To learn gugak, foreigners pay in money and blood

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To learn gugak, foreigners pay in money and blood


“You will get blisters and bleeding (sic). It will be torture,” the teacher tells her class in her halting, heavily accented English. Later she draws a diagram of a finger on the board. “If your blisters are here, you are correct,” she says.
Don’t worry, this isn’t sadomasochism. It’s music class. Specifically, the class teaches gayageum, a traditional Korean instrument, and it was indeed painful for those who’d never before plucked this 12-stringed Korean traditional zither.
The teacher, Eom Sae-na, a graduate of Ewha Womans University’s music program who has been playing the gayageum since middle school, doesn’t mean to frighten her students. She just tells it like it is. “If you don’t have calluses yet, there will be blood.”
One lucky student happened to be a guitarist ― he was excepted from the torn flesh that two hours of plucking produced. But all endured the pain for the promise of sitting up on a stage in 12 weeks, playing one of Korea’s best-known traditional instruments.
Twice a year since 1993, the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts offers its classes in gugak (Korean traditional music) to foreigners on Saturday mornings. In the past, there were as many as six classes at a time, including one on mask dancing. Now, though, some have had to be dropped due to a lack of applicants, says program coordinator Lee Bae-won.
The ones that remain are gayageum, danso (a Korean bamboo flute), janggu (hourglass-shaped drum) and samulnori (traditional percussion ensemble). Except for Ms. Eom’s gayageum class, all are taught by members of the center’s gugak troupe.
No prior experience is necessary, though at least one semester of janggu is required before tackling the more complex samulnori class, and the ability to read notes is recommended for the gayageum and danso.
Gayageum is traditionally a women’s instrument, and out of a class of about 20 only three were male. But the percussion classes were more well-rounded, and nationalities were across the spectrum, from New Zealand and the United States to China and Japan. “I found out that foreigners, especially Europeans, really like Korean music,” says Ms. Eom. She attributes some of that appeal to similar folk music traditions.
“The gayageum [lacks] lots of the pitches, but the German traditional music [scale] is almost exactly the same. I think that’s why they really like it.”
While Ms. Eom was examining blisters, her colleague Lee Yong-tae was busy stunning his students with a demonstration of what they would learn on the janggu. Played with two drumsticks, with frequent switching from one side to another, Mr. Lee’s swift and dexterous performance on the two-sided drum left a daunting but inspiring impression.
Across the hall, Lee Dae-won’s samulnori class was already up and about, marching with the ensemble’s signature instruments.
Perhaps the class’s biggest attraction is the chance to learn on one of the center’s instruments, for only 30,000 won per semester. This is a bargain considering that a good-sounding gayageum can cost tens of millions of won (tens of thousands of dollars). Janggo are slightly less expensive, and plastic danso, the Korean equivalent of an American school recorder flute, can be picked up for bargain prices. Although the instruments are usually being used by Korean classes during the week, students can set up individual practice times by asking teachers in advance.
Learning a new instrument may be fun, but for Ms. Eom the pain of adjusting to hers has a real significance for Korean music. “Our country was invaded by lots of countries like China and Japan,” says Ms. Eom. “When there is lots of war in a long time, naturally there is sorrow about that. And that’s expressed in Korean music.”

by Ben Applegate

Applications for the autumn session will be accepted starting Aug. 28.
To reach the center, take line No. 3 to Nambu Bus Terminal station and follow the signs for Seoul Arts Center. It’s a long hike from the station, though, so you might want to take bus No. 406 from Seoul station to Seoul Arts Center instead. For more information, see
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