Music professor performs, teaches in South Korea
December 29, 2011
An email to the United States Embassy in Seoul changed Benjamin Whitcomb's travel plans.
The associate professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater had originally traveled to South Korea to perform a concert and promote his new cello book.
"I was planning to perform with Dutch pianist Vincent deVries at Yonsei University and meet with some students at Korea International School, but I wanted to do more," Whitcomb said. "It occurred to me to check with the U.S. Embassy to see if they knew of any opportunities. I hit the jackpot."
Whitcomb spent a week teaching, performing, networking and recruiting, traveling hundreds of miles across the South Korean peninsula - all coordinated by the cultural branch of the U.S. Embassy.
As a special guest, Whitcomb taught master classes at Kyung Hee University College of Music - one of the prominent music colleges in South Korea - and Sookmyung Women's University.
A master class is a one-on-one instruction session with a musician, but an audience is present. "The idea is to make the player sound noticeably better to the audience," Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb said working with the Korean students inspired him. "It's amazing to witness different approaches to music and to see what's possible. This will help me draw on more experience when teaching our UW-Whitewater students - everything from problem-solving to playing in more captivating ways."
Many of the Korean students want to come to the United States for study abroad and exchange programs, he said, and now they know what UW-Whitewater has to offer.
After the events in Seoul, Whitcomb boarded a high-speed train bound for Mokpo, at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.
There, he worked with the "Dream Orchestra," a group of 78 underprivileged yet extraordinarily talented children. These musicians, ages 9-16, participated in master classes and performed cello ensemble pieces provided by Whitcomb.
TV stations, both national and regional, covered the day's events. MBC, one of South Korea's major broadcasting companies, filmed a documentary that aired nationwide in December.
One difference Whitcomb noticed between American and Korean cellists is that the performers were younger relative to their skills. Whitcomb said 11-14 year olds in South Korea are performing cello music geared toward 15-19 year olds in the United States.
"The Korean dedication to music is incredible," Whitcomb said. "There are city bus routes in some towns that exist just to transport people to music practice."