Interview with JiJi Kim
A Discussion about Gender Dynamics and Cultural Trends in the Classical Guitar Community

Interview with JiJi Kim<br /><i>A Discussion about Gender Dynamics and Cultural Trends in the Classical Guitar Community</i>

January 03, 2020

I’ve recently had the great pleasure of speaking with JiJi Kim, who just returned from a very busy season of touring and performing. One of her most recent projects has been the guitar concerto “Harp of Nerves” by Hilary Purrington. JiJi is also the Professor of Guitar at Arizona State University, where she teaches and performs a wide variety of styles. As a female guitarist myself, I jumped at the opportunity to get her opinion on gender dynamics and other cultural trends in the guitar community.

Click Here for JiJi Kim's website

Could you talk to me a little bit about what got you into guitar? Did you start with classical or pop music? What got you into it?

So it’s kind of both. My parents were very influential on me, and they always wanted to get me very interested in the arts. My dad is a surgeon, my mom is a homemaker, so even though they weren’t artists they always wanted their kids to be creative. My dad used to buy me DVD’s of Eric Clapton, AC/DC, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple- I mean Ritchie Blackmore was my hero! I kind of grew up thinking I would be a rock musician, and it was also one of those weird things where I didn’t see a lot of female guitarists. My dad was giving me this dream of being a rock musician, but all those images were male artists, and I was like ‘Oh, well wouldn’t it be cool if I could play electric guitar?’ So my parents took me to a music shop, and at first I wanted to play the drums, but they said no, and then I said I want to play the electric guitar, and they said ‘No- classical guitar is on sale! Why don’t you do that for a year, and then we’ll buy you a Fender?’ It was a deal- my parents were really smart and knew how to negotiate with their child! I was really into video games at this time, and teaching myself to read music was kind of like a puzzle and really fun for me.  Then I started taking private lessons and became more serious. I started listening to the Assads, and Badi Assad is still my muse. Her body, everything about her is like an instrument- she is a living musical instrument.  Even though I was playing classical guitar, I always had all these different kinds of muses. Kaori Muraji was one of my biggest influences! I saw her live in Korea (I was nine or ten), and I was so star-struck when asking her to sign my program! Then I started getting more serious and went to school for classical guitar, but I’ve always had really diverse influences.”

 

So, I think you’ve touched on this a little bit, but I wanted to direct the conversation to this topic of women in the guitar community. Particularly in the classical guitar community, we’re still very much in the minority. I feel like that’s changing, but I still see it and wanted to know how