Casey Jo Ahn Robards is a professional collaborative pianist, conductor, vocal coach, and professor based in Champaign, Illinois. Her musical journey began at the age of 4 on a toy piano, and led to her first paid pianist job at church. From there, she began accompanying everything from solo competitions, choirs, school musicals, and local events, eventually going on to play for Broadway tours like Wicked and Beautiful! On top of all this, she holds 3 music degrees from the University of Illinois, where she now teaches! Her advice to young artists is simple: “work hard.” There are learning experiences all around, and it’s up to us to “seek new experiences and challenges that cause [us] to meet new people and develop more skills.” Read on to learn more about Casey Jo Ahn Robards and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Casey Jo Ahn Robards
Heritage: Korean adoptee
Hometown: Small town in southern Illinois
Current City: Champaign, Illinois
Many! I collaborate regularly with classical singers and instrumentalists on a variety of projects including recitals, recordings, productions, shows. I'm also a professor at the University of Illinois and a Casio Performing Artist.
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
A few recent favorites include:
I have more art song collaborations with so many amazing singers, too many to list, so I'm resisting the temptation to start naming names.
I've played as a keyboard sub for several touring Broadway shows, including Wicked, Carole King. For nothing but fun I had a stint with "Big Smile" as their bass guitarist.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Work hard. Always keep learning from everyone and everything around you. Seek new experiences and challenges that cause you to meet new people and develop more skills. Take the technical side of your chosen pursuit seriously. Your artistry will grow if you feed it, and developing an artistic voice is a separate process from stumbling into fame or relative celebrity.
How did you get your start?
I began taking formal piano lessons at age 4 when my mother discovered me playing cartoon theme songs on my toy piano. Around age 11 or 12, I began my first paid music job as a church pianist. I was also accompanying the school musicals, choirs, solo competitions, and some local events in town. In college I accompanied anyone and everything. This background ended up being early training toward being a professional collaborative pianist, vocal coach and conductor.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
I've derived a deep joy from teaching and collaboration, and my favorite moments reflect times when these elements are at the fore. I also like participating in bringing new musical works to life.
My favorite moments tend to be on stage (or in rehearsal) for an art song recital with an amazing singer, a few of whom I've named earlier.
In the summer of 2021, I had the good fortune to participate in several very different projects involving larger groups of people, which felt significant after so much social distancing due to the pandemic. I played piano duo with my husband (who is also a pianist), as part of a 2-piano/percussion ensemble accompanying the National Chorale in a recording of Carmina Buranain New York City. I was pianist for the premiere of a new opera that tells the story of Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (This Little Light of Mine by Chandler Carter and Diana Solomon-Glover, co-produced by Santa Fe and Kentucky Opera). I recorded a new trio for french horn, oboe and piano with my colleagues at the University of Illinois, John Dee and Bernhard Scully, and conducted the opera La Traviata in a production in northern Michigan. Initiating, directing or joining me in most of these projects is Dr. Everett McCorvey, who is a constant inspiration and a joy to work with.
Part of the appeal of these activities is the variety they bring to my life, and the chance to assemble a very high quality work in a very short amount of time, due to the preparation and expertise of everyone working on the project.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
Early on it seemed there were constant decisions to make: deciding what specifically to do, whether to specialize, whether to move toward an opera house or to the academic track, whether to be married, to have children, etc. Now, there is a constant challenge to balance teaching, performance, and career with family, but work opportunities tend to come without as much shepherding of that process. Most of my work is built on relationships with people instead of needing to be out auditioning or marketing, etc.
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
If I couldn't be a musician, my dream would be to be a professional sports journalist or coach. It almost doesn't matter which sport, because I like so many.
Do you have any organizations or non profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
Musicambia is an organization of wonderful people who are creating and sustaining music education programs in prisons. I'm also newly introduced to the work of Deus Ex Musica, a collaboration between musicians, composers, theologians, and people who are curious about the healing and spiritual nature of music. Maestra Music is a collective of women amplifying other women in Broadway/musical theatre, working for gender parity. They offer an incredibly practical series of online training workshops. MUSE (Musicians United for Social Equity) is working to create more diversity and mentoring in the theatre world to historically marginalized people of color.
Who do you admire?
I admire people who show perseverance despite a lack of results, loyalty to a cause larger than themselves, and a daily joy that is contagious.
Do you have any mentors?
My closest and longest mentors in life and music have been the late Mr. Willie T. Summerville and Dr. Ollie Watts Davis and my pastor, Rev. Harold Davis. Their influence runs deep. I have a very long list of teachers, colleagues, friends, and encouragers who have supported me and loved me from close and far.
