Learning Gayageum at the National Gugak Center

(This is a late post I started to write almost two months ago, yet never finished!)

May 26th: For the past 12 weeks, I had the chance to participate in a program offered by the National Gugak Center (formerly: National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts; or in, Korean, 국립국악원 Gukrim Gugakwon).

Pro tip: In Korean, “ 국립/gukrim” means “national”, and “국악/gugak” means “traditional Korean music”.

This program was offered every Saturday morning from 10:30am to 12:30pm at one of the buildings at the Gugak Center.

The semester’s tuition was only 30,000 KRW ($27.50 CAD), and that included a beautifully-designed textbook and CD, featuring pieces performed by some of the musicians at the Gugak Center.

I chose to learn the gayageum, which is sort of like a long, flat guitar or harp.

First class

On our first day of class, our instructor Gee asked us why we decided to learn gayageum, and what had interested us in the gayageum in the first place.

It was a kind of hard question for me to answer. A lot of students recalled a specific event or point in time when they saw a gayageum performance, which sparked their interested in the instrument.

For me, I can’t recall a specific moment. I’ve seen gayageum performances at a bunch of different cultural sites. However, I agreed with a lot of the participants in that I was really struck by how beautiful the musician’s form is when they play the gayageum. It’s a bit hard to describe, but basically, you have to stretch your arm out in order to make the vibrato sound on the left side of the gayageum. The correct way of doing this makes the body look really feminine, elegant and graceful.

Even a few of my Korean friends made the same remark: “Oh, you’re learning gayageum? It looks so beautiful when played!”.

Anyways, I decided to join the program mainly because it was so affordable, and because learning to play a Korean traditional instrument is not something I would ever get the chance to do back home.

The program

The director of the program, Mr. Lee, was very professional and friendly. He arranged for our class to individually rent gayageums at an affordable rate. It wasn’t required, but it was an option offered to those who wanted to practice at home.

I decided to rent one for the semester, but in hindsight, I wish I would’ve played it a bit more.

While I’m definitely a night owl, my roommate preferred to sleep and wake up early, meaning that I had to find time during the day to practice (not always easy since I was either working, volunteering or in class). I know – excuses, excuses!

The course was held each Saturday from 10:30am to 12:30pm. Mr. Lee told us that many students actually end up dropping out after several classes.

This is because a lot of people began to lose interest, especially when faced with the decision of staying in bed (potentially after a long night of drinking!) vs. commuting to music lessons in the morning.

I’m happy to say that I missed only one class, and that I had a VERY good reason for it!

It took a lot of commitment, though. Sometimes the classes just seemed to drag on… and on… But I’m glad I stuck with it.

The final performance

Our classes were all leading up to one thing – our semester-end recital!

Warming up with Gee songsaenim during our dress rehersal!

Warming up with Gee songsaenim during our dress rehersal!

A quick selfie during our dress rehersal!

A quick selfie during our dress rehersal!

The other gayageum class practicing in the same room as ours at the dress rehearsal. Their teacher seemed a bit more stern/serious.

The other gayageum class practicing in the same room as ours at the dress rehearsal. Their teacher seemed a bit more stern/serious.

Held at Seoul Arts Center, we were given an honor normally reserved for Korean musicians with years of experience and training in their field – our class played on the main performance stage.

Here’s a link to the video of our group performing in the recital:

Gayageum Performance at Seoul Arts Center

cropped gugak (4 of 4)

cropped gugak (2 of 4) cropped gugak (3 of 4)

One of the other classes performing

One of the other classes performing

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What a professional performance would look like

We performed three different songs: Gyeonggi Arirang, Jindo Arirang and Sanjo Arirang (listed in order of how nice they sound/how good we were at playing them). Sadly, the video doesn’t show the first song, Gyeonggi Arirang. It’s almost like the “Edelweiss” of Korea; not a national anthem, yet still a nationally-recognized traditional song.

I’d invited a couple of my friends from school along, but the Seoul Arts Centre grounds are actually pretty hard to navigate.

Turns out they ended up in a different theatre, and saw a completely different performance XD Oh well!

We all went out for lunch afterwards with Gee, our teacher.

She took us to a noodle house (simply called “Noodles” – Foursquare link here; menu/photos on Korean blog here) a short walk from Seoul Arts Center.

The Indonesian noodles I tried were divine, and I fully intend on going back there sometime!

With Gee (to my right), and two of my classmates from Germany and Trinidad & Tobago

With Gee (to my right), and two of my classmates from Germany and Trinidad & Tobago

Yummy noodles

Yummy noodles

Gugak experience program

I would 100% recommend participating in the Gugak Experience Program for Foreigners.

It will be a bit of a commitment to get up every Saturday in time for class, but it’s definitely worth it. You will have a unique experience that you won’t get back home, and will likely meet a lot of really interesting people.

Plus, you’ll even get to perform on stage in a foreign country – how cool is that?

More info:

Click here to visit the Gugak program’s website.

If you’re in Seoul and want to check out some traditional performances at the Gugak Center, click here.

Directions to the National Gugak Center

Directions to the National Gugak Center

Some of my favourite gayageum cover videos:

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4 thoughts on “Learning Gayageum at the National Gugak Center

  1. Hi, I’m thinking of taking these classes at the gugak center. Were the other students in your class already trained in other musical instruments, or is it ok for complete beginners to sign up? Thanks 🙂

    • Hey Ari,

      There were two options for the beginner gayageum course: one for people with no prior musical theory experience (ie: never played an instrument before), and one for people who were familiar with musical theory.

      The first one was taught in Korean and the second one was in English. My Korean level is still “beginner” and I’ve played instruments in the past, so I chose the latter option. However, I hate sight-reading so I just learnt as I prefer to do, by ear. There is a lot of sheet music in the English class, and everyone uses it. Like I said, I don’t like sight-reading so I didn’t usually use the sheet music. If you have never played a musical instrument before, just study the scales (do, re, me, fa, so, la, te, do) other basic musical theory jargon (ex: “vibrato”) before going and you’ll be fine.

      Nobody in our class had played gayageum before so it was a bit… interesting ^_^ even though many of us were seasoned guitar, piano, violin, etc. players we all started from the beginning again with gayageum. I strongly recommend taking the class! You will have a lot of fun. Gayageum has been my favourite instrument to learn so far.

      • Thanks! I just sent my application. Although I’m not a very experienced musician, I did learn guitar when I was a kid, and can basically read sheet music, so I guess I’ll be ok! I’m looking forward to it 🙂

  2. Thanks!!! I’m looking for this pieces of information. Just like your friends, I’m amazed when I hear it live at the first time.

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