Reflections on a Korean Clarinet Student

This is a repost following a news report…..


This morning’s news headlines were about today’s College Entrance Exam in South Korea. Search the topic if you want more, but I was impressed with a few of the points made. I’ll share a few of those and follow them with some brief, random recollections of my semester’s experience with a Korean clarinet student.

  • It is the only test and today is the only test day.
  • Adult workers go to work late so not to interfere with traffic of students getting to test sites.
  • Students / Parents may call for police escort if running late.
  • Air traffic is reduced and re-routed to reduce noise and distractions for test takers.
  • Avg parent spends $2,500 on top of school for test prep and both parents and test prep facilities are ordered to STOP at 10pm the night before the test.
  • Parents will often go through special prayer rituals (i.e. bowing 3000 times).
  • Elementary and Middle School students cheer arriving high school seniors.
  • Last year there were 150 test taker suicides on test day.
  • High School is NOT mandatory, yet 97% of young adults graduate.
  • Social status is determined largely by academic achievement which is determined by what college you go to and THAT is determined by THIS TEST!
  • 400 teachers and college professors who make the test are sequestered for about two months (no cell, no internet, no outside contact) while the test is designed.

A few years ago I had a Korean clarinet student during a semester that he was an exchange student here. I met him on a cold wintery day. Waiting for him in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building at Huntington University, I saw him jump out of the car, no coat — and with clarinet already assembled and literally running to the building. He was not late.

As I took him to our studio room, I asked why no coat and why he already had his clarinet assembled. He didn’t want to lose lesson time by removing a coat or assembling his instrument. He had been practicing prior to coming and considered assembly/disassembly it a waste of time.

I was impressed with his proficiency. I quickly discovered that I had to be especially careful in how I criticized him. The first time I corrected something he began to apologize profusely, asked for my forgiveness and promised that he would never repeat that mistake. …and he didn’t.

He was extremely polite and respectful, expressing his frustration and disappointment at the lower level of respect for teachers here, explaining that in Korea teachers are among the highest ranks of respected professionals.

He was okay if we exceeded our allotted time, but wanted assurance that we would make up any time lost to interruptions or small talk.

He referred to most of his American friends, at least in terms of their musical preparation and proficiency, as “slackers”.

At our final lesson, he presented me a gift – a Korean wind instrument built on an entirely different scale system. He demonstrated it beautifully and seemed rather disappointed when I could hardly get it to sound.

We could learn some things from the Koreans.


4 thoughts on “Reflections on a Korean Clarinet Student

  1. Sounds like a pretty normal day at IUB. As an undergrad, my syllabus stated that our instruments were to be assembled before we arrive, and disassembled after we leave… I don’t think that the HU students are ‘slackers’, as your Korean student mentioned, but I do sometimes get the impression that some of the musicians at HU might not know just how hard undergraduate students work at their craft at other academic institutions. Six hours a day as pianist or violinist, or four hours a day as any other instrumentalist was fairly routine where I went to school. Here, more often than not, all of the practice rooms are open.

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