Tin Ear Alley

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Tin Ear Alley

It is hard to underestimate how important singing is in Korea. Go out on the town with your Korean friends and there is a good chance that you will go to a noraebang, or karaoke room.

But more than just a social distraction, singing can be an integral part of your career. Company parties (a ubiquitous part of professional life in Korea) inevitably end up in noraebang, too. If your singing does not pass muster with the boss, you can severely damage your chances for promotion.

All well and good if you are a natural crooner, but what do you do if you cannot carry a tune? The stakes are as high as those notes you cannot hit.

Well, I am one of those tone-deaf people, or eumchi, as they are known in Korea. Over the years, I have tried a number of tactics to survive the noraebang. At first, I tried escaping from the situation, offering some excuse: a cold, a sore throat. I would even quietly slip out to the bathroom before my turn, hoping that no one noticed.

However, you cannot keep running forever, so the next thing I tried was being prepared. I would go to a noraebang with my close friends and practice the same song over and over again until I felt confident enough. That was fine until I found that people were getting tired of the same old song that I kept singing all the time.

It was time to tackle the real problem - my poor singing voice. Fortunately, Korea provides "eumchi clinics" for tone-deaf people like me.

Typical advertisements state, "You can escape eumchi forever!" That sounds exactly what I need, but private lessons can be really expensive, so I opted to check out a class at a cultural center operated by a department store where 12 weekly classes, at 90 minutes each, cost 60,000 won.

It is 10:30 on a Wednesday morning and the small multipurpose hall on the third floor of Aekyung Department Store in Guro-dong, in the southwestern part of Seoul, is quickly filling with women who are here for their singing class.

There are only two men in the hall. One man is sitting in front of a synthesizer, the other takes the makeshift stage and orders the class of more than 30 women to get to their feet. "Now, stretch your arms up high toward the ceiling, and breathe!" yells Lee Byong-won, 39, the singing instructor. For the next few minutes, Mr. Lee has the class rolling their necks and twisting their bodies, much like warming up for aerobics. "Do you feel your muscles relaxed already?" he asks the class and the mostly middle-aged women bark back, "Yes."

Mr. Lee then calls on a student to sing the E-note. The woman carries the note surprisingly well. "The last few lessons have obviously paid off," Mr. Lee says. When another woman falters, her voice croaking off-tune, he demonstrates the difference when the sound comes from the throat and when it wells up from deep in the stomach like it is supposed to.

Then the class, still on its feet, is led through an enunciation drill. "Ah, li, ba, la, sha," all in the key of E, sounding much like a Buddhist chant. "Are you feeling the vibrations in your throat?" he asks.

Mr. Lee lets the students sit down as he reviews a ballad from last week called, "When I Am 40." The woman next to me takes out the sheet music to the song, which is full of notes and notations scribbled in pencil, a reflection of the seriousness of her endeavor. Kim Ae-ja, 50, from Anam-dong, is dead serious about the class. She is a faithful follower of Mr. Lee, and does not mind the one-hour commute through the morning traffic. "I've been taking his classes since the days when he was teaching at Midopa Department Store in Sanggye-dong," Ms. Kim says.

Her long, intense study shows how important learning to sing is for her. "Being tone-deaf is a big handicap in this society. It made me nervous to socialize because I knew we would eventually go to a noraebang," explains Ms. Kim. She readily credits the classes with her improved confidence. "Last weekend, my husband and I went out with his buddies from the neighborhood soccer team, and I managed to sing two songs," she says, beaming.

When the class begins to sing, I realize that these students are indeed "patients." Off-key and out-of-rhythm, the class flounders through the song in a barely audible voice. "Push the notes from below. Try to reach your target," Mr. Lee encourages.

Easier said than done. After a few rounds of singing, my voice is hoarse from straining to reach the "target note" and my abdomen hurts, the kind of pain you get after doing a number of crunches, as I suck in my stomach tightly to bring the sound from deep down.

The guru who has taught the tone-deaf for more than 15 years offers many techniques - or ways to cheat, if you will - to make you sing better. Mr. Lee points out exactly where you should pause for effect, and how, instead of sustaining a long, high note, you can hit it and then gently drop it.

But nothing in class compares to the final part of the lesson - singing in a bucket. Indeed, it is this unique technique that has earned Mr. Lee, a former professional singer, his current fame. The voice echoes in the bucket and you are forced to hear yourself sing.

In fact, while listening repeatedly to the song by the original artist is important, listening to yourself is paramount if you are to overcome tone-deafness, Mr. Lee stresses. To hear yourself effectively, you need a small, enclosed space. "Try singing in the car or the bathroom," he suggests.

Mr. Lee, whose private students at his clinic in Daechi-dong include many CEOs and professionals, says he can teach the techniques but you need to do the work. "Some extremely motivated people can be transformed in just two hours," he claims.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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