[INTERVIEW] K-pop's hidden hero: BTS, TWICE's vocal trainer Kim Sung-eun - The Korea Times
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[INTERVIEW] K-pop's hidden hero: BTS, TWICE's vocal trainer Kim Sung-eun

Kim Sung-eun, vocal trainer for dozens of K-pop stars, including BTS and TWICE, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times in Seoul. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Kim Sung-eun, vocal trainer for dozens of K-pop stars, including BTS and TWICE, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times in Seoul. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

By Dong Sun-hwa

K-pop is fiercely revving up its presence on the global music scene, with myriad singers attaining unprecedented international stardom. But there are so-called "K-pop makers" who receive far less limelight than they deserve, despite their contributions to the birth of megastars.

Vocal trainer Kim Sung-eun, teacher of big-name artists including BTS, TWICE and Kang Daniel, is one such figure.

"In the past, I felt like an empty shell or an outsider because I couldn't be judged by who I am. People evaluate a vocal trainer based on the singers' performances," Kim said during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the headquarters of WIP Company in Mapo-gu, Seoul. WIP is a K-pop academy that Kim established in 2011.

"I couldn't escape from the sense of vanity, as I should hand down what I have to the others to earn my recognition."

Kim, who has had a burning passion for music since her youth, jump-started her music career as a singer in 2003, after featuring in hip-hop musician MC Sniper's "Korean."



Thanks to her matchless knack for singing, she was soon offered another job as a vocal trainer for idol stars. Her first student was K-pop girl group BABYVOX Re. V, which debuted in 2007. As her students made progress in singing, more people asked Kim for help.

Since then, she has taught a flurry of K-pop stars ― such as diva Sunmi and Sandeul of boy band B1A4 ― and now has more than 15 years' experience under her belt. She said she did not have a sense of duty at first, but now has fallen in love with her work.

"As I grew older, I learned to let things go and met legions of good people in the industry who helped me fill my void," Kim, whose stage name is AG Sungeun, said. "Initially, it was demanding for me to interact with the singers and the officials from the music labels, but now we are close enough to have private gatherings and give a hand to each other when needed."

Kim Sung-eun taught Jin of K-pop titan BTS before his debut in 2013. Korea Times file
Kim Sung-eun taught Jin of K-pop titan BTS before his debut in 2013. Korea Times file
She added: "What I also like about my job is that I can appreciate all the numbers that are not included in an album. I am fond of the lesson time as well, which allows the singers to unveil their most authentic and candid side as they endeavor to make up for a deficiency."

Reflecting her satisfaction on her career, Kim looked bright and vibrant during the two-hour interview. Sporting flower-patterned blouse and denim, she did not wipe the radiant smile off her face as she talked about her life.

The vocal trainer said one of her "good people" is Jin of K-pop juggernaut BTS. She revealed she had singing lessons with three BTS members ― Jin, V and Jungkook ― for more than a year before the band's debut in 2013.

"When Jin was an idol trainee at Big Hit Entertainment, he practiced singing Asher Book's 'Try' (2006) with me during a lesson, which he could barely pull off back then. But after several years, he suddenly sent me his new record of that track with the accompaniment. Then he said, 'Please listen to this. Didn't I improve?' He was so proficient, but what touched me more was his attitude. Despite being a superstar with hectic schedules, he still strives for better."

Kim added that TWICE's Jihyo is full of passion and desire as well.

"She recently played an acoustic gig at a little theater as a part of TWICE's 'Melody project' and successfully live-performed five challenging tracks with all-band sounds. I think she pushed the envelope," Kim said.

When asked if there are certain types of students that are easier to train, Kim nodded.

"Flexibility in attitude and core muscle matters the most," she said. "The training usually starts from fixing the problems of each student and the upgrading in techniques comes next. But some students feel uneasy during this period, fearing that they are not making improvements in a new way I taught. But they should be more open-minded and embrace the changes instead of sticking to their own belief. If core muscle needed for singing is flexible, it facilitates the learning too."

Kim also moved to give her own definition of a "good singer." Defying a common belief that singers who hit the high notes with natural voices are usually the best, she underscored "emotions."

"If a singer can resonate with the listeners by fluently expressing their emotions in a song while making good use of 'tools' such as tune and lyrics, he is the best artist for me," she said. "Hitting high notes is merely a technique. There are numerous singers who can still rock the track with their other merits, without giving out an extremely high-pitched sound."

"I want to learn singing more and hone my skills since I am still inadequate. I want to seek ways to upgrade myself," Kim said. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

Kim praised soloists IU, Kang Daniel for their prowess and endeavor, among many others.

"Many people know IU excels in singing high-pitched tones and has a velvety voice, but don't realize how well she gets into the rhythm or how skillfully she epitomizes her emotions in a song," Kim said. "In the case of Kang Daniel, I was surprised by his vocals after listening to one of his songs without any auto tune. He was a rapper/dancer of now-defunct boy band Wanna One, but his sound was so deep and his ability to interpret music was great. Kang is very serious about his music and puts much effort into his work as well."

Although the K-pop scene is jam-packed with talented singers, many still believe that so-called "idols" are subpar.

"The K-pop industry has its own distinctive criteria when evaluating a singer," she said. "We put emphasis on performances and a singer is required to live-perform a gig while making powerful dance movements. In fact, the lead vocalists of each group can pull off diverse music genres with proficiency, but they lack opportunities to show themselves off."

Kim wrapped up the interview by disclosing her goals.

"I hope my students can accomplish musical feats and the teachers of WIP Company grasp more chances to teach," she said. "These days, it was tough for me to take good care of myself as I had to manage other people around me. So now, I personally want to learn singing more and hone my skills since I am still inadequate. I want to seek ways to upgrade myself."


