[INTERVIEW] Pianist Kim Dae-jin, president of K-Arts behind Koreans winning of global music competitions

[INTERVIEW] Pianist Kim Dae-jin, president of K-Arts behind Koreans winning of global music competitions

Pianist Kim Dae-jin, newly-elected president of the Korea National University of Arts, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office on Nov. 2. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

By Park Ji-won

Korea is now known as one of the leading countries in terms of having the largest number of winners of international competitions. Statistics show that Korean musicians won 150 top prizes in the World Federation of International Music Competitions-approved tournaments over the last 60 years as of 2017.

Even Western media documented the secrets of the success of Korean classical musicians. Belgian filmmaker and TV director Thierry Loreau who has been making films on classical music and filming the final stages of the Queen Elisabeth Competition for more than two decades released documentary films on the wins, including “K-classics generation” (2020), a film tracing award-winning Korean classical musicians in international music competitions. He labeled the young Koreans dominating classical music competitions as the “K-classics generation” and considered it to be a cultural phenomenon.

Pianist and professor Kim Dae-jin of the Korea National University of Arts (K-Arts), who is known as a “devil” for being strict in teaching, is one of the key figures behind the phenomenon.

The newly elected president of the state-run university which has 137 teachers and 3,544 students from six art schools, has taught more than 500 students since he took the position in 1994. Under his teaching, many talented pianists have achieved historic records continuously winning prestigious international awards for the first time as an Asian or Korean.

The list includes Kim Sun-wook, winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2006, Son Yeol-eum, winner of the Oberlin International Piano Competition in 1999, Mun Ji-yeong, winner of the Geneva International Competition in 2014 and the Busoni International Competition in 2015, and recently Park Jae-hong, winner of the Busoni International Competition this year. The wins also helped the school attain an image of attracting only musical prodigies or being a nursery for artists. Korea has also gained an image of being home to a lot of talented artists in the international music scene.

“My students, who became successful now, would have been successful without me,” Kim said, humbly denying his contribution to the international success of his students during a recent interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seoul. But not many would agree with what he is saying.

[INTERVIEW] Pianist Kim Dae-jin, president of K-Arts behind Koreans winning of global music competitions

Pianist Kim Dae-jin, newly-elected president of the Korea National University of Arts, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office, Nov. 2. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

[INTERVIEW] Pianist Kim Dae-jin, president of K-Arts behind Koreans winning of global music competitions

Pianist Kim Dae-jin, newly-elected president of the Korea National University of Arts, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office, Nov. 2. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Considering the fact that performing on stage is similar to sports, he eliminated what he considered to be bad habits that are displayed unconsciously on stage and “corrected” them to be recognized as the gestures of winning musicians.

“We, teachers of the school, were devoted to proving that Korean students can win international competitions without going overseas. When the school opened, there was no proper facility to educate students. One rainy day, I realized my office had a water leak from the ceiling and I had to empty a basket full of water before having lessons. … I was devoted to the goal and confident in carving a talented student and turning the student into a winning applicant in international music competitions. Sooner or later, I realized I was good at doing it to some extent.”

That is somewhat a reflection of his desire to make the school and his students more international but also what he has been taught while studying overseas and from his teachers.

A musical prodigy and the first generation of classical musicians in Korea, Kim was one of the few musicians to be educated in music schools overseas back then. He received a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the Juilliard School under Martin Canin between 1982 and 1991, winning countless awards including the prize in the 6th Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition (presently, the Cleveland Competition) in 1985.

“Martin Canin, my teacher, was so diligent. He was never late for lessons and didn’t finish early. That is what I learned from him. Everybody, including me, has ups and downs. I try to show my students without justifying myself. I believe students would learn what I show them.”

He also debuted as a conductor in 2005 and has led the Suwon Philharmonic Orchestra and the Changwon Philharmonic Orchestra, while serving on the juries of prestigious international competitions such as the Leeds International Piano Competition and the Queen Elisabeth Competition.

But while attending international competitions as a jury member, he came to realize that something was missing in Korean students: uniqueness. Korean students are highly skilled, but looked identical and performed like a textbook without individual color or creative interpretation.

He then quit his way of teaching by “proving” how good they were and “impressing” the judges, and started to focus on seeing the fundamental aspects of his students by discovering their uniqueness.

“I realized that the textbook-like style doesn’t last long. They may be skilled and able to win, but they were not enjoying it. A core-self cannot be changed no matter what I, the teacher, does to the student. At the same time, it can be the uniqueness and the beginning of a creative interpretation of music. Since the wake-up call, I focused on spending a lot of time with them and discover their unconsciousness and teaching them about themselves, apart from teaching them technical skills. It is more about the process of learning about ourselves. And the creativity has been lacking and that is what we need in art now.”

Still, the reality is tough for musicians as winning in international competitions is no more a guarantee of a successful career as he had in the 1960s and 1970s.

“As a juror on many international competitions, it is ironic to say that there are not many credible competitions. In the past, in the 1960s and 1970s, winning a contest was a guarantee of a successful career and led to multiple recitals, discographies and contracts. But not anymore. We, the jury, often joke about the contests; ‘The quality of the first prize is not the same as first prizes awarded in the past.’ Therefore, students are urged to win more competitions to prove their performance. The competition is a necessary evil.”

Also, he stressed that many Western classical musicians are envious of the Korean classical music scene, which appears to be vibrant and full of young classical music fans. But the situation is not as positive as it looks, failing to grow the market, he pointed out.

“There were also many young fans about 10 to 20 years ago. We still have, but maybe because life in Korea is very stressful, those who grew to be middle-aged fans don’t continue to sponsor classical music. Also, there is not a culture of casually going to classical music concerts. To tackle this situation, there are many management companies that could provide quality concerts with of good musicians. But they are currently depending on the revenue and recruiting award-winning musicians. It is a vicious cycle.”

[INTERVIEW] Pianist Kim Dae-jin, president of K-Arts behind Koreans winning of global music competitions

Pianist Kim Dae-jin, newly-elected president of the Korea National University of Arts, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office, Nov. 2. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

He realized that Korea doesn’t need to prove to be good at music, because the musicians have already shown enough. Rather, he insisted the classical music scene is tasked to present more friendly concerts to ordinary citizens so that classical music can become a part of people’s everyday lives.

“We don’t need to prove ourselves anymore in music (by winning awards.) It is time to create a culture to present concerts that can be enjoyed by citizens rather than only presenting shows of award-winning musicians. There are many places in the country where there is a concert hall without cultural content. I would like to fill the vacancy of the culture by sending musicians and artists to these places … I hope artists could provide comfort to people and become necessary to society.”

While expanding the chances of encountering arts for citizens, he also aims to boost the opportunities for members of the state-run school to meet other artists during his four-year term and seek collaboration so that they can be more creative and come up with something new.

“Doing art means encountering other art. We have a bank in our minds where we save experiences, digest them and come up with new findings. It is a way to be creative. I would like to make more of such converging experiences by coming up with more exchanges within art schools and overseas art schools. It is a new beginning for the next 30 years.”

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