My approaches to teaching, my perspectives on interpreting piano and music compositions, and my artistic vision were profoundly expanded by my enriching, year-long cultural experience as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Korea in 1984 and 1985. Let me tell some of the story.
I taught at Yeungnam Univeristy in Korea’s third city, Taegu. My year included performing with the Pusan Symphony Orchestra, traveling throughout Korea attending folk festivals, composing a multicultural symphonic suite, and interacting with Korean and American colleagues and friends on a daily basis.
Most importantly, my family experienced the nurturing growth of multi-cultural perspectives. After attending Korean school that led to a treasure-filled time, two of my four children ran with their Asian experience: Christina graduated from Five Branches Institute in Santa Cruz and became an acupuncturist, Adam, who is fluent in Chinese, graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities as a Cultural Anthropology major and was awarded a Fulbright Critical Language Scholarship and spent the Summer of 2018 in Xi’an.
The twenty-five students I coached at Yeungnam University excelled in the art of piano performance. It was readily apparent that all the students shared a highly dedicated work ethic. They demonstrated significant musical talent and mature musical ears, self-discipline, patient concentration and intellectual clarity. However, two primary teaching goals emerged for me – to free these students’ expressive artistic approach to the nuances of musical interpretation and to build their self-confidence.
At first, they were reluctant to explore expressive pianistic nuances (dynamics, rubato, and phrasing, for instance) beyond what was written in the music. Once they realized the vast potential and vitality of expressive interpretive individuality, their artistic visions blossomed.
In addition, I also believe my Korean piano teaching experience had a profound impact on my own artistic growth. After soloing with the Pusan Symphony Orchestra, this was hugely rewarding as a televised concert on July 3, 1985, featured American music in commemoration of our country’s birthday.
I had a month to learn Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” – a challenging work! I was frantically practicing piano twelve to fourteen hours per day. After two weeks of intense practicing, I was having tea with a Buddhist monk who became a friend. He was not a musician, but he identified a practice approach that I never thought of. As I recall, his words were: “You Americans are so impatient – you only use about 10% of your brain. You must use 20% Practice the music one idea (phrase) at a time. Once the musical idea is completely mastered, then proceed to the next idea – not before.” Amazingly, it worked! The performance went well. It is indeed a valuable meditative-like mind expanding practice technique.
Our sojourn in Korea was so memorable! The full support of the Fulbright organization enabled the professional enrichment and cross-cultural interaction. The lasting value of the Korean Fulbright experience made me a firm believer in the power of music: Music serves as an effective communications bridge among diverse cultures. In essence, the Fulbright Spirit inspires global unity!
Thomas J. Wegren – Fulbright to South Korea 1984