Saturday morning my kayagum lesson was especially challenging because of the double pluck, which seems simple until you try to play it. Then, hearing the teacher play it at speed, it becomes something else entirely.

I missed my chance to drive to the kayagum factory and buy one direct for 500,000 won last week, which I regretted. I really would have enjoyed seeing the factory, though spending that kind of scratch on an instrument I can play only in a rudimentary fashion gave even me pause. I tend to think it is always a good idea to buy an instrument early and often when you express the faintest interest in learning to play it. But when starting out on a new instrument it is always good to get the cheapest playable one possible, learn to play on it, and then get something good. Midgrade instruments are usually not worth it. At least, that is my theory.

I was happy, then, when one of the students arrived with a cheaper one he had bought for 250,000 won at a place across the street from the school, which is a hundred won less than the one I had seen in Insadong. It didn't have the same fancy gee-gaws and carving of the pricier one or the factory one, or gold decals of flowers, but it did seem decent enough to practice until I realize that I need a good quality one. I went and bought one after the class. I never would have found that place on my own, it was some chaotic mailorder wherehouse in the basement of a building. The guy who found it is Korean but I still wonder how he found it since there was no sign.

here it is, back at home:

The only difference between this one and the slightly higher priced one in the store seemed to be a nicer and bigger felt sock at the end (useless) a little plastic medellion (also useless). The kayagum for a million won was significantly nicer, including a much higher grade of wood and finish, but then again it was a million won. This one is made out of paulownia wood. That is considered a trashy tree in the US. It grows with incredible speed. I have long linked to the American Paulownia site on my webpage since getting interested in the tree since it is both hated and revered. I had no idea that someday I'd be playing an instrument made out of it.

Don't ask me how I am going to get this kayagum home, that is an interesting question worth detailed study at some more practical moment than this.

Carrying the kayagum home on the hour subway ride was interesting. In the black case, it definitely resembles a rifle case. In the US, there would be strange stares. Here, most people just nodded at the case and said "kayagum?" One woman I talked to is a graduate student stuyding kayagum. I got the impression that carrying a kayagum around in Korea is like carrying a banjo around in the US. Everybody has an opinion and everybody feels compelled to say something. Banjos and kayagums seem to create conversations.

I had a typical (for me) experience with the kayagum once getting home. Since it is a cheapo instrument, the set up on it needed to be monkeyed with a bit. This monkeying, by the chief monkey himself, consumed most of sunday. I wouldn't have gotten to know my kayagum nearly as well as I did if I hadn't spent hours cursing at it and gesticulating wildly.

The strings, usually silk and in cheaper instances such as this, some kind of cord, are quite elaborate and tied into little roles at the end, which are held onto large cords, like this.

Quite stiking looking. These have these mysterious little hitches in them that are easy to loosen but virtually impossible to tighten to pitch. I can affirm that they are impossible to tighten to pitch since I spend much of a day trying to tighten the bass D to pitch after loosening it (yes, I largely created the problem). I did get to marvel at the knot at its devilish simplicity in ease of loosening. It kept getting looser.

My certainty is that there is an easy way to solve this problem if you know how to set up the kayagum. My far more practical and level headed wife kept pointing out that if I just set it aside and ask my teacher later I could save a lot of frustration. Nope.

One sticking point was my initial hesitance to undo this knot at the end:

But I finally conceded that it must be done. It turns out to be easy to put back (I took a picture if it before untying it). And, cranking the whole thing back did indeed make my kayagum tunable to pitch. Though that D spool has a sassy little turn to it now.

Now I can practice, which was the whole point. The lil Buddha seems to like my playing, at least as a diversion from crying.


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