Love for the strings ties New Yorker to KoreaNONSAN, South Chungcheong ― Michael Liebe cringed a little when he showed off his middle and index fingers, rough with calluses developed from playing his gayageum, an 18-stringed Korean instrument.
“But I saw one performer bleeding from all her five fingers,” he said. “So I guess I still have a long way to go until I ‘suffer enough’ before I can play it perfectly.”
Sitting on his lap was a gayageum, a 140-centimeter-long (55 inches) wooden zither. The player uses his or her bare fingers to pluck and hold down the thick silk threads, creating a nasal-like timbre.
Originally a 12-stringed Korean harp, it was later modified into an 18-stringed instrument before settling into its modern form, with 25 strings. Mr. Liebe said he owned all three versions, but his favorite is the original.
"It has both the full harmony and the original feel of soft oriental music," the 40-year-old from upstate New York said.
Mr. Liebe, an English instructor at Geumgang University, a Buddhist school located below Mount Gyeryong, said he believes he is probably the "best white boy" to play the gayageum.
Not only is the gayageum generally played by female performers, the Korean instrument is less widely known in the western world than are Japanese instruments such as the koto.
Although never really interested in Asia, Mr. Liebe came to Korea after deciding he needed a break while studying for his PhD in linguistics. He told his family he would be back in a year or two ― that was in 1992. Fascinated by life here, he so far has spent more than 12 years teaching in various colleges around the country, while managing to learn how to play an instrument he had never heard of before coming to Korea.
After seeing an ad five years ago for a traditional music class for foreigners, Mr. Liebe began attending classes at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in Seoul. He had to take a four-hour train and bus ride to Seoul, but he attended the class every weekend. Other students quit the course, but he kept at it, becoming the only gayageum player.
The teacher was very strict ― he had to sit cross-legged for hours ― and it became more difficult as he learned more, he said.
He was expected to be perfect. He said that one time he was sure he was making the same vibrato sound with the strings as his teacher was, but the teacher kept demanding that he try again. The teacher even told him go back home because there would be no further teaching if he did not master what she had taught him the week before. Frustrated, he stood and shouted, “I know I’m bad, but give me some time!”
He said she must have wanted to beat him for his insolence. “But she didn't, though I was slower [than the Korean students].”
Both Mr. Liebe and his teacher endured, and he began to improve on a daily basis. He organized a traditional music group in his school, and is planning to compete in a talent competition for foreigners held on Saturday in Seoul.
It sounded interesting, he said of the competition. It will be Mr. Liebe’s first time performing in Seoul in front of a large audience.
by Lee Min-a
Mr. Liebe will be performing in the third annual BBB Association Talent Contest in Myeongdong. The BBB Association (www.bbbkorea.org) is Korea's largest volunteer translation service and will be accepting applicants until tomorrow.