By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly
For 30 years, the Korean Music Association (KMA) — formerly the Korean American Musicians Association of Washington — has been offering free concerts in Seattle, attracting more than 1,000 audiences each year. Two of its founding members, sopranos Young Hee Kim and Kyung-Ah Oh, are still singing and taking part in community events.
Young Hee Kim was born in Anseong, South Korea. In middle school, she had the idea that she would study music seriously. Her teacher, recognizing that she had a talent for singing, recommended that she major in music.
In high school, she learned to sing in Italian and German. Despite her struggle in memorizing lyrics and the pressure of squeezing singing practice into her already hectic studying schedule, Kim went on to major in vocal music at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Kim came to the United States in 1972, hoping to study in New York City. But a stop in Seattle changed her destiny. She met a man she loved and got married, settling down in Pierce County.
Kyung-Ah Oh was born in Seoul. She found her love for singing at the age of 7. She sang often at church. Oh was also a vocal music major at Yonsei University but took a hiatus from singing shortly after graduating from college.
When she wasn’t performing, she felt a strong emptiness inside her. Her performances were successful due to collaboration among many people, which she enjoyed immensely. When a performance ended, she went home in the dark, often feeling sad. Thus, she proceeded to teach music at a high school for five years before coming to the United States with her husband in 1969.
Oh and her husband lived in Utah for six months before moving to Seattle because it was where her husband was earning his doctorate. Oh did not sing during this time. Instead, she supported her husband until he completed his degree. She then attended the University of Washington and studied vocal music in graduate school.
In 1979, Kim, Oh, and a few other Koreans with college degrees in music felt homesick and lonely. They decided to do something about it. They founded the Korean American Musicians Association of Washington to promote cultural heritage among Korean Americans.
In addition to their day jobs, Kim and Oh kept busy organizing performances, contacting sponsors, and rehearsing.
Kim recalls the association’s first concert in 1979, where they sang opera arias and Korean folk songs. “The concert hall was packed.
Some of the audience had to sit on the floor. After we sang Korean lyric songs, we cried together.”
Oh served as the association’s president during the first two years. Simultaneously taking care of a restaurant business and three children, she noted the difficulty of juggling work, family, and rehearsals.
“Many immigrants had hard lives, working 11 hours a day. They got together just for that one night a year,” Oh said.
In order to present concerts for free to the audiences, KMA relies on sponsorship and donations. Since its founding, its major concerns have been finding performers, sponsors, and audiences.
Despite the loss of some founding members over the years, KMA strives onward.
In 1988, during one of her four terms as the president of KMA, Kim started the Youth Artists’ Music Competition to promote music education for young Korean Americans.
Kim has performed at concert halls, churches, and civic events, singing both the American and Korean national anthems.
Since 1973, Kim has been volunteering as the choir director of the Choong Ang Presbyterian Church in Tacoma.
She has been an ESL teacher for 28 years and has organized citizenship classes at Pierce College.
Oh has sung at many different ceremonies. “I cannot speak English very well and cannot work in [the field of] my major,” Oh said with regret. But she continued with a smile, “It’s a miracle that I [have kept] my voice for 30 years.”
As to being honored as an Asian American pioneer in music, Kim is thankful to her husband Dr. Kyu Lee, her voice teachers, and Leah Armstrong, who has been a sponsor of KMA for many years.
Oh thanks her husband, Kehi Oh, her voice teacher, Maria Curtis Verna, and Armstrong. She added that they all work hard “for the group, not for me.” ♦
Meet Kim and Oh at NWAWF’s Pioneers in Music Awards Gala and Banquet on Oct. 16. For more information, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
Vivian Miezianko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.