Koreans, Taiwanese lead influx

February 01, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

The Peabody Institute these days looks expectantly to the East. The Far East.

Nearly 20 percent of the 658 graduate and undergraduate students of that venerable institution on Mount Vernon Place are East Asians, mainly Koreans and Chinese from Taiwan. The overwhelming majority are women.

The process that led to the "Asianization of the Peabody," as one staff member put it, began a little over a decade ago. It has continued to the degree that David Lane, Peabody's admissions director, has auditioned students in Asia for the past three years.

"It happened at Juilliard first," recalled Robert O. Pierce, Peabody's director. "But that was New York City. Then it moved to Baltimore and other cities."

Mr. Pierce said the growing number of Asians at Peabody reflects the overall embrace by Asians of Western culture and technology. "I guess we're part of that larger pattern," he said.

The pattern he refers to began to form after World War II as Western influence penetrated Japan, then South Korea and the Republic of China on Taiwan. Western films, books, records, clothing -- even social attitudes and business techniques -- gained wide acceptance. This influence has been especially strong in music, which Mr. Lane believes has an emphatic "intellectual and emotional appeal" to young Asians.

It certainly had for Jun Wang.

A 34-year-old conducting student from China, he did not hear a note of Western music until he was 11. He began making music at age 5 on a handmade flute in his home village in Hupeh province. "I just played Chinese songs until I was 11, when I was brought to the Hupeh Opera House in Wuhan," he said.

There he was given a violin, the first he ever saw, and began to study. "I played very good. I saw the Western music was very beautiful, like Chinese music."

As interest in Western music has grown in Asia, so have the audiences for it. Tokyo; Seoul, South Korea; Hong Kong; and Taipei, Taiwan, are on the concert circuit for performers of classical music.

One consequence of all this has been the apparent neglect of traditional Asian music. Students from Korea and Taiwan at Peabody indicated it was easier for them to study Western music in their elementary and high schools. Traditional music wasn't widely offered.

Dae Soon Kwon, 32, a guitar student from Kwangju, Korea, said, "We were surrounded by Western music. Our teachers were all Western-trained."

His compatriot, Yong Suck Kim, 26, said that "those instructors who want to preserve Eastern music are seen as very conservative."

Betty Tang, 24, a violinist from Taipei, said, "The music from ancient times is vanished. We do not hear it. We cannot write or read that kind of music."

Elizabeth D. Tolbert, a Peabody ethnomusicologist, said that in Asian music, "the concept of the artist is different, the structure is different, the notation system, the pitch system. It has a different rhythm."

To study Western music, Asians must come to the United States or Europe. Except for Japan, most Asian countries have no conservatories such as Peabody, which are extremely expensive.

One-on-one teaching

"The teaching is one-on-one, and one-on-one teachers are the most expensive," said Frederik Prausnitz, Peabody's conducting instructor. The full tuition at Peabody, $15,750, covers only about half the cost to teach a student, he said.

Mr. Lane expects the number of applicants from the Far East to grow or to remain at its current high level. There were 1,050 for the current year, of whom 117 were admitted. Asian students, according to faculty members consulted at Peabody, tend to be no more dedicated -- nor less -- to their studies than other students at Peabody.

"Certainly, they are committed, " said Hajime Teri Murai, the conductor of two of the Peabody's principal orchestras. "It is difficult to leave your culture to come here for four or five years and not be."

But not all. Frederik Prausnitz, Peabody's conducting instructor, recalled a Korean student he once had who "was a bit lazy. He got by on his enormous talent and good looks."

Julian Martin, a piano teacher, who has much experience teaching young Asians, said, "They are very disciplined. They would do anything I tell them. But if that involves thinking for themselves, if it involves any personal initiative, they're stuck."

'Not an ethnic issue'

"This is not an ethnic issue, " he said. "It is an educational one. It is the way they are taught. They come here with reasonable or very high levels of technical capability. But until they've been here two or three years they are dumbstruck if you [point to a passage in the music and]ask a question like, 'What does Beethoven mean here?' "

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