In our series of learning about classical music education in the various countries that make up the Far East, we talk to conductor and pianist Yoon-Jee Kim, from Seoul, Korea.

AK: Can you tell us something about the music education given to children in Korea?

YK: In Korean elementary schools, music is a required subject that takes place at least once a week. A typical school kid would have to learn how to read music, tap out rhythms, play a small instrument (recorder, melodica, a traditional Korean instrument etc.), sing in solfege, recognize standard classical works (mostly symphonic) and learn about composers like Handel, Bach, Chopin etc. We would also get tested on these basic skills and knowledge, just as we would get tested on arithmetic in Maths, for example. It is safe to say that virtually no one in Korea who has gone through the public or private school system is unable to read music. Some middle and high schools require students to go to classical music concerts and write a journal about them.

For those who intend to become musicians, there are arts middle/high schools. These speciality schools provide weekly lessons, music history/theory/ear training instructions, orchestra/chorus and weekly performance opportunities on top of subjects that are taught at regular schools.

I wouldn’t think that music teaching methods are all that different in Korea in comparison to the US. Many Korean musicians were trained in the States, so they teach the way they were taught. The culture, though, is different, which means that the student-teacher relationship (with Korean teachers)  is a bit more personal and resembles a parent-child relationship. Many teachers care for their students as they would their own children. It also means that students tend to be more submissive to teachers. There may not be as many open discussions of ideas between a teacher and a student. But this way, students are more receptive to teachers’ ideas and ultimately still have enough room to make their own decisions.

Thinking about the differences in student attitudes in both countries, a clarinettist friend, born and trained in Korea, recently told me that the widespread view that wind players can only practise a certain number of hours a day because they need to save their embouchure is largely a myth. She said that, if done right, she can practise for as many as eight hours a day. A singer friend told me that the only way to be really good is to start practising as soon as one wakes up in the morning. Such attitudes reflect something deeply rooted in Korean culture: that nothing beats work ethic on the path to achievement. A Korean musician can repeat a passage a thousand times to get it just right or practise for as many as 12 hours a day; I have rarely seen musicians from Europe or the US going to such extremes.

My thought as to why Korean musicians are doing so well in international competitions nowadays is partially related to what I’ve said above. On average, aspiring musicians in Korea put in many more hours of practice per day than musicians from most other countries.

Korean musicians are enormously dedicated as such, but they are also a product of a country that has always loved music, and in particular, singing. Singing is a common activity that crops up in almost every social gathering, and it is beloved form of bonding. People take turns to sing and dance, sharing their interest and engaging in uninhibited expression of their emotions. This explains why there are so many exceptional Korean singers in the world, but it also explains that there is a musical soul dormant in every Korean person. If tapped properly, this latent musicality can be unleashed in the most extraordinary way.

AK: Japan, with a population of 127 million, has over 30 orchestras whereas Wikipedia shows there are just four orchestras in Korea for a country of 50 million people. Is that right? Do you think that will change or do you not have a view?

YK: The Wikipedia list seems substantially incomplete. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least ten more important orchestras in Korea, and I am sure there are many more. Almost every major city in Korea has a government-funded orchestra, which means that Korea is probably not too different from Japan in this regard.

Even so, the discrepancy between the existence of internationally famed Korean instrumentalists (Chopin or Tchaikovsky Competition prizewinners, for example) and the lack of a Korean orchestra that is as internationally recognized is something Korean musicians need to work to eliminate. The Seoul Philharmonic is commonly known to be the best Korean orchestra, but it is still not commonly thought of as one of the best orchestras in the world. With emerging conductors and burgeoning number of exceptional ensemble players in Korea, I am hopeful that this will change soon.

AK: Tell me about the concert going experience in Korea? 

YK: Concertgoers in Korea tend to be much younger than those in Europe or the US. They typically range from young students to middle-aged people. The reason the older generation doesn’t normally attend concerts is perhaps that when they were younger Korea was in a shambles, as it was first taken over by Japan and then later divided by the catastrophic Korean war. Even though classical music entered Korea far earlier (most likely at the end of the 19th century), it didn’t have a chance to become the boom it is now until much later.

There are probably tens of classical music concerts on a weekend in Seoul alone, starting from big orchestral concerts down to numerous solo recitals that take place.

At concerts, performers receive bouquet after bouquet of flowers among other gifts. The audience reaction is equally enthusiastic; loud cheers and bravos as well as standing ovations are quite common. One can tell that Korea is a culture where people show no restraint when it comes to expressing emotions.

Classical music is certainly much more sustainable as an art form in Korea than elsewhere. The number of music lovers and amateur musicians is increasing gradually; there are many people who are knowledgeable about music who blog about concerts and collect recordings. What helps is the slew of Korean performers who have recently had huge successes at biggest international competitions; people line up to buy recordings of the Chopin Competition winner, for example, not only because they are interested in classical music but also because they view such achievement as historically significant for Korea. Combine these phenomena with musicians’ extraordinary work ethic, and we’ve got the right formula.

 

Yoon-Jee Kim is a conductor/pianist known for her “deep musical intelligence”. As a solo pianist, she is known for her “vibrant sound palette” and “superior sense of architecture.” These qualities, combined with her lyrical sensibility, sight- and score-reading abilities as well as her intimate understanding of ensemble playing also make her a phenomenal collaborator.

As a conductor, Yoon-Jee is known for her exceptional ear, sophisticated understanding of sound and gesture and the ability to achieve instant rapport with musicians. She has conducted orchestras such as the Manchester Camerata and has assisted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for its production of Puccini’s Tosca and a performance of Haydn's Creation. A performance of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire she conducted at London’s Southbank Centre received acclaim.

A prizewinner of international piano competitions in Italy, Spain, Germany and the US, Yoon-Jee was part of the Perlman Music Program for years and performed chamber music with Itzhak Perlman in venues such as Carnegie Hall and Avery Fischer Hall at Lincoln Center. Yoon-Jee is also a part of an award-winning piano duo Yoo + Kim, a team that is constantly sought-after in venues worldwide.

Born in Seoul, Yoon-Jee has lived in Tokyo, Moscow and New York and trained at the Central Special Music School of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory and the Pre-College division of the Juilliard School as a full-scholarship recipient. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University, postgraduate degrees in piano and conducting at the Hochschule für Musik Hannover in Germany and the Master of Music degree in conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music in the UK.

Currently based in Hanover, Yoon-Jee speaks four languages fluently and is also a certified translator who has translated numerous publications.