South Charlotte

Pianist grew up hiding her passion

If you met music teacher Miyoung Kim Dempsey or saw her music school, Music for All, in Cotswold Village Shops, you'd know how passionately she believes in music.

What you wouldn't know is why.

Growing up in Seoul, South Korea, Dempsey had to keep her passion for music hidden.

Her father, who owned a plastics factory, had been embarrassed by his middle school choir teacher for being tone-deaf, so he hated music. Dempsey's mother, however, loved it.

"From the time she got up to the time we went to sleep, she was singing. She had that perfect rhythm," said Dempsey, 34. "My dad always asked my mom to stop singing."

So when Dempsey asked to take piano lessons, her father said no.

But Dempsey's mother ran her own business, a deli, so she secretly funded Dempsey's lessons. Every afternoon, Dempsey would take the city bus to her music school, and every evening she would hide her piano books.

"It was an adventure every day," said Dempsey. "It was risky at the time, but I knew I couldn't stop. The more he said no to me, the more I wanted to play."

Years down the road, her father found out and finally bought her a piano.

But he didn't support the arts as a career, which is exactly what Dempsey wanted.

Dempsey went to college and majored in modern dance and Korean traditional dance. She paid her own way by giving piano lessons.

"(To my dad), dance was even worse than music," said Dempsey. "It taught me to save money and how to stretch my budget and survive."

After she was finished with school, Dempsey wanted to see the world. She lived in New York, Alaska, Hawaii, South Carolina, and then finally landed in Charlotte, where she embarked on her next adventure: Music for All, which opened in March 2009.

Dempsey was hesitant to start a business during a recession, but she decided to focus on the future, rather than to think about the present economic situation.

"No matter what, people lose money, and no matter what, people make money. That's my motto," said Dempsey. "Music survives no matter what. In the Great Depression, after World War II, music never disappeared."

But business was slow at first. Dempsey's school is located beside Charley's restaurant and behind Toys & Co., so it's not visible from the parking lot. Many people were looking for music teachers, but didn't know the school was there, Dempsey said.

One day, Dempsey's father called her to see how her business was going. It's going OK, just slow, she told him.

"Then he told me, 'I trust you, Miyoung, and you know what to do,'" said Dempsey. "This was the best compliment I'd ever gotten. Now, I have a hard time, and I remember, 'Miyoung, you know what to do.'"

Now, Music for All has seven teachers, including Dempsey, and the school offers piano, violin, viola, cello, guitar, flute and guitar lessons.

Her youngest students are 3 years old, and her oldest are in their 70s. Most hail from Cotswold, South Park, Myers Park, Ballantyne and Rock Hill.

Dempsey tries to run a unique program. She takes select students to play at retirement centers and hospitals.

Recently, they performed at Levine Children's Hospital. Because the patients couldn't come down to watch, the hospital broadcast it in patients' rooms.

For Halloween this year, Dempsey and her students dressed in costumes and played music on the sidewalk at Cotswold Village Shops.

Dempsey's recitals aren't your typical 'get on stage, play and sit down' affairs either. Students perform recital pieces like normal, but they also have the option to do more unconventional performances, such as parent-child duets.

At the music school's first recital last April, Dempsey played while a student who's a gifted artist made pottery on stage.

"Musical recitals could be boring, so I tried to use some people's other talents," said Dempsey. "You need to entertain. The kids enjoy it. Usually they're afraid (of performances), but they keep asking, 'When is the next recital?'"