Dean of new SM educational institution says key to success is self-discipline
First Dean of SM Universe (SMU) – this is the latest title acquired by veteran K-pop songwriter Hong Jong-hwa, one of the earliest producers in the K-pop scene.
K-pop powerhouse SM Entertainment founded SMU in April as an educational institution to impart the K-pop training system, in collaboration with cram school franchise Jongno Hagwon and l model agency ESteem.
SMU is open to applications from all countries, which has naturally drawn the attention of K-pop enthusiasts in Korea and abroad.
The academy has seen 1,200 applicants for its trial course, which has been running over the past two months.
The K-pop star formation system – which goes through years of training, decides on a group’s concept, and debuts with a trendy bop – dates back to 1989. Hong played a vital role in the implementation of such a system. He was a key songwriter at SM Productions (translated), the former name of SM Entertainment, best known today for top K-pop groups like TVXQ, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, Exo, Red Velvet, NCT and aespa .
After serving as an Affiliate Professor of Applied Music at Howon University, Hong is currently an Affiliate Professor of Electronic Music Production at the Dong-Ah Institute of Media and the Arts.
Dean Hong recently sat down for an interview at SMU in Apgujeong-dong in Seoul’s southern Gangnam district with JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of Korea JoongAng Daily, to talk about SMU and his vision for the future of K-pop. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. How did you become Dean of SMU?
A. I was part of this project from the beginning. As an advisor to SM Entertainment, I set the direction for what this institution should be. Planning and setting up the facility and equipment took about a year and a half.
This building is located at 521 Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam District, and the building behind here was once a practice room for SM trainees. It is also used today as an educational facility.
How do you manage SMU?
We haven’t started regular class yet. For the regular course, the maximum number of students is sixty.
We have been organizing the trial course for eight weeks since the beginning of May. We have graduates from Seoul Institute of Arts and Dong-Ah Institute of Media and Arts working as full-time teachers. There are also special visiting lecturers to teach a myriad of courses. There are four “majors” here: singing and dancing, producing, modeling, and acting.
How were the students selected?
The announcement on SMTOWN (SM Entertainment’s official website) attracted around 1,200 applicants. Among them, 59 passed the auditions and participated in the trial class. We considered their potential – whether they have the opportunity to be a K-pop star or some other kind of Hallyu celebrity. We assess various factors needed to become a global talent – a certain level of singing and dancing skills are required, of course, and we also need to take into consideration how the student will grow.
Because we take their potential into account. we tend to see a younger age range among students. This is probably a similar age range as SM Entertainment trainees; we accepted applications from those in grades 9 and 10.
As I usually give lectures to university students, I was a little worried. These children are in their teenage phase, and I thought there would probably be various difficulties in teaching students of this age. Fortunately, these students had their own serious thoughts about life, art, and their future. It was like teaching students. Most of the candidates were children with a passion for art.
What are the results of the eight-week trial course?
We have seen great results. Through SMU education, a team was formed. It’s called UNIS(Z) (pronounced you-niz), a name the students came up with themselves. Then, SM Entertainment’s casting department called and said they wanted the five UNIS (Z) students to audition to become SM’s trainees. Apparently one of them had previously auditioned to be a trainee under SM (but didn’t make it) and then got a lot better with the SMU education, which made them want to give it a second chance. to the child. That alone was worth it.
Tell us about the SMU curriculum.
I was worried at first because the classes might be too difficult for ninth or final year students. But when I met them, they were kids already training to produce their own songs, with full music production facilities in their own homes. Those who applied for the vocal major had also previously trained their voices at music academies. So we were able to just teach them exactly what we do as part of the SM training system.
I actually think the program needs to be modified slightly for the regular course. It could be even more advanced. When I met the students, I thought they were probably ready to learn what I teach in the lectures. Kids these days can teach themselves just about anything through YouTube, in great depth as well. The students selected for the trial class already knew the basics, which enabled us to teach an advanced program, such as SM Chief Engineer Namkoong Jin’s special lecture on advanced mixing and engineer mastering.
Kangta from boy group HOT and Bada from girl group SES also stopped by to give special talks. Seeing SM’s first-generation K-pop idols teaching at SMU was truly meaningful. Kangta and Bada also told me that they find it meaningful and rewarding. Bada even brought snacks and dolls to give to the students. Many other professors and artists currently active in the industry came to give special talks.
Are other countries interested in the EMS program?
There has been a lot of interest in K-pop from Saudi Arabia, but also from Sweden. In mid-July, the head of music rights company EKKO Music Rights came for a field visit to SMU. He saw the results of our eight-week trial course and was amazed, asking me “How is this possible?” He proposed that 60 Swedish students could come to Korea to learn K-pop and dance at SMU. I thought it would be a great collaboration, so we are currently discussing the proposal with SM CEO Lee Sung-Su.
Will the Korean education system be suitable for foreigners?
I thought about that too, but when you talk to people who take K-pop related courses at Berklee College of Music or Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute, they want to experience first-hand K-pop and K-culture. So we don’t have to worry too much about adapting to their cultures. Now is the time to teach them what is Korean. I also personally teach a class on pop culture at Kyung Hee University’s Graduate School of International Studies to non-Korean students, and it’s conducted 100% in Korean.
Any advice for SMU students?
In the end, it’s all about self-discipline. And the next important thing is the detail. If you’re on a K-pop team, you always have to focus on the details so that even your finger movement is in sync with your teammates.
Voices are important too, of course. Personally, I think students should keep researching what style of singing suits them best. At any time, a certain singing style is trending, and the fun of pop music is that these trending styles are constantly changing. If the trending style matches your natural voice, good for you, but if not, you need to develop your own style. Teachers also have the responsibility of guiding the student throughout the discovery of the vocal style that suits him.
Technologically speaking, it’s now easier than ever to make music. What are your thoughts?
This is an important question that needs to be discussed. Today, there are countless trending music samples and you can create a catchy song just by combining these samples. But being able to do a trendy tune doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a really good songwriter who can compose the topline, what we call the main melody. It’s hard to write a really good melody. For this, you have to start from the basics and study classical music.
Some might ask, “Why should I study classical music when I want to make electronic dance music?” But a good melody is timeless, and you have to know classical music to make music that will be loved through the ages. With this as a basis, you need to analyze trends in modern music and how the trend of song structures has changed over time.
What is the future of SMU?
I want to be a K-pop and K-culture preacher to students around the world, not just Korean students. In the past, I thought everything going global in Korea was just a dream. But it became a reality, and that’s what we’re doing here now. We have to do our best when the timing is right, like it is now. I hope the Korean pop culture that has been created so far will establish itself as a stable seller.
BY HWANG JEE-YOUNG [[email protected]]