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Koreans, Taiwanese lead influx


The Peabody Institute these days looks expectantly to the East. The Far East.

Nearly 20 percent of the 658 graduate and undergraduate students of that venerable institution on Mount Vernon Place are East Asians, mainly Koreans and Chinese from Taiwan. The overwhelming majority are women.

The process that led to the "Asianization of the Peabody," as one staff member put it, began a little over a decade ago. It has continued to the degree that David Lane, Peabody's admissions director, has auditioned students in Asia for the past three years.

"It happened at Juilliard first," recalled Robert O. Pierce, Peabody's director. "But that was New York City. Then it moved to Baltimore and other cities."

Mr. Pierce said the growing number of Asians at Peabody reflects the overall embrace by Asians of Western culture and technology. "I guess we're part of that larger pattern," he said.

The pattern he refers to began to form after World War II as Western influence penetrated Japan, then South Korea and the Republic of China on Taiwan. Western films, books, records, clothing -- even social attitudes and business techniques -- gained wide acceptance. This influence has been especially strong in music, which Mr. Lane believes has an emphatic "intellectual and emotional appeal" to young Asians.

It certainly had for Jun Wang.

A 34-year-old conducting student from China, he did not hear a note of Western music until he was 11. He began making music at age 5 on a handmade flute in his home village in Hupeh province. "I just played Chinese songs until I was 11, when I was brought to the Hupeh Opera House in Wuhan," he said.

There he was given a violin, the first he ever saw, and began to study. "I played very good. I saw the Western music was very beautiful, like Chinese music."

As interest in Western music has grown in Asia, so have the audiences for it. Tokyo; Seoul, South Korea; Hong Kong; and Taipei, Taiwan, are on the concert circuit for performers of classical music.

One consequence of all this has been the apparent neglect of traditional Asian music. Students from Korea and Taiwan at Peabody indicated it was easier for them to study Western music in their elementary and high schools. Traditional music wasn't widely offered.

Dae Soon Kwon, 32, a guitar student from Kwangju, Korea, said, "We were surrounded by Western music. Our teachers were all Western-trained."

His compatriot, Yong Suck Kim, 26, said that "those instructors who want to preserve Eastern music are seen as very conservative."

Betty Tang, 24, a violinist from Taipei, said, "The music from ancient times is vanished. We do not hear it. We cannot write or read that kind of music."

Elizabeth D. Tolbert, a Peabody ethnomusicologist, said that in Asian music, "the concept of the artist is different, the structure is different, the notation system, the pitch system. It has a different rhythm."

To study Western music, Asians must come to the United States or Europe. Except for Japan, most Asian countries have no conservatories such as Peabody, which are extremely expensive.

One-on-one teaching

"The teaching is one-on-one, and one-on-one teachers are the most expensive," said Frederik Prausnitz, Peabody's conducting instructor. The full tuition at Peabody, $15,750, covers only about half the cost to teach a student, he said.

Mr. Lane expects the number of applicants from the Far East to grow or to remain at its current high level. There were 1,050 for the current year, of whom 117 were admitted. Asian students, according to faculty members consulted at Peabody, tend to be no more dedicated -- nor less -- to their studies than other students at Peabody.

"Certainly, they are committed, " said Hajime Teri Murai, the conductor of two of the Peabody's principal orchestras. "It is difficult to leave your culture to come here for four or five years and not be."

But not all. Frederik Prausnitz, Peabody's conducting instructor, recalled a Korean student he once had who "was a bit lazy. He got by on his enormous talent and good looks."

Julian Martin, a piano teacher, who has much experience teaching young Asians, said, "They are very disciplined. They would do anything I tell them. But if that involves thinking for themselves, if it involves any personal initiative, they're stuck."

