Traditional music for foreigners

So my gyopo friend convinced me to take this music class for foreigners.  I’m excited to do so, but also have reservations because of the time commitment and commute when I have so much on my plate.  I’m also concerned about continuing support, as it’s just an introductory survey and if I end up loving it, then what???

After taking a class, all the above still holds true.  With perfect timing and precision planning, it still took me 2.5 hours to get to the class.  Another student repeating the class also had such a commute, coming from the Taebak mountain area.  I was both happy and disappointed to see an adoptee I know there (as I wanted an adoption-free past time) but as long as we don’t end up talking about it and I can meet others it’ll be okay.  Only it kind of put me in a bad mood…(she’s a nice girl, nothing against her personally!)

An attempt to give the class in English always broke down into Korean, but the language barrier didn’t matter much.  Except for some pointless attempt to make an analogy of music with the colors of the rainbow, everything else was of value and kind of global, as music is.  And so they used numbers and the do-re-mi system to coordinate strings with notes.  All in all, the teacher was very good at imparting the basics through the language barrier, though for any difficulties or detailed explanations, she had to default to Korean.  Fortunately, there were a few foreigners in the class (a couple of gyopos and my adoptee acquaintance) who knew Korean.  Here’s an example of the instrument I chose:

This is from, and on sale for only $899.00  (sigh) why do I always pick the most expensive things on the planet to love?

We were given a CD of traditional music at the orientation, and a gorgeous how to introduction to the gayageum booklet during class.  In it, it showed that Korea already has a naming convention for the notes, similar to do-re-mi.  It would have been nice to learn that instead, but I guess since most of the foreigners will stop with this class, it’s better to use something we’re familiar with.  But since we have to memorize the order, it seems we could have easily/should have done this in Korean.

Anyway, it was EASY!  Plucking is so much easier than bowing!  (referring to my cello attempt bowing trauma) Which makes sense, because with bowing your interface with the instrument is that much more complicated, where as plucking with your fingers is direct and straight-forward.  Aside from my nails being too long and the bridge for the 12th string always falling over because the string wasn’t strung tight enough, everything went really well.  It’s just too bad we only have access to the instrument during class time, so progress is going to be slow over the next 12 weeks.  I also wish the class was longer, to make my 5 hours of commute more worth-while.  I played around with the tone I could get with each pluck, and found it will only sound rich if you pluck HARD.  I also plucked out Arirang just playing around and after class, and afterward I got embarrassed when I realized that the other students didn’t appreciate that I could do that.  Then after class the teacher came over and put a mark by my name.

Hope I haven’t set myself up for failure.  Other classmates asked me afterward if I knew how to play already and I explained how my father was a music teacher, how my whole family had musical talent, and how being adopted all my attempts failed.  The other adoptee told me, “maybe you just needed a Korean instrument!”  That’s cute and all, but again – this is another reason I don’t like hanging around adoptees – they’re always making leaps trying to connect and reaching for things and getting me to participate and it bugs me.  How can one instrument be easier than another simply by merit of its origin?  Bah.  Food and language are big on the reaching for connections thing.  I discount a lot of it, (not all of it, just the things that seem like a stretch) especially with those adoptees sent away at less than a year old.  (but to clarify, I DON’T discount their loss of mother!  That’s huge)  A lot of these attempts are as annoying as adoptees liking kim chi and saying, “it’s in my blood.”  Or Koreans asking if you can handle spicy food and them saying, “it’s in your blood.”  Well, no it isn’t.  A lot of Koreans don’t like kim chi or spicy food.  What about their blood?  But on the other hand, there are many adoptees who were four, six, nine, etc. years old who can’t remember one thing.  For them, it’s not about reaching for something that never existed.  For them, reclamation is so painful their bodies and minds won’t let them go there.  Me, I’m somewhere in the middle.  I won’t reach for things that probably never were my experiences.  But some things here, like the time I ate rice porridge for the first time and tears came involuntarily out of nowhere, some things are based on very very real losses.  A major part of returning here to live is juggling what about Korean culture you want to learn.  With so much about Korean society worth rejecting, we must work at finding the things we want to embrace.  Culture we can embrace.  But we have to start from the beginning.  New.  We’re not “regaining” anything.  We’re foreigners now and always will be.

While looking up some gayageum images for this post, I got all excited when I found this:

from Yonsei's Annals, an article on the making of gayageum. (click on the photo above for the whole article)

THAT piece of scrap paulonia wood he’s cutting off is JUST what I need for my guitar neck!  I wrote the author asking him to put me in contact with the gayageum maker.  Hopefully he’ll answer me.  I’d love to visit his instrument making workshop and also buy some of his scraps.

