look at her. She just enjoys playing the piano so much,” says her mother. “I guess God gives at least one talent to everyone.”
Ms. Woo’s eyes get teary when it comes to her husband and Ms. Lee’s father, Lee Un-bong, who died in 2000. Mr. Lee seriously injured his back while fighting communist guerrillas in 1967 as an army artillery officer. The injury took 10 years to heal, but it brought him together with the love of his life, Ms. Woo, who was a nurse at the hospital. The couple tied the knot in 1977. Their daughter was born eight years later.
Ms. Woo never thought that her disabled daughter would ever become a talented pianist. But seeing the girl barely holding a pencil with her four weak fingers, her mother decided to teach her piano. She figured that tapping the keys might help strengthen the girl’s fingers. Ms. Lee was 6 years old at the time.
“Every single day, my fingers were practically bleeding,” Ms. Lee says. “I badgered Mom, crying, asking if there was any way that I could quit playing the piano. I used to hate Mom back then, but now I’m so grateful.”
At first, playing the piano wasn’t easy; it took Ms. Lee six months just to be able to produce a sound from striking the keys. The effort consumed Ms. Woo as well. “Over and over, I thought I wanted to quit everything,” she says. “But as time went by, I got a sense that Hee-ah had talent.”
Her premonition was right. In 1992, her daughter earned the top prize in a piano contest, in which she performed “Silvery Waves” by Addison Wyman. After the contest, the jurors were stunned to discover her disability, as Ms. Lee had not disclosed it for fear of being disqualified before the recital. The performance earned her a great deal of recognition and started her on the path to worldwide renown.
On top of her obstacles from birth, Ms. Lee encountered another problem in 1999. After hitting her head in a minor accident, the young pianist began to avoid the piano. But it wasn’t long before she was back at the keys; watching Raoul Sosa, a Canadian pianist with one hand, inspired her. Day and night, Ms. Lee’s fingers were once again glued to the ivories.
Today, Ms. Lee is an acclaimed musician, whose concerts are complete with curtain calls from enchanted audiences. The new year will be busier than ever for Ms. Lee, packed with round-the-world tours. Departing for California early next month, she will perform concerts across the United States until March, before moving on to Canada. In April, she returns to Asia to play in Japan. A European tour follows in July.
In her autobiography “A Four-Fingered Pianist: Hee-ah’s Diary,” published in October, she writes: “I thank God for giving me only two fingers on each hand. Come to think of it, my hands are precious treasures.”
by Kim Dong-sub