'Not an ethnic issue'

"This is not an ethnic issue, " he said. "It is an educational one. It is the way they are taught. They come here with reasonable or very high levels of technical capability. But until they've been here two or three years they are dumbstruck if you [point to a passage in the music and]ask a question like, 'What does Beethoven mean here?' "

More than half of Mr. Martin's piano students are Asians (the piano and strings are the instruments they favor). He has visited Asia, taught there and auditioned students for Peabody. He suspects that the music education they are exposed to, which emphasizes rote learning and gives little attention to expression and personal interpretation, is changing because of the growing numbers of U.S.- and European-trained teachers.

Of the 117 East Asian students at Peabody, 96 are women. One reason is that in South Korea and Taiwan young men are in the armed forces in their late teens or early 20s. Another is the cachet that mastery of a musical instrument gives an Asian woman.

"In the culture, particularly in Korea, it is very important to have the ability to perform," said Mr. Lane. "It makes them more appealing as brides."

He is quick to dispel any "finishing-school" motivations that might imply. "There is a lot of benefit to this training," he said. "Most of these kids want to make music a profession. The really good ones get onto the concert circuits. The others would expect to return and teach."

As with nearly all music students, most Asians begin with the hope of becoming professional performers, but few have the talent and drive to make it. Eventually, the moment comes when each realizes the limit of his or her talent. For Haesung Min, it happened when she was 26, at a piano contest in Italy. She had been studying from age 7.

"It was a depressing moment," she said. "But it was good to realize what I am not."

Today she is at Peabody for a doctorate in musical arts. She needs it to further her career as a teacher in Seoul. The diploma she acquired at the Royal Academy of Music in London has not been very helpful to her. In Korea, she said, diplomas from European conservatories are not so highly esteemed as academic degrees from U.S. conservatories.

School began in 1857

Peabody switched in the 1940s from a diploma-granting conservatory to a four-year degree-granting institution. It claims to be the oldest conservatory in this country. It was set up in 1857 by the New England philanthropist George Peabody with a basically European-born faculty.

"The Americanization of the Peabody" began in the 1940s. The faculty became predominantly American as American classical or serious music entered the repertoire and native-born conductors took over major orchestras.

Not all Asian students at Peabody are unfamiliar with or uninterested in traditional music. Lucy Chen, a 23-year-old voice student from Taiwan, had a teacher who did not neglect that side of her education.

Ms. Chen said she is not sure whether she will return to Taiwan or stay in the United States. But no matter where she goes, she intends to include Chinese art and folk songs in her repertoire.

Folk songs, she said, use popular themes such as love and are very old. Art songs are more modern; they are usually written for traditional poetry.

"If I stayed here and forgot my Chinese songs, it would make me not to be fulfilled, " Ms. Chen said. "Before I came to America, I loved the Chinese songs very much. They are a part of my life, part of my personality and nature."

Jun Wang also understands this. He is a conductor of the Chinese Central Philharmonic Society, the People's Republic's most important orchestra.

'I want to conduct'

Several years after his encounter with Western music at the Hupeh Opera House, where he learned the violin, "they asked me to conduct. And when I do it, I felt I love conducting even more than the violin. I just want to conduct."

Which is what Jun Wang still wants to do, preferably somewhere in the United States.

"At this time in China it is not best to be a musician," he said. "To be a businessman, yes. Now, in China, it is more important to make money than play music."

Western cultural influences were blocked in China when the Communists closed the country in 1949. It wasn't until the opening to China by President Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s that Western music was again heard in the People's Republic.

Walter Hautzig, a retired Peabody piano instructor, was the first American to do a concert tour almost immediately after the opening of China. Chinese students streamed to the United States.

Peabody had 14 of them at the time of the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in the spring of 1989. Today Peabody has only four students from mainland China. The story is the same at conservatories around the country.

"In China, the quality of orchestras and teaching is not good like in America," said Jun Wang. "For music it is a richer field here. There are people from all over the world. The same kind of variety doesn't exist in China. In China even the best orchestra is not as good as here in Baltimore."

Jun Wang said he believes his early experience with traditional music will enhance his interpretations of classical music.

"I received a lot from traditional music," he said. "It helps me understand Western music. I think deep inside it affects my feeling toward Western music."

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