June 25, 2011

My first (un)traditional Korean music experience

At my Lincoln Literacy Council lesson today, the tables turned were turned. The Amelia Bedelia books remained on the shelf, the laptop with her essays stayed closed, and my little notebook was nestled in my bag. My student is from Korea. She's a young mother who came to live in America several years ago because of her husband's career. She is an accomplished student of English, a savvy local event attender, and a conscientious mother. But beneath all that--before she moved to America and became a mother--she was a musician.

She would never call herself a musician. Despite my admiration and protest, she wouldn't give in. She explained that even her masters degree in music performance didn't equate to the title. Part of her refusal is modesty, but I also think that she doesn't like the limitations of the label.

But when she played for me today, I knew she was a musician. She grew up playing the Gayageum, a long piece of wood with 12 pluckable strings held by adjustable frets. She played me a contemporary piece, along with the disclaimer that it hardly retained any traditional value, but it was easy on the ears. As she played the instrument the grace and power of her hands surprised me. On this instrument, the strings on the right side of the fret are plucked and the left hand bends the strings on the left side to alter the tone and pitch.  I sensed her confidence and calm during the song, the truest sign of a performer. For the second song, she played her favorite instrument, the Geomungo. This instrument is similar to the first, except there are fewer strings, and it is played with a bamboo stick instead of just plucking. She didn't even read music for the second song, just played from memory.

I enjoyed her performances not only for the music, but also for the musicianship. It is a wonderful thing to see a person do what they love. Instead of my strange explanations of American English and custom, for our last lesson, she gave me a real treat--a glimpse into her real talents. This may be the best reason of all to be a teacher.