What Do You Hear?

I first saw Italian Opera while I was in the Korean public education system and I did not understand any of the language coming from the singer. What I heard was a loud sound full of sorrow, maybe some regret. I did not understand the full story but I was able to grasp the scope of emotion. It still happens listening to any kind of music. When a performer puts everything into their sound, I get emersed in their music and try to catch what the performer wants to communicate.

Performing arts is a three-part activity. There is a creator who tries to scribe their inspiration into a limited medium, then a performer who delivers what the composer notated with the performer’s artistic interpretation, and an audience who listens and watches to either experience or understand. For performers, there are two important elements required: technique and interpretation. I have seen performers with brilliant technique but not much personality in their musical decisions, and performers who understand the piece of work in and out to have a lot to say but do not possess a technique to express it with their instruments.

As a performer, the more I perform, the more I realize that I easily fall into mannerisms if I just play what’s on the score. I could play right notes, loud and fast, soft and slow. They sound energetic, tender, lovely, or nostalgic. But what does it mean, really, if I don’t put anything beyond that into the piece of work? Technology today enables the most complicated score to be playable on the hybrid grand piano, like Yamaha Disklavier, and it took place of one of the important elements of performers. Now performers really need to communicate their interpretation and the meaning of the music to the audience.

Naturally, practicing is more engaging. You have an answer to the ultimate question: why do I polish this section? First, you define the character or the architectural function of the section. Then, you polish it, so it sounds like what the composer wanted on the score, and so your interpretation gets communicated free of technical barrier. Audiences do want to see the beautiful acrobatics, which is a result of rigorous practice of days and months, but what they also empathize with is its sound and the emotion behind it.

I recently had an experience which affirmed my realization. I was invited to a liberal arts college in Louisiana to coach and perform Korean art songs with their voice students. I was fascinated with the idea. Songs of the East in THE South! I have never felt so included in this country. Even when the DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) movements are active in every aspect of the society, it was a considerable effort to have them learn the songs of the language they probably have never heard of.

The students had a tool, IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), on their music to learn the pronunciation, and the music was composed in Western European notation system. When I arrived, they had learned the song in their heart. I taught them the difference of what they were doing and what it really sounded like if Koreans sang it in terms of the diction. It was their “homework” for future. What they actually needed to hear and wanted to know was what the songs meant.

Bird Song by Cho incorporated a Korean traditional rhythmic pattern, of which the nuance is different than Sicilliane or Chopin’s Barcarolle pattern. Daffodil by D. Kim and many other songs are strongly related to the loss of home, neighbors, and country due to the Japanese occupation and the Korean war. The poet of Is My Lover Coming by K. Kim or Pear Blossom Rain by Lee is a traditional shy girl character of old generations in Korea and China. There are numerous details with historical backgrounds, some of which are explained in ‘Understanding of Korean Art Song’ by Na, that demand understanding in order for anyone to sing these songs. Whenever I told the story of my people and the unique sentiment of Korean texts and songs at the diction lecture or the coaching, students listened very carefully.

The final performance with the students included 9 art songs and 4 instrumental pieces by Korean composers. The program notes included a little bit of general information but we didn’t provide texts and translations. Janani Sridhar, the host and the Professor of Voice at Centenary College of Louisiana, and I wanted the audience solely focuses on the music and what is being communicated from the performers. The performance was successful, and we knew it because one of the audience members reviewed:

“I did not understand a single word sung in any of the art songs performed, but I felt them. I felt the joy or anguish in each piece. I knew what the composer was feeling when they wrote it, and I am truly grateful for the reminder that no matter whether or not you may understand someone, you can always recognize their shared human experience.”

My experience watching the Italian opera was not that different.

At a music performance, we hear sound, we see the trained movements, and we feel what is being shared. As an audience, what do you remember from a memorable concert? What remains in our memory the strongest is what was communicated as a whole. Are you a performer? Then mean it. Mean it from the practice room all the way to the concert hall.

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