The first dean of SM Universe (SMU) — this is the latest title acquired by veteran K-pop composer Hong Jong-hwa, one of the first producers in the K-pop scene.
K-pop powerhouse SM Entertainment founded SMU in April as an education institution to pass down the K-pop training system, in collaboration with cram school franchise Jongno Hagwon and modeling agency ESteem.
SMU is open to applications from any country, which has naturally garnered attention from K-pop enthusiasts in and outside of Korea.
The academy saw 1,200 applicants for its trial course, which took place over the past two months.
The signature K-pop star training system — going through years of training, deciding a group’s concept, and debuting with a trendy bop — dates back to 1989. Hong has played an integral role in the establishment of such a system. He was a key composer at SM Productions (translated), the former name of SM Entertainment, best known today for top K-pop acts like TVXQ, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, Exo, Red Velvet, NCT, and aespa.
After serving as an affiliated professor of applied music at Howon University, Hong is currently an affiliated professor of electronic music production at Dong-Ah Institute of Media and Arts.
Dean Hong recently sat down for an interview at SMU in Apgujeong-dong in southern Seoul’s Gangnam District with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, to talk about SMU and his vision for the future of K-pop. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
How did you become the dean of SMU?
I was part of this project from the very beginning. As an advisor of SM Entertainment, I laid down the directionality of what this institution should be. Planning and setting up the facility and equipment took about a year and a half.
How do you operate SMU?
This building is located at 521 Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam District, and the building behind here used to be a practice room for SM’s trainees back in the old days. It is also used as an educational institution today.
We haven’t started the regular course yet. For the regular course, the maximum number of students is sixty.
We’ve been running the trial course for eight weeks since early May. We have graduated from the Seoul Institute of the Arts and Dong-Ah Institute of Media and Arts working as full-time teachers. There are also special lecturers visiting to teach a myriad of courses. There are four “majors” here: vocals and dance, producing, modeling, and acting.
How were the students selected?
The announcement on SMTOWN (SM Entertainment’s official website) got about 1,200 applicants. Out of them, 59 passed auditions and made it to the trial course. We considered their potential — if they have a possibility of being a K-pop star, or another sort of Hallyu celebrity. We evaluate various factors that are necessary to become a global talent — a certain level of singing and dancing skills are required, of course, and we also must take into consideration how the student will grow.
Because we take into account their potential. We do tend to see a younger age range among students. It’s probably a similar age range to SM Entertainment’s trainees; we accepted applications from those in ninth and 10th grades.
Since I’m more used to lecturing to university students, I was a little worried. These kids are in their adolescent phase, and I thought there would probably be various difficulties teaching students of that age. Fortunately, these students had their own serious thoughts on life, art, and their futures. It basically felt like teaching college students. Most of the applicants were kids with a burning passion for art.
What results came out from the eight-week trial course?
We saw great results. Through SMU education, a team has been formed. It’s called UNIS(Z) (pronounced you-niz), a name that the students came up with themselves. Then SM Entertainment’s casting department called and said they want all five of the students in UNIS(Z) 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), then improved a lot through SMU education, which made them want to give the kid a second chance. That alone was worthwhile.
Tell us about SMU’s curriculum.
I was concerned at first because the lessons may be too difficult for students in ninth or 10th grade. But when I actually met them, they were kids who had already been practicing how to produce their own songs, with full music-producing set-ups in their own homes. The ones who applied for the vocal major had also already been training their voices at music academies. So we were able to simply teach them exactly what we do under SM’s training system.
I actually think the curriculum needs to be slightly changed for the regular course. It could be even more advanced. When I actually met the students, I thought they are probably ready to learn what I teach at college lectures. Kids these days can teach themselves pretty much anything through YouTube, in great depth too. The students selected for the trial course were already familiar with the basics, which made it possible for us to teach an advanced curriculum, like SM’s chief engineer Namkoong Jin’s special lecture on advanced mixing and engineer mastering theories.
Kangta of boy band H.O.T. and Bada of girl group S.E.S also stopped by to give special lectures. Seeing SM’s first-generation K-pop idols teaching at SMU was really meaningful. Kangta and Bada also told me they found it meaningful and rewarding. Bada even brought snacks and dolls to gift to the students. Many more professors and artists currently active in the industry have visited to give special lectures.
Are other countries showing interest in SMU’s curriculum?
There’s been a lot of interest in K-pop coming from Saudi Arabia, and also Sweden. In mid-July, the head of music rights company EKKO Music Rights visited for a field trip at SMU. He saw the results from our eight-week trial course and was astonished, asking me “How is this possible?” He proposed that 60 students from Sweden could come to Korea to learn K-pop and dance at SMU. I thought it would be a great collaboration, so we’re currently discussing the proposal with SM’s CEO Lee Sung-Su.
Will the Korean training system suit foreigners?
I thought about that too, but when you talk to the people taking K-pop-related courses at Berklee College of Music or Yonsei University Korean Language Institute, they want to experience K-pop and K-culture first-hand. So we don’t have to worry too much about suiting their cultures. Now it’s time to teach them what’s Korean. I also personally teach a course on pop culture at Kyung Hee University’s Graduate School of International Studies to non-Korean students, and it’s conducted 100 percent in Korean.
Any advice to give to SMU students?
At the end of the day, it’s all about self-discipline. And the next important thing is in detail. If you’re part of a K-pop team, you should always focus on the details so that even the movement of your fingertips is in sync with your teammates.
Vocals are important too, of course. Personally, I think the students should keep trying to find out what style of singing suits them best. At any given point, a certain style of singing is in trend, and the fun of pop music is that these trending styles constantly change. If the style in vogue is in line with your natural vocals, good for you, but if it’s not, you need to develop a style of your own. The teachers also have a responsibility to guide the student throughout discovering what vocal style suits him or her.
Technologically speaking, it is now easier than ever to make music. What are your thoughts?
This is an important issue that must be discussed. Today, there are countless trendy music samples and you can make a catchy song simply by combining these sample bits. But being able to make a trendy track doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a truly skilled composer who can compose the topline, which is what we call the main melody. It’s hard to write an actual good melody. To do that, 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 throughout the ages. With that as the foundation, you must analyze modern music trends and how the trend of song structures has changed over time.
What is the future of SMU?
I want to be a preacher of K-pop and K-culture to students all over the world, not just to Korean students. In the past, I thought anything Korean going global was merely a dream. But it has become a reality, and that’s what we’re doing here now. We need to do our best when the timing is great like it is now. I hope the Korean pop culture that has been created so far establishes itself as a steady seller.
BY HWANG JEE-YOUNG [email@example.com]