As the graceful young pianist leans over the keyboard, the music of Ravel shimmers through the concert hall like a light spring rain. Later that evening another graduate student from Peabody sweeps the rapt audience into a different universe with a virtuosic ride through a Chopin Polonaise.
Jee In Hwang and Hee-Youn Choue were performing in the William Kapell International Piano Competition held at the University of Maryland in July; another Peabody student, Yoon Soo Rhee, also competed. Although the three women did not advance past the preliminary rounds, they won acclaim merely by being selected to participate.
This year’s competition illuminates the talent of musicians from an Asian nation roughly the size of Indiana. Including the eventual winner, Yekwon Sunwoo, seven of the 24 pianists were from South Korea—the largest representation from any country. South Koreans are also Peabody’s largest population of foreign students. At present, the Conservatory has 102. Hwang, Choue, and Rhee are among 80 pursuing advanced degrees—nearly a fifth of the graduate students at the Conservatory.
Hee-Youn Choue completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Seoul. For the past seven years, the 32-year-old pianist has studied at Peabody with Alexander Shtarkman, receiving her Graduate Performance Diploma and Artist Diploma. She is now working toward her doctorate. Along the way, she has won top prizes in the Yale Gordon and Harrison Winter competitions and recently had her solo recital debut at Carnegie Hall as part of the Emerging Artists Recital series.
“Muscle memory is something you cannot ignore. The Koreans’ work ethic often affects the U.S. students. They see them put in hours and hours of practice even though they are already very good.”
—Peabody faculty member Yong Hi Moon
At the Kapell competition, Choue performed a program that included works by Scarlatti, Mozart, and Albeniz as well as Chopin. She wore an elegant black gown sparkling with rhinestones, her individuality evident in her playful ponytail.
“Whenever I go up on stage, I try to remember the reason I’m doing this,” she says. “It’s not because I want to play better than anyone, it’s because I want to please the people in the
audience as well as myself. Since I’ve been at Peabody, I feel more comfortable than ever when I perform.”
Choue is among thousands of highly trained Asian music students who seek further instruction in the United States, lured by degrees from prestigious programs that can help them build successful careers.
In 2000, South Korea had 107 orchestras, according to the nation’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. As American interest in the art form appears to be waning, “the fact that classical music is still being sought after in Asian countries is fantastic,” says pianist Boris Slutsky, chair of Peabody’s Piano Department and teacher of Kapell competitor Jee In Hwang.
Classical music is integrated so closely into Korean life that umak, the everyday word for music, essentially means classical music, notes Okon Hwang, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. In an article for Southeast Review Asian Studies, she writes that Koreans began sending their children to music lessons “in droves” after they recognized the connection between classical music and a “potential for achieving a higher social status.”
It took only five decades for music training to become a key feature of Korea’s cultural landscape. The first school exclusively for Western music opened in 1945; a year later, it was introduced as the College of Music within Seoul National University. By the end of the 20th century, Hwang reports, more than 90 four-year universities and colleges in South Korea offered degree programs in classical music performance.
Pianist Yong Hi Moon, one of Peabody’s first Korean professors, says the nation’s passion for classical music was sparked in part by hymn-playing Presbyterian missionaries who helped convert millions of South Koreans to Christianity.
“The passion and enthusiasm for piano was unbelievable after the war,” she says. “People would buy pianos before they bought refrigerators. Missionaries sponsored some of the first young people who came to the States, and they became stars.”
One early arrival was Tony Han (Tong Il Han) whose talents were “discovered” during the Korean War. An American general brought him to the U.S. where he attended Juilliard, winning the prestigious Leventritt Competition when he was 23.
“Tony Han’s the one that everyone was hoping to be,” Moon says. “When I came here, I was thinking I would be world-famous. Students no longer have that false notion.” Instead, she says, they tend to focus on building multifaceted careers that may include teaching, performing, and even music therapy.
Korean music students are no strangers to competition; they begin vying as children for spots in the “arts” middle and high schools, which the system reserves for the most talented. The system has been accused of making musicians technique-driven and narrowly focused.
“From a very young age, the students are concerned about what will get a high score, even before getting to know the pleasure in playing music,” says pianist and Peabody doctoral candidate Jee In Hwang. “Teachers often assign them pieces that can show the biggest effect in a short period of time. … After coming to Peabody, or other universities, students have time to appreciate music away from competition. The professors guide them to express their own voices. As time goes on, they realize the philosophy of this teaching and it amazes them.”
Students from Western nations may possess a greater understanding of classical music, notes Hwang, because the musical line springs from the languages and cultures of Europe.
Her time at Peabody has helped her discover new meaning and energy inside the pieces she performs.
“Mr. Slutsky always talks to me about spontaneity and connection between tones and this has helped me play with more diversity in interpretation,” she says.
Meanwhile, she continues the disciplined regimen that has defined her life. At the age of 8, Hwang was already practicing three hours a day. Now she usually logs in six hours, with breaks for a meal and a nap.
“Muscle memory is something you cannot ignore,” Yong Hi Moon points out. “The Koreans’ work ethic often affects the U.S. students. They see them put in hours and hours of practice even though they are already very good.”
