Go to contents

Classroom without harmonium

Posted September. 07, 2013 06:07,   


Single male teacher Kang Su-ha gets appointed to a teaching position at an elementary school in a mountainous area in Gangwon Province in the 1960s. Hong-yeon, a 17-year-old elementary student who is way older than her classmates, enters the classroom, carrying her younger sister on her back. She loves Su-ha, but he cherishes teacher Yang Eun-hee at the school. This rather banal story of romance charms viewers of this movie by stimulating their nostalgic memories from the past. This movie, entitled “the Harmonium in My Memory,” released in 1999, is full of reminiscent memories from the bygone era. In the movie, Su-ha and Eun-hee sympathize with each other, playing the harmonium together. When they come closer, they feel distance anew, like the relationship of two chopsticks.

The harmonium is believed to have been first introduced to Korea by foreign missionaries around 1986. In the April 27, 1909 issue of the Hwangseong Shinmun, an article reads “State-run high schools use harmoniums.” Education of western music in Korea thus started with the introduction of harmoniums. All different museums with reinstated looks of the school from the past have a display of harmonium and a briquette heater in the classroom for a good reason. Novelist Shin Kyung-sook’s novel “The Place Where the Harmonium Was” was translated into English in the U.S., but the title was changed into “the Blind Calf.” The reason was American readers would not properly understand emotion of Koreans who instantly recall the “harmonium” when talking about their school years.

Harmoniums have all but disappeared from elementary schools. Children are now learning children’s songs by following programmed computer music. This situation has happened since the education authority developed educational materials using the computer as part of policy to “advance education” around 2005. In the past, would-be elementary school students were required to take a harmonium performance skills test, but this system was revoked in 1998. With the passage of time, education methods should change, but it is sad to know that children are now signing songs to the tune of mechanical music at schools, not at a karaoke room.

President Park Geun-hye promised to reinforce arts and sports education at school as one of her election pledges during the election campaign last year. She pledged to do so because arts and sports education would significantly affect development of students’ personality. In this light, the exit of harmoniums is sad and regrettable. Wouldn’t it just as important part of the goals of music education to learn how to harmonize singing and performance of musical instrument as to learn how to sing songs to follow accurate keys and rhythm? This will also enable students to learn the emotion of analog, which has become something of rarity these days. One day in the future, children may come to divide generations according to whether people know harmonium sound or not, or whether they have seen harmonium or not.

Editorial writer Lee Jae-myeong (egija@donga.com)