Monday, May 28, 2018

The Lasting Effect of a Fulbright Year in Korea

Thomas Wegren (the author), Fulbright scholar in Korea, and family. Photo credit: Thomas Wegren
This reflection comes from a Fulbright music scholar whom I met in Korea,Thomas J. Wegren, Ph.D.  He is  now Professor of Music, Faculty Emeritus at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
By Thomas J. Wegren
My approaches to teaching, my perspectives on interpreting piano and music compositions, and my artistic vision were profoundly expanded by my enriching, year-long cultural experience as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Korea in 1984 and 1985.  Let me tell some of the story.
I taught at Yeungnam University in Korea’s third city, Taegu.  My year included performing with the Pusan Symphony Orchestra, traveling throughout Korea attending folk festivals, composing a multicultural symphonic suite, and interacting with Korean and American colleagues and friends on a daily basis.
Most important, our family experienced the nurturing growth of multi-cultural perspectives.  That our children attended Korean schools contributed to a treasure-filled time.  Two of our four children ran with their Asian experience:  Christina graduated from Five Branches Institute in Santa Cruz and became an acupuncturist; Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities as a Cultural Anthropology major and is fluent in Chinese.  He has been awarded a Fulbright-sponsored Critical Language Scholarship and will be spending the summer of 2018 in Xi’an.
Piano Teaching Reflections
The twenty-five students I coached at Yeungnam University excelled in the art of piano performance.  It was readily apparent that all the students shared a highly dedicated work ethic.  They demonstrated significant musical talent and mature musical ears, self-discipline, patient concentration and intellectual clarity.  However, two primary teaching goals emerged for me — to free these students’ expressive artistic approach to the nuances of musical interpretation and to build their self-confidence.
At first, they were reluctant to explore expressive pianistic nuances (dynamics, rubato, and phrasing, for instance) beyond what was written in the music.  Once they realized the vast potential and vitality of expressive interpretive individuality, their artistic visions blossomed.
Nurturing self-esteem and building self-confidence were rooted in the concepts of constructive criticism and open-mindedness.  The result was a powerful desire and passion to excel — creating an intense fervor to communicate all that is best in music. Hopefully, they have passed this positive ideology onto their own students.
Piano Performances
I also believe my Korean piano teaching experience had a profound impact on my own artistic growth.
Soloing with the Pusan Symphony Orchestra was hugely rewarding.  A televised concert on July 3, 1985, featured American music in commemoration of our country’s birthday.
I had under a month to learn Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — a challenging work!
I was frantically practicing piano twelve to fourteen hours per day.  After two weeks of intense practicing, I was having tea with a Buddhist monk who became a friend, Hae-jin Sunim, who saved me!
He was not a musician, but he identified a practice approach that I never thought of.  As I recall, his words were: “You Americans are so impatient — you use only about 10 percent of your brain.  You must use 20 percent of your brain.  Practice the music one idea (phrase) at a time.  First, look at the music while playing, then at your hands, then with your eyes closed, then back at the music.  Once the musical idea is completely mastered, then proceed to the next idea — not before.  It is important that you be patient — do not rush your thinking — do not panic!”  Amazingly, it worked!  The performance went well.  It is indeed a valuable meditative-like mind-expanding practice technique.
Music Composition
My “Land of the Morning Calm” — premiered at the Ewha Women’s University National Music Performing Hall in Seoul on May 21, 1985 — is a symphonic tone-poem suite for a Korean-Western instrumental ensemble and musique concrete (music excerpts recorded from Korean field work research).  The orchestration for the Seoul premiere and a performance in Taegu integrated western and Korean instruments.  Out of necessity, the follow-up American premiere in Duluth, Minnesota, featured only Western instruments.
A flexible Korean approach to melody is used — featuring a wide variety of articulations, timbral nuances, quarter-tone bends, varied vibrato shadings and asymmetric phrase lengths.  These techniques are balanced with a Western approach that weaves the melodic lines into an imitative (contrapuntal) fabric of ever-changing orchestra colors.
The suite is made up of six pieces.  Each piece begins with a musique concrete excerpt, which sets the atmospheric mood and provides melodic material for the piece.
  1. Echoes in the Temple opens with a Buddhist chant excerpt that is blended with Gregorian chant motives. Performers are placed throughout the audience producing a mesh of interweaving colors. The intent is to simulate the sensation of standing in a central Buddhist Temple courtyard and hearing chant from all directions.  It’s almost as if you’re in the middle of an echo.
  2. Dance of the Harvest draws upon a Shaman Dance excerpt woven with a Western “Hoedown” melody.
  3. Night Mists is inspired by the extremely mournful character of “Susimga”, a painful lament of a lost loved one. It features a duet between a Western violin and a haegum (a two-stringed Korean violin with the bow moving between the strings). The sliding melodic tones are accompanied by sorrowful sliding harmonies.  The overall fabric projects a pleading, almost helpless, feeling.
  4. Flight of the Dancing Dragon features kayageum (a twelve-stringed zither-like instrument) and chango (hourglass drum). This lively fast-moving piece celebrates the joy and freedom of dancing among the clouds. A Korean stylized melody is blended with Western harmonies and a strong rhythmic pulse.
  5. Sing Bee’s Garden opens with a musique concrete excerpt of stately Confucian Ritual Music. The use of heterophonic texture (simultaneous embellishment of the melody, a frequently used Korean technique) and a subtle Latin flavored background rhythm project a gentle flowing elegance.
  6. Festival of the Red Moon features a musique concrete Buddhist Drum Dance excerpt transformed and synthesized into a high-energy Rhythm & Blues stylization, bringing the festivities to a jubilant close!
Korean Folk Festivals
My family and I attended several Korean Folk Festivals.  They were held in auditoriums and large football-sized stadiums, packed with fans cheering for their various folk music traditions.  The experiences were quite exhilarating!  The music recordings, videos and photos have provided a treasure of Korean resources.  I combined these materials with Western resources to create a lecture entitled Harmony in Diversity — Folk Music of the Eastern & Western Worlds.  It fits well in the honors course I’m teaching at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (“Beethoven to the Beatles”).
Our sojourn in Korea was indeed memorable.  The full support of the Fulbright organization enabled the professional enrichment and cross-cultural interaction.
The Korean Fulbright experience made me a firm believer in the power of music. Music serves as an effective communications bridge among diverse cultures!
I met Tom when I was assigned to Taegu, Korea.  His article is a fine example of the lasting value of the Fulbright Scholarship Program.

Donald M. Bishop
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia.
Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years. Read More

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