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'Gugak' musicians protest plan to reduce education of traditional music

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Children learn how to play the gayageum, a 12-string Korean zither. Courtesy of Goryeong County
Children learn how to play the gayageum, a 12-string Korean zither. Courtesy of Goryeong County

'Gugak is valuable cultural asset that gives insight into past'

By Dong Sun-hwa

"Gugak," or Korean traditional music, has faced many trials and tribulations in the course of its history.

During Japan's 1910-45 colonial occupation of Korea, Japan attempted to assimilate Koreans by suppressing gugak, which was important to Koreans' national spirit and identity. Industrialization and westernization prompted Koreans to appreciate more music from other parts of the world, but to this day, gugak has managed to stand the test of time.

The gugak community, however, fears another crisis is arriving. In April, the Ministry of Education released the draft of a new curriculum for music education in elementary, middle and high schools, which will come into effect in 2025. But the new curriculum doesn't have any standards of achievement for students regarding gugak, or any guidelines on which parts or elements of gugak should be taught.

This change created an immediate backlash from numerous gugak musicians, who accused the government of "reducing the emphasis on gugak while only promoting Western music."

Lim Mi-sun, a gugak professor at Dankook University's music school, points out that schools will no longer be obligated to provide gugak education if this new curriculum takes effect as planned.

Lim Mi-sun, a gugak professor at Dankook University's music school / Courtesy of Lim Mi-sun
Lim Mi-sun, a gugak professor at Dankook University's music school / Courtesy of Lim Mi-sun
"As of now, all schools must teach gugak to their students because they should meet the minimum standards of achievements set by the government," Lim said in an interview with The Korea Times in southern Seoul, Wednesday. "But if it does not establish any standard for gugak, as can be seen in the new curriculum, the publishers of music textbooks can leave out content about gugak from their publications, leading schools to skip gugak education and only focus on teaching Western music."

Lim explained that there is another serious problem.

"The Ministry of Education even eliminated the list specifying what teachers should teach to help their students get a glimpse of Korean traditional music. It just classified gugak together with other music genres to give a general guideline, but gugak has a lot of distinctive elements. 'Sigimsae,' for instance, refers to the notes or short melodies that come at the front or at the back of a note to make it sound more attractive. The genres originating from the West do not have such elements, but the new curriculum does not even mention this point."

After its draft was unveiled, veteran gugak musicians held a press conference at the Jeonghyo Gugak Cultural Foundation in Seoul, May 4, criticizing the government for diminishing gugak education at this time when Korean culture is enjoying its heyday around the world. Among the speakers was Lee Young-hee, 83, who is designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage Master of Gayageum Sanjo and Byeongchang. The gayageum is a 12-string Korean zither and sanjo is folk music that is played solo with the gayageum. "Byeongchang" refers to playing the gayageum and singing at the same time.

Veteran gugak musicians speak at a press conference at the Jeonghyo Gugak Cultural Foundation in Seoul, May 4, to criticize the government for not promoting gugak education. Newsis
Veteran gugak musicians speak at a press conference at the Jeonghyo Gugak Cultural Foundation in Seoul, May 4, to criticize the government for not promoting gugak education. Newsis

"After K-pop boy group BTS sang 'Arirang,' numerous people across the globe came to know about our traditional folk song," Lee remarked. "A lot of them are now aware of the excellence of Korean culture, and gugak, the core of our national culture, has contributed to this."

The musicians demanded the normalization of gugak education so that young students can appreciate the time-honored traditional music as part of their formal education. Currently, about 30 percent to 40 percent of the content in music textbooks is related to gugak, according to the gugak circle.

The conference took place only about two weeks after 139 gugak-related institutions ― including the Korean Traditional Music Association and the Society of Study for Korean Music Education ― released a statement slamming the education ministry for "not conducting proper research prior to revising the curriculum." They also demanded the removal of the ministry officials who were in charge of the curriculum revisions.

The ministry denied that it was attempting to reduce the teaching of gugak, adding that the draft would be updated to reflect the opinions of people in the gugak community. It is scheduled to have a meeting with gugak musicians on May 18 to discuss the issue further.

Lee Young-hee, 83, who was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage Master of Gayageum Sanjo and Byeongchang / Courtesy of the Cultural Heritage Administration
Lee Young-hee, 83, who was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage Master of Gayageum Sanjo and Byeongchang / Courtesy of the Cultural Heritage Administration
"Some people ask me why young students should know about gugak," Lim said. "My answer is simple. Gugak is not just music, but our valuable cultural asset that gives insight into our past and history. In the case of 'Jeongeupsa,' it is a song from the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C―A.D. 660). It has the longest history among all songs in Korean, but many Koreans do not know this fact. Thus, losing the chance to explore gugak means losing the chance to delve into our origin and history."

Lim believes that there should be more efforts to revitalize gugak.

"In my eyes, gugak education has a long way to go. As of now, there are no sufficient learning materials for students of different ages to navigate the world of gugak in an entertaining way. This is largely because we lack teachers and financial support to develop these materials," she said.

A student at a university of education who plans to become an elementary teacher takes only about two hours of gugak courses during the four years of college, according to Lim. And there are only two colleges in Korea ― Korea National University of Education and Kongju National University ― that have gugak professors in their music education departments.

"Since aspiring teachers cannot take a lot of courses on gugak, they tend to focus more on studying Western music and spend more time talking about it when they actually become teachers," Lim said. "This is how gugak keeps being overlooked. I would call this a malicious cycle."


Dong Sun-hwa sunhwadong@koreatimes.co.kr


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