Drumming up sounds from South Korea

Soojin Kim Ritterling, associate professor of music education

Soojin Kim Ritterling, associate professor of music education

On a sunny, summer afternoon a light rumbling echoes between brick buildings at UW-La Crosse. It grows louder at the heart of campus where five women sit in a gazebo beating on large, hour-glass-shaped drums. Their arms dance as they wave sticks in the air, click them above their heads, and beat again.

They drum up sounds from their instructor’s South Korean roots.

Soojin Kim Ritterling, associate professor of music education, was born in Jeonju, South Korea, an area rich in traditional Korean farmer’s dance and music. She learned how to play these drums, called Janggu, in grade school, along with all of her classmates.

Today Ritterling teaches her UW-L colleagues and students the same rhythmic, musical phrases on the drum.

“I wanted to bring something new here and share my culture,” she explains.

The group formed after Betsy Morgan, UW-L psychology professor, asked if Ritterling would teach her and a small group of her friends Korean percussion six years ago. Ritterling seized the opportunity. Morgan imagined one, 30-minute session, but Ritterling brought a syllabus with a rehearsal and performance schedule.

The group, UW-L Women’s Samulnori group, consists of about 10 faculty and staff members who meet every Monday at noon at the gazebo during the summer. Samulnori, meaning four things playing, refers the four different instruments used in traditional Korean farmer’s music and dance. The three other instruments include the Kkwaenggwari, a small gong; Jing, a large gong; and Buk, a barrel drum. The women’s group focuses on the Janggu because it is the most challenging.

Janggu, an hour-glass-shaped drum

Janggu, an hour-glass-shaped drum

“It’s really great because when you are playing you can’t think of anything else,” says Morgan. “And for some of us who lean toward the cerebral, it’s good to do something else.”

Bianca Basten, assistant professor of psychology, says practicing the drum in her free time is great stress relief.

“It’s kind of cathartic, especially during the semester on a Friday — beating something can be nice,” she jokes.

The women’s faculty and staff group performs with the UW-L Korean Percussion Ensemble, a student group, also under Ritterling’s direction. They perform at public schools, various campus locations and other public venues during the school year.

Ritterling says the hands-on drumming experience reinforces people’s desire to learn about a different culture. She hopes to spread that beyond campus.

She says every time she performs and presents on Korean culture at a national symposium on multicultural music, music educators want to know more. But Ritterling says there are no instructional manuals on Korean traditional percussion music. Her goal is to develop one, including a historical overview of the traditional music, musical scores and how to use the music in the U.S. classroom setting.

She took a sabbatical during the 2009 -2010 academic year in Korea with a grant from the Fulbright Scholarship Program to learn more about the traditional percussion music and how it is performed in contemporary Korean society. This will all be incorporated in her book.

“As a native Korean, and now as an American music educator, I feel that it is my responsibility to provide this unique material in formats that can be easily used,” explains Ritterling. “Through these efforts I intend to augment and expand the existing areas of multicultural instruction and influence at UW-L.”

Performances on the horizon:

The UW-L Women’s Samulnori group and UW-L Korean Percussion Ensemble perform throughout the school year. Find schedules (http://www.uwlax.edu/music/Events.html). The regular concert on campus is set for 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 30 at the Annett Recital Hall in the Center for the Arts.

Anyone interested in joining the Women’s Samulnori group can contact Ritterling at kim.sooj@uwlax.edu or 608.785.8417

More on Music at UW-L:

The UW-L Music Department offers a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree with an emphasis in performance, music history, music theory/composition, jazz performance, piano pedagogy or music theatre. They also offer a degree in music education with an emphasis in choral music, general music or instrumental music. Students can also declare a music minor. The department serves over 100 undergraduate majors and many more music lovers.