I met Sori Choi, a world-class traditional Korean percussion player, in Darmstadt Summer Courses 2012. She came to Darmstadt not only to introduce Korean traditional percussion to contemporary percussionists, but also to free herself from her own genre and discover a new dimension.
When I heard her playing of traditional music I thought " this is it." I have always loved world music from all over the places in the world, but Korean Shaman Music was " just me", strangely enough. I found that the dark and raw energy of Korean Shaman Music was somehow similar to Xenakis' percussion music. I wanted very much to learn Korean Traditional percussion music.
Sori has a strong mission- both as a player and an educator. Well, me too. So I invited her to Denmark and make an educational concert project with me.
The project main purpose is to " explore", " question", and "liberate" ourselves from our genre, nationalities and dogma. I want to inspire people to turn on the learning switch, to dare, and to risk. I believe that when we come back to what we are originally good at, this experience for learning music from another angle will add another dimension.
The "Symptom" for Overly-Trained Classical Musician Like Me
I am a very classically trained musician, and I have a very solid foundation. Since I was young I had many technical qualities that my classmates envied about: perfect pitch, excellent at ear training, dictation, sight-reading/singing, "perfect memory", etc.
It was easy for me to be on the top musically in my class. I played complicated contemporary music from France and Japan already at age 13. At the same age, I participated a visionary concert project with the African drum master Ali in Taiwan. During the group lesson, I was very surprised and concerned about the fact I had great difficulties learning rhythmic patterns solely by hearing and feeling the groove.
So this was the other side of coin: I was excellent at anything that was written, but I was scared to learn things without musical notation outside of classical style. I had a great resistance torwards this unknown, even though I was still so young. In the end I did learn the rhythmic patterns, but I remember that I had to " cheat": I had to translate the rhythms into notation system in my head. For the concerts, I was in the surviving mode.I knew I was not "groovy" at all, and I didn't have a good sound.
Similar things happened again when I was in college when we had a few conga group lessons. I was very willing to learn and open-minded that time, however, it was again difficult to resist the tendency to transfer the groovy rhythmic patterns to notation system in my head. I was perhaps the best at sight-reading, but slowest at learning by ear. I felt so embarrassed about the fact that I am a " percussionist", but I could not learn groovy rhythms by ear, nor could I improvise.
Luckily the " symptom" eased more and more after I moved to Copenhagen. Over the past 7 years I have learned that what I came through was completely normal for many classical musicians. I was not so hard on myself and not so easily embarrassed anymore- which turns on the " learning-switch". It's funny that the less I was critical about myself, the more I could learn, and I still aim high!
So I became better at learning by ear over time, and my improvising skill also came little by little, naturally. Though there are still much to learn.
The Symptom for Those Who Has Never Learned to Read
When I taught Danish kids in a music school for the first time in 2009, I was very shocked. The kids from age 7 to 15 had the opposite problems I had. They were excellent at learning by ear, but they literally had not learned how to read music. The score was right in front of them, but it seemed totally foreign- they could not learn anything unless I show them.
I, coming from the classical world, couldn't let it pass. I began to teach theory, ear-training, solfege, etc. to those young kids and teenagers. However, I faced a great resistance, especially the older students- they questioned why they had to waste their time to learn to read, while they could play and improvise far more complicated things than what they can read?
I saw that they have turned off the learning switch from very young age.
It was very difficult for me to make any rehearsals. They had the notes in front of them, but they didn't' know where they were. If I said " let's start from section B", they would ask me how section B sounded like. If necessary, I had to show them how section B sounded like, or I simply had to start over from the top. Extremely unpractical.
Coming from the background where all my musician friends know how to read since they were small kids, I was very puzzled by this phenomenon. I was not an experienced teacher at that time, but it was an important lesson for me.
I saw that if one can only learn music by ear, he or she is not free. If one can only learn music by reading, he or she is not free either.
Many Passionate Musicians Yearn for Freedom, Expansion, and Exchange
In the recent years, I have seen many examples of passionate musicians wanting to free themselves from the identification of the genre of music they are best at. Jazz players began to be interested in Xenakis' music, folk musicians wanting to know how to notate better, classical musicians wanting to play electronic music, folk music and making theaters, etc. I think this is what love does: it wants to liberate, expand, and exchange.
In my earlier 20's I wanted to be a marimba specialist because it was very " known"; however, deep inside I felt very limited. Then many opportunities opened me up to new dimensions, as if it was saying to me " come on, Ying-Hsueh, you could do much more". The yearning for freedom has lead me to experiment with contemporary music, theater, jazz, and much more. Sometimes the new dimension do require a lot of work, but I have enjoy the tremendous sense of expansion. I no longer strongly identify myself with a specific genre.
I am very excited what we will find out in the project. The detailed project description will come very soon. Please stay in tune.
Finally a quote from Martha Graham: