Friday, May 13, 2011

Teaching Gugak to Elementary School Students

May 11th, 2011
I actually had an incredibly full day. I got up early (peeling my eyeballs open) and took a bus to 안성 Anseong, a city a little south of Seoul, where I met my friend 박연식 Bak Yeonshik from my 봉산탈춤 Bongsan Talchum class. Yeonshik is a professional supplementary teacher for Korean traditional music, as I mentioned in this blog when I first found out. On Wednesday I actually went along and watched him teach class. The school we went to is a tiny school of only 16 students for all six grades of elementary school. Since it's so small the students are two grades to a classroom and Yeonshik and I started with the 3rd and 4th graders. It was his eighth meeting with these students, but as I found out, classes are much longer than 40 minutes, we were in the classroom more than an hour and a half, although there was a break so that they could hit the can if needed.

Yeonshik had a 단소 danso and the students had brought their own instruments too (it's sort of like a recorder, a vertical bamboo (or cheaper plastic) flute). They began with Yeonshik writing out the notes in the 구음 gueum (the vocal representation of the notes) for the song they were playing (오나리 from 대장금) on the board. The students prompted him as he wrote 황태태 태황무 임무무무 황태태 태중태 태황태태 and so on. Then they all reviewed the fingering for the notes together, with emphasis on breath support and the particularly high and low notes. The students spent a few minutes practicing high and low and then everyone played together. As they played first one 3rd grader and then near the end another 3rd grader (there were 5 students, 3 in 3rd grade and 2 in 4th) gave up. As I continued to observe class it was obvious the one girl just had problems concentrating or had no sense for music though she was interested. After they went through it Yeonshik reminded them to not breath between each note, first they played a section of notes before breathing (as written above a section would be the series before each space) and then after they'd done that they practiced playing two sections before a breath. Everyone was really enjoying the class except the one girl with concentration issues, but I think she was having fun, too. She didn't seem frustrated that she couldn't play. Yeonshik used chocolate as a motivator. He gave it as a reward for doing things, but never actually denied it to anyone who hadn't, he just praised the ones who had managed to play through with the breathing right, for example. He particularly praised the one third grader who was doing well, as this student had never been exposed before the beginning of the term and yet was playing better than the fourth graders. The student took this very seriously. Yeonshik told him he could go to university for gugak (traditional music) and the little boy asked him very sincerely "but can you make a good living from gugak?" an answer that Yeonshik kept trying to side-step and the little boy kept asking. Yeonshik had each student play one by one, and praised each and critiqued them lightly (you need to concentrate on your breathing, it won't sound right until you take a breath at the right place and not other times) and gave them chocolate. When it was the turn of the girl who really couldn't play (last in the order Yeonshik had picked) he sent the students to recycle their milk cartons and then asked her to play, she was still having trouble getting sound to come out (it's not easy to blow like a recorder, it's vertical but like a flute you need to be positioned correctly relative to the hole or it's not going to produce a sound).

After about twenty minutes on the danso they opened their textbooks (they opened the textbook for fourth grade music not third) and they switched to playing 장구 janggu on the desk with their hands while speaking the 입장단 ipjangdan. Interestingly the notation they used was the traditional notation of circle, line and circle with a line in it (at Imshil Pilbong Nongak all the college kids read the notation that is just the ipjangdan written out 덩덩쿵딱). They practiced together beating the desks (one little third grader pulled out some cloth to shield her hand from the desk). Each time they went through the rhythm three times before stopping and trying again or getting feedback. First they did 자진모리, then 세마치, then 굿거리 and last 중중모리. Honestly they were quite good and they traded off having Yeonshik sing while they played (desk slapped and vocalized the sounds) and having them sing while he played to see if they were keeping the rhythm right. Actually I think they only sang two songs, but he sang with each of the rhythms. Because they knew the songs, this was how they checked themselves to see if they were correct because if the rhythm was wrong it was going to screw up the song. These songs were in the textbook next to the rhythms, they must have practiced the songs in a previous class.

After a break we went on to 강강술래 ganggangsullae (a folk song with a dance but they didn't do the dance). Yeonshik was even asking them questions like "what are the special characteristics of Namdo Minyo" and they (or at least one of them who answered first) could answer! Really really cool. And they were having so much fun. The girl with the concentration issues remained a little spacey but she had fun with the desk slapping and with the singing. They were quizzed on the details to the origin of ganggangsullae (sort of a myth) and they'd obviously learned it in a previous class.

After class but before we left Yeonshik was praising the one little 3rd grader again and he told him that if he practiced for a year or two he'd be good enough to start performing. The little boy had tons of questions, he was so into it! And all the kids decided they needed my autograph (it's this weird thing in Korea where they do that, and I've experienced it before many a time so it didn't phase me too much). So I was writing these little sentences like (dang these don't translate well) "Your joy at practicing gugak looked very good (to me)" and then signing my name and the last two were like "just sign, only sign, really big" and gave me these huge sheets of like sketch book paper (I felt so guilty to use it). Apparently my sentiments were not needed, only my foreigner handwriting.

Next we went to the 5th and 6th grade classroom which was only three students (one of the two fifth graders was slightly retarded). The two girls played danso even better than the younger kids, but the boy had none and just sort of hummed along off-tune. He still got chocolate. They discussed vibration as a special element in Korean music and practiced for 25 minutes, then switched to 민요 minyo folk songs. I didn't get to see the names of the songs written down, the first one sounded like 당기둥기 might be the name and the second could be called 떡떡대기야. The two girls sang quite well and the boy was having fun in his own way. The latter song might be one they've known less time, because Yeonshik did call and repeat, but it sounded good that way, so it might just be how that song is normally sung. Part of Yeonshik's job is to teach Korean thought/consciousness (의식) and after the break they talked about 한글 (the Korean alphabet).

Yeonshik took me to see the huge facility that Namsadang has constructed in Anseong and then we had a great lunch and a long conversation followed by coffee and more conversation before I went back to Seoul.  

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