Oooh!  hope hope hope.  I know I shouldn’t do that, but this could be a very very exciting thing, especially if me+gayageum turns out to be a good match.

I’m also checking my mail every day.  I ordered a DVD on how to play 3 stringed guitars.  I’m excited because it’s all by ear.  I’m pretty convinced that the way I was taught music – analytically – killed me and didn’t work with my learning style.  Not only do I have a steel plate in my head about Asian languages, but I also have a steel plate in my head when it comes to music theory.  There are also too many leaps I must make from reading the notes to playing sometimes.  Music, like dancing, should be intuitive, and never a problem, torture, or trauma.   It seems like everything in my life I am trying to wipe the slate clean of pollution and start fresh.

8 thoughts on “Traditional music for foreigners

  1. “This is from, and on sale for only $899.00 (sigh) why do I always pick the most expensive things on the planet to love?”
    Because you have great taste my dear.

  2. “We’re foreigners now and always will be.” Do you feel the same way in America because I feel that way here?

  3. Well, actually that’s a lot more inexpensive than I thought it would be! Especially because each one is hand made. It’s also a LOT less expensive than my bandoneon, which I can’t afford to send to Germany for repairs, er, rather, other priorities always get in the way of sending it back to Germany for repairs…

    “We’re foreigners now and always will be.” Do you feel the same way in America because I feel that way here?

    Nope. At home for the most part. There, (as an adult at least) I lived in a multi-cultural place where there’s always someone fresher off the boat and where, for every racist experience there’s also a helping-the-new-person-out experience.

    I think Koreans in America feel foreign longer than other ethnic groups because they stay within their comfort zone, creating islands of mini Koreas. I can’t venture to guess why and be confident about what I come up with. I wonder if maybe their motivation is different than other ethnic groups. To be from a collective society in an individualistic society – I think THAT might be what’s foreign to you.

    Some adoptees attempt to do this in Korea: attempt to make an adoptee community, but it doesn’t work. The population is too transient, small, diverse, and invisible. To go from an individualistic society and live in a collective society that doesn’t recognize your group makes sustainability really hard.

    I think a lot of expats in any country, from any other country, are often running away from something. And they get to another place, a new beginning, only to find they are still stuck with their same old selves but with a whole new host of challenges that are as unsettling as the ones that caused them to leave all they know.

    I’ve known a lot of expats, and they’d all deny that they ran from anything, and yet if we share anything, I think it’s this penchant to run towards the next new thing.

    Like others who’ve expat’d before me, I’m beginning to feel homeless and rootless. Because home is ceasing to be location and is more about relationship. And the relocation/dislocation destroys continuity and the peace of mind that brings. So in many ways, part of the feeling foreign is this knowledge that we’ve forfeited everything familiar and there’s a deficit to fill, and we just don’t get filled soon enough, satisfactorily enough.

    Unlike my expat friends, however, I don’t feel like this relocation has replaced what I left, or that there’s some better new thing to turn to. I think I just want to be with my loved ones, wherever they are/end up. I’m hoping the economy Gods will let me go there soon, before so much time has passed that I DO feel like a foreigner in my own country.

  4. For me it is something else. I am lucky to speak korean and english fluently with undetectable accent and I am able to move back and forth between the two cultures without any effort. I have also lived in the socal (very multi-cultural) for 32 years with a wife and 2 boys and 2 granddaughters yet there is something about korea. I have always felt that korea is my root and home and not here.

  5. if you become really serious about playing the gayageum and want your own, i know someone who made her own in some workshop in myeongdong. i think she said the workshop and materials cost something like 300 dollars.

  6. That sounds too cool. I wonder how much of it is prepared ahead of time for the students, since the curved top is hand chiseled out, and the sides must be glued to the bottoms and…Sounds like heaven.

    Come to think about it, that Sound of Asia on-line store, those are the export prices. I’m wondering how much they cost already made here in Korea. Maybe we gotta make another trip to Nokdong Instrument Market and see if there are some for sale there.

    I know what kind of guitar parts I need now, so the trip wouldn’t be a total waste. And I’d have to stop for a fruit slushy, of course!

  7. Wow, how interesting! I came across your blog while looking for explanations of Korean traditional music to help me understand it more before I teach my kindergartners about it. I work at an all-English kindergarten in Korea, but reading about your work is really thought-provoking. I love what you said about how you are not “regaining” something, but doing something for the first time, as a newbie. I wish you luck on your journey!

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