BOSTON — A TOUCHY subject in the halls of music conservatories is the eye-popping technique that students from Japan, Korea, and China tend to display with their instruments. Although admired for such impeccability these students are often criticized for showing little inspiration or emotion in their playing. American school officials and teachers hesitate to comment on the issue, but Asian teachers and students themselves describe the problem and talk freely about it. Yasuo Watanabe teaches piano at the Toho-Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo. Reached by phone in Dublin, where he was serving on the jury of the JPA International Piano Competition, he had this to say about Japanese music students:
"It's not that they don't have any emotion. They don't know what to do with it! They hide it." This has to do with Japanese culture, he explains. "To keep quiet and keep calm is one of the most elegant ways of living in Japan.
"In Dublin, people talk madly and to keep quiet in this country is rude! But in Japan, it's the other way around.... Playing Chopin is like reading love letters, but the Japanese student gets bashful and would rather play it calmly without any emotion. They feel embarrassed." Going to the West to study classical music will help them "open their hearts."
HaeSun Paik, a Korean graduate student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, who won the prestigious William Kapell Competition two years ago, makes similar observations.
"Even at competitions, I can tell immediately without looking that it's an Oriental playing. Sometimes their playing is very shallow. Technically, it's all there, but something's missing."
When she came to America at age 14, her teacher, Russell Sherman, required her to compose poems, visit museums, and write essays on "the meaning of beauty." This was not primarily to learn about Western culture, she says, but to develop her own critical and artistic sensibilities.
Oriental people "lock themselves in," says Miss Paik, "and they don't even know what they feel inside sometimes.
"It's an education problem, because that's how you were taught since you were five years old.... In Korea, everything is told to you by parents, by teacher. It's never your free will. Here [in the United States] you have freedom, and you have to have a lot of imagination. You have to think on your own."
She remembers sitting at the piano as a little girl practicing with her "practice teacher" for hours on end. Holding fingers correctly and playing without mistakes was the goal.
"It's hard to change," Paik says. "But now I've come to appreciate artistic values more than technical facility."
Pianist Akura Eguchi came to the US from Japan three years ago to pursue his masters degree at the Juilliard School in New York. He was amazed at the difference between teaching methods there and those in Japan, he says.
His Japanese teacher "told me how to play instead of letting me decide." At Juilliard, "my whole world has been opened," Mr. Eguchi says.
When Eguchi plays, his teacher, Herbert Stessin, "never says what I do is wrong ... because he thinks I have my own ideas for performance."