Forget Rain, Forget Hakwons. Parents: Think Kim Sun Wook.

Like any other Westerner in Korea, I’m completely amused, and unsurprised, by the way 비/Rain’s so-called “World Tour” is turning out to be a collossal failure. (Inadequate stage setup? I have trouble buying that, as do many others.) World popularity isn’t a nationalist-netizen-driven thing, as Rain and his promoters — and hopefully the Korean pop music industry, is painfully realizing.

But there are Korean musicians who are world-class, and one of them is Kim Sun Wook, whom Lime just mentioned to me. Here’s an article on him from 2006, at KBS GLOBAL:

Eighteen-year-old pianist Kim Sun-wook has won the 15th Leeds International Piano Competition, which was held in Britain Sunday.

He was the first Korean, but according to Lime also the first Asian, to win at this competition. But what’s more amazing iis how he got there. He expressed interest in music as a child, and wanted piano lessons by the age of three. Like any mother, his mom figured he just wanted to be with his brother, who was taking lessons at the time. The mom apparently told the teacher, “He just wants to be with his brother, can you let him sit beside him during lessons?”

By age seven or eight, he was practicing three hours a day, attending at least two classical music performances a week — and well-known to staff at the main auditorium in Seoul. His parents didn’t push him, but also didn’t stop him from collecting concert schedules, planning which performances to attend, or listening to multiple renditions of pieces he wanted to learn on piano. For fun, he would play different pieces in mock competitions, his mother calling out the names of different pieces and performers that he’d written out for her. As a young child he researched where in Korea to study piano, and at the best school, he requested the most prestigious teacher as his first, second, third, and other choice for instructor — and, by impressing the teacher, he finally got his request. At age eight he had already bought a conductor’s baton and when asked in class, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” he answered not that he wanted to be a fireman, or a president: he said, “I want to be the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.” Who knows… he might get there yet!

Here’s his more serious, less effusive bio.

And the amazing thing is, his parents aren’t the kind people expect when they hear about an 18-year-old concert pianist touring a foreign land, as Kim is apparently doing in Germany now. His folks never stood in his way, but they also didn’t push him. His love of music seems to have come from somewhere deep inside him, and having been given the freedom to pursue it — instead of being crammed into hakwon classes for hours on end everyday — he’s done well for himself. If only all those parents would learn that lesson: making kids study stuff they don’t care about outside school hours not only isn’t a help: it’s a hindrance. The free time of which children are deprived in hakwons, in the pursuit of competitive advantage, dulls their will, robs them of necessary freedom and luxury to develop their own identity and explore what they want to do in life.

Someone famous once commented that life is the vale of soul-making (I think it was Rilke, but I’m not sure): likewise, childhood is the deepest vale of self-making. Parents need to recognize that, for their childrens’ sakes. People allowed some freedom in their development can do astonishing things.

Disagree? Give him a listen.

6 thoughts on “Forget Rain, Forget Hakwons. Parents: Think Kim Sun Wook.

  1. I added a link on “World Tour” that might answer the question. Basically, he’s (in my opinion) a talentless cashcow star whom some netizens pushed into the world’s top 10 on some internet poll. He’s touring all over, but… well, concert cancellations abound. He claimed the Toronto venue wasn’t capable of handling the stage setup he needed, but from locals the word is that’s a ridiculous claim.

  2. I hear you–! But there’s a long road ahead before that cultural shift is made, if ever, in “raising children.” I know my parents decided they wouldn’t “force me” to learn piano or anything…and ended up with a happy child who wanted to learn piano anyway. (I’m no concert pianist though).

  3. Jade,

    Yeah, I know. But I think it could happen more if people get shown the consequences of letting people grow up outside of classrooms. Basically, the idea of hakwons being beneficial itself is a kind of myth, and I’ve yet to meet someone who’s brilliant at anything because he or she went to hakwons through childhood.

    Anyway, we’ll see. If I make any progress on my nonfiction book on education here — which I’m hoping to get translated so I can publish it in Korean, it might be a drop in the bucket, but drops add up. Hm.

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