Kim Sung-eun, vocal trainer for dozens of K-pop stars, including BTS and TWICE, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times in Seoul. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Kim Sung-eun, vocal trainer for dozens of K-pop stars, including BTS and TWICE, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times in Seoul. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

By Dong Sun-hwa

K-pop is fiercely revving up its presence on the global music scene, with myriad singers attaining unprecedented international stardom. But there are so-called "K-pop makers" who receive far less limelight than they deserve, despite their contributions to the birth of megastars.

Vocal trainer Kim Sung-eun, teacher of big-name artists including BTS, TWICE and Kang Daniel, is one such figure.

"In the past, I felt like an empty shell or an outsider because I couldn't be judged by who I am. People evaluate a vocal trainer based on the singers' performances," Kim said during a recent interview with The Korea Times at the headquarters of WIP Company in Mapo-gu, Seoul. WIP is a K-pop academy that Kim established in 2011.

"I couldn't escape from the sense of vanity, as I should hand down what I have to the others to earn my recognition."

Kim, who has had a burning passion for music since her youth, jump-started her music career as a singer in 2003, after featuring in hip-hop musician MC Sniper's "Korean."



Thanks to her matchless knack for singing, she was soon offered another job as a vocal trainer for idol stars. Her first student was K-pop girl group BABYVOX Re. V, which debuted in 2007. As her students made progress in singing, more people asked Kim for help.

Since then, she has taught a flurry of K-pop stars ― such as diva Sunmi and Sandeul of boy band B1A4 ― and now has more than 15 years' experience under her belt. She said she did not have a sense of duty at first, but now has fallen in love with her work.

"As I grew older, I learned to let things go and met legions of good people in the industry who helped me fill my void," Kim, whose stage name is AG Sungeun, said. "Initially, it was demanding for me to interact with the singers and the officials from the music labels, but now we are close enough to have private gatherings and give a hand to each other when needed."

Kim Sung-eun taught Jin of K-pop titan BTS before his debut in 2013. Korea Times file
Kim Sung-eun taught Jin of K-pop titan BTS before his debut in 2013. Korea Times file
She added: "What I also like about my job is that I can appreciate all the numbers that are not included in an album. I am fond of the lesson time as well, which allows the singers to unveil their most authentic and candid side as they endeavor to make up for a deficiency."

Reflecting her satisfaction on her career, Kim looked bright and vibrant during the two-hour interview. Sporting flower-patterned blouse and denim, she did not wipe the radiant smile off her face as she talked about her life.

The vocal trainer said one of her "good people" is Jin of K-pop juggernaut BTS. She revealed she had singing lessons with three BTS members ― Jin, V and Jungkook ― for more than a year before the band's debut in 2013.

"When Jin was an idol trainee at Big Hit Entertainment, he practiced singing Asher Book's 'Try' (2006) with me during a lesson, which he could barely pull off back then. But after several years, he suddenly sent me his new record of that track with the accompaniment. Then he said, 'Please listen to this. Didn't I improve?' He was so proficient, but what touched me more was his attitude. Despite being a superstar with hectic schedules, he still strives for better."

Kim added that TWICE's Jihyo is full of passion and desire as well.

"She recently played an acoustic gig at a little theater as a part of TWICE's 'Melody project' and successfully live-performed five challenging tracks with all-band sounds. I think she pushed the envelope," Kim said.

When asked if there are certain types of students that are easier to train, Kim nodded.

"Flexibility in attitude and core muscle matters the most," she said. "The training usually starts from fixing the problems of each student and the upgrading in techniques comes next. But some students feel uneasy during this period, fearing that they are not making improvements in a new way I taught. But they should be more open-minded and embrace the changes instead of sticking to their own belief. If core muscle needed for singing is flexible, it facilitates the learning too."

Kim also moved to give her own definition of a "good singer." Defying a common belief that singers who hit the high notes with natural voices are usually the best, she underscored "emotions."

"If a singer can resonate with the listeners by fluently expressing their emotions in a song while making good use of 'tools' such as tune and lyrics, he is the best artist for me," she said. "Hitting high notes is merely a technique. There are numerous singers who can still rock the track with their other merits, without giving out an extremely high-pitched sound."

"I want to learn singing more and hone my skills since I am still inadequate. I want to seek ways to upgrade myself," Kim said. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

Kim praised soloists IU, Kang Daniel for their prowess and endeavor, among many others.

"Many people know IU excels in singing high-pitched tones and has a velvety voice, but don't realize how well she gets into the rhythm or how skillfully she epitomizes her emotions in a song," Kim said. "In the case of Kang Daniel, I was surprised by his vocals after listening to one of his songs without any auto tune. He was a rapper/dancer of now-defunct boy band Wanna One, but his sound was so deep and his ability to interpret music was great. Kang is very serious about his music and puts much effort into his work as well."

Although the K-pop scene is jam-packed with talented singers, many still believe that so-called "idols" are subpar.

"The K-pop industry has its own distinctive criteria when evaluating a singer," she said. "We put emphasis on performances and a singer is required to live-perform a gig while making powerful dance movements. In fact, the lead vocalists of each group can pull off diverse music genres with proficiency, but they lack opportunities to show themselves off."

Kim wrapped up the interview by disclosing her goals.

"I hope my students can accomplish musical feats and the teachers of WIP Company grasp more chances to teach," she said. "These days, it was tough for me to take good care of myself as I had to manage other people around me. So now, I personally want to learn singing more and hone my skills since I am still inadequate. I want to seek ways to upgrade myself."


Dong Sun-hwa sunhwadong@koreatimes.co.kr

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