Some pursue their study of English the same way. “They will record each lecture and go home and study it word by word,” Moon says. “If they don’t understand it then, they will ask for a tutor.”
Koreans often find that language is the most difficult part of their education at Peabody. Many haven’t taken English since high school, and they cram in order to meet the Conservatory’s requirements for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, according to Patricia Palmer who teaches English as a Second Language. However, basic English skills do not prepare them for the classroom culture of higher education.
“We expect students to speak out and interact, to give us their ideas. All of that is new for these students,” Palmer says. “In Korea, they listen to lectures and recycle what they hear. Not only does it take courage to suddenly contribute your own ideas, but imagine trying to say what you think in another language!”
Outside the classroom, some students shed English in favor of the comforts of their mother tongue. They are bolstered by friendships with other Korean students and support from the large Korean-American community in the Baltimore area.
Hanul Park, a sophmore who plays the bassoon, is one of many Korean Americans who help Koreans understand the culture. Born in the United States, she spent her early years in Korea, returning to live in Boston when her musician father was working toward his graduate degrees in theology and choral conducting. Bilingual, she often translates for other Korean students, helps with homework for their humanities and theory courses, and even gives a second opinion on the emails they send their teachers.
“I do a pretty good job with the explaining thing,” she says. “I believe I can serve as a bridge by helping both the American and Korean students understand the different views they have from the different ways they were raised.”
Jee In Hwang notes that most of the Korean students at Peabody come from Seoul. In the small world of art schools, many already share friends or know one another. Such familiarity offers insulation and comfort.
“Because of so many common things, Koreans tend to get along well and become more like families. Another thing is that some are shy or afraid of making mistakes. They don’t speak if they think something is not sure, like perfectionists would do. As time goes on, however, most of the Korean students want to know more about America and culture, so they hang out with American students and learn to speak English.”
Hoping to encourage greater assimilation, Kyley McClain, Peabody’s resident life and student activity coordinator, tries to match international students with American roommates in campus housing—mostly used by first- and second-year students. When it comes to free time, however, some cultural differences are evident. While Americans may relax by socializing, Koreans tend to head to the practice rooms, McClain has found.
“I think we are more used to practicing for a longer time,” Hwang suggests. “For myself, I also feel sorry for my parents if I chill too much. Of course they don’t force me to study harder or scold me when I socialize, but I know how hard they are working to support me, so I try to study more out of gratitude.”
Before plunging into a world of English, Hwang learned German in order to enroll in a master’s program in Salzburg, Austria. She studied there for three years before coming to Peabody. It has become increasingly common for Asian students
to choose an education in Europe, which is basically free,
over the costly American system, says her teacher Boris Slutsky.
International students do not qualify for student loans from U.S. banks and find it difficult to earn money to help support themselves. Some graduate students, like Hee-Youn Choue, depend upon scholarships in order to attend Peabody. Hanul Park says that she knows students whose families struggle to pay tuition and board that costs roughly $55,000 a year.
“Many Korean families pool money together so that they can come to Peabody,” McClain says. “As far as work off campus, international students are only allowed to get jobs specific to their area of study, such as an orchestra job. On campus, many offices prefer to hire federal work/study students because they need only pay 25 percent of their wages.”
Hwang says that Korean-Americans are not only more adventurous than Korean students but also more financially independent from their parents.
“Some Korean-American students work part time in restaurants and gigs from their undergraduate years while Korean-born students, who are normally very much supported by their parents in every way since young, tend to ‘only study’ rather than work.” They are most likely to take church jobs, as orchestra players, singers, or accompanists, she says, because they can carpool to one of the many Korean churches in the Baltimore area with other Korean students or receive rides from congregants.
Another reality is that U.S. music programs attract roughly twice as many Asian women as men. Doctor of Musical Arts candidates, for instance, are roughly 11 percent Asian females compared to 4 percent males, according to a 2011–12 survey by
Higher Education Arts Data Services. At Peabody, Korean women outnumber men as well.
“In Asia, men are very responsible for the family’s income, so they need to earn a lot of money. Music is not a field where one can do that,” Hwang explains. After she receives her doctorate in performance, the 29-year-old pianist hopes to teach in a Korean university. Her resume includes top awards from the International Russian Music Piano Competition in San Jose, the Harrison L. Winter Competition at Peabody, and the Mozart-Preis Competition at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
At the Kapell competition, Hwang left the stage pleased with the intensity and energy of her performance, a concert that included Beethoven and Rachmaninov as well as Ravel. “I’m still on my way learning and achieving how to produce sound that can fill up the big space of a hall, but I think my performing has improved in many ways,” she says. “I have become more confident in playing, which is actually the most important part, I think.”
Reflecting on her own recent performance, Hee-Youn Choue says she felt a “presence and focus” in the music that is helping her enjoy time on stage “more than ever.” She is continuing to expand her musical knowledge and vision at Peabody.
“Although some people who don’t understand the process of studying music might ask, ‘Why are you still attending school?’ I feel there is a lot more room for me to improve,” she says. “When you leave Korea to study abroad, you have to know what you really want to do. Whether or not you become a great concert pianist, you have to have an open mind that being ready to change will guide you in a better direction.”
Linell Smith is a frequent contributor to Peabody Magazine.