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Juseung Lee B.M. ’17 may be visually impaired, but he hasn’t let his disability derail his musical career. The South Korean composer not only earned his Bachelor of Music at Berklee, where he majored in contemporary writing and production and film scoring, but he also went on to pursue his Master of Music in Scoring for Film, Television, and Video Games at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain.
Born with familial exudative vitreoretinopathy (FEVR), a condition that caused retinal detachment in his right eye and low vision in his left eye, Lee learned to play jazz guitar as a teenager. “I really enjoyed improvising blues and jazz with my guitar rather than remembering all the arrangements, since I have to memorize everything due to my vision,” he says. “I wanted to give this inspiration and motivation back to other people who are in a struggle like me. This is when I started pursuing music as my life goal.”
Gaining Confidence at Berklee
In South Korea, Lee played at jazz clubs and festivals including Han River Bridge. He met his bandmates at Berklee Global Partner school Seoul Jazz Academy (now SJA Music Institute). Deciding the stage wasn’t for him, he switched his focus to film scoring.
Lee had been fascinated by film scores since falling in love with the soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at age 11. This realization led him to apply to Berklee. “I met with the chair, George S. Clinton, to talk about my vision issue and the possibility of scoring for film,” he says. “Some people still think it’s impossible for me to do it, but the chair said that despite the challenges, this would create my own voice. His words were an inspiration to me.”
At Berklee, Lee faced a steep learning curve. “I struggled because I couldn’t follow the score along with the session,” he says, “so I figured out a way I could do it: remembering where the mistakes were.”
Lee’s computer has a built-in Zoom accessibility feature, and he also uses a mobile app on his iPad to control faders on MIDI controllers. “This works for me since I can zoom in and out on the screen,” he says. He also employs a small monocular to see the whiteboard and screen in his classes, and a digital magnifier. “I use this equipment to analyse some scores, to read books, and for my daily life, like checking prices and reading small words,” he says.
The master’s program Lee is pursuing in Valencia is helping him gain more confidence. However, conducting is still one of his biggest challenges. “I need to memorize all my compositions and where I need to cue the players during the recording sessions. Now I can do it faster than before,” he says.
The Present and the Future
Lee works regularly with his brother Juho, a documentary director, for whom he composed part the music of Super Disco, a feature documentary about a Korean indie band. Lee’s other collaborations include the production and arrangements of the EP Thirty by Il-woong Choi; working as a freelance composer for Velvet Green Music, a music company library based in Los Angeles; and composing music for Hold Panther Production, a New York-based company founded by one of his roommates from Berklee.
Currently, he is finishing his culminating experience, a short documentary named Two Different Eyes about his life as a visually impaired film composer and person. Filmed by his brother Juho, Lee’s project has garnered the support of ONCE, a Spanish organization which works towards the inclusion of blind and visually impaired people, and a Diversity and Inclusion Grant, awarded by Student Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion.
After graduation, Lee plans to move to the U.S. to work as a composer or assistant composer. He wants to send a positive message to those who, like him, have an impairment. “I always tell people to not give up,” he says. “I know it is harder to deal with life with our difficulties, but I think we can achieve what we truly believe in. Do not be afraid to ask for help. People around you will support you. In the end, we are all the same.”