Did you always want to be in the arts or did you have another path before you got here?
Before going to college I didn't know that pursuing a professional career in the arts was actually a choice I could make, but I was passionately devoted to improving as a pianist for the sake of how much I enjoyed the music itself. Shortly after college, I was confused about what to try to do and about my identity as a musician in general. At one point I realized that I was wired to be a musician -- in some way shape or form, I needed to pursue it. After that the path didn't become immediately clearer, but I kept making choices to pursue more training and performance experiences that caused more doors to open and opportunities to come. Looking back I realize that I had no idea where the path would lead, but felt compelled to keep trying to do music.
When did you know you wanted to have a career in the arts?
When I realized it was possible to make money as an artist and though I would need to wear several different hats and have multiple streams of income, I didn't need to have a full-time job outside of music in order to live.
Do you have any other “special skills?”
Listening. reading, writing, public speaking.
Do you have any side projects you’d like to highlight?
One of my passions is sharing the performance and history of the Negro Spiritual, a genre of music that came out of the era American slavery and continued to evolve into more formal choral and solo concert songs.
If you come from parents who aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the business?
Humility, an acceptance or realization that the arts are not a priority to everyone (and that is okay). People can be moved deeply by the arts, no matter how engaged they are with the art forms, but it does take effort on the audience or receiver's side if the arts are going to be a priority in their lives.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
Just keep going. You'll figure it out. God knows.
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?
People skills -- having mutual respect, communicating skills, boundaries, curiosity about cultural differences, the ability to celebrate and help others, and a lack of jealousy
Musically -- Sight reading, stylistic versatility, good ear and rhythm, and enjoying challenges
Where did you study at?
I completed 3 music degrees at the University of Illinois, and attended summer programs such as Tanglewood and the Bay View Music Festival.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Hopefully it is still yet to come. Somedays, it feels like cleaning my house is the highest mountain I can scale at the moment.
What are some goals you hope to achieve?
Ooh, if I write these down that means I have to actually do something...
What do you love most about what you do?
Constant learning. The infinite variety in people and their ability to grow. The variety of work, including performing, teaching, coaching, programming, conducting, study and research. Seeing creative ideas come to life. Working with people who are excellent at what they do. I'm also grateful for the therapeutic nature of music. I've benefited greatly by having music as a job but also as an outlet and language.
What helped you most to rebound from what you considered your biggest failure or mistake in your career?
I'm not sure what my biggest career failure or mistake has been, there have been so many. Maybe I'm even missing the boat right now on something and don't even realize it, haha. Mistakes don't derail me because for me, they are not life or death situations. Usually I'm just playing the piano, after all. One mistake I made could be not having enough confidence to try for certain kinds of training opportunities at a younger age, but I think I'd rather have been a little on the timid side than the opposite.
Do you have any self care practices you do to stay focused and sane? What was your self care routine before the pandemic and how has that (as well as your views of self care) changed throughout the pandemic?
Playing tennis, cooking, conversations with close friends and the family who want to spend time with me, writing, and prayer. During the pandemic it became necessary to adopt a series of new technological practices, and equally necessary to get away from the computer screen at regular intervals.
If you’ve crossed the table from performing to being on a creative team, what made you take the leap, and how did it change your way of thinking?
I'm in the midst of adding conducting to my skill set and professional identity. It's been a slow evolution, from something I never imagined doing to having a curiosity and a few small opportunities, to having conducted full operas with an orchestra. It is markedly different to prepare a production with the number of people it takes to put on an opera vs. preparing for a recital as a pianist when much of the work is done on my own. Sometimes,I may only have an hour or two of actual rehearsal with a singer before giving a recital, so we rely on our personal preparation and familiarity with the genres to trust that we can deliver a powerful collaborative result in such a short amount of preparation time.
As a storyteller, how do you pick the stories you want to work on and what goes into putting a story together, whether on stage, page, or film?
I'm very interested in telling stories that are based on real people and historical events. I find many actual lived lives to be more fantastical and inspiring than most allegory or fantasy.
If you could name one point in time when everything changed for you, what was it?
I don't know that every spiritual or religious personal story has a pinpointed flash of epiphany but for me, at 12 years old I went from hearing talk about God to deciding to trust Jesus for spiritual salvation and guidance and continue to understand what that means. I credit every thing in my life known and unknown to a larger purpose that can only be understood more fully through the lens of the mystery of Christ's presence, power and love.
Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?
I'm continually unpacking what it means to be a transracial adoptee, a musician called to both lead and serve, and a member of many families and communities. Always a work in progress. It's possible to thrive and still have many unanswered questions.
To find out more about Casey, please visit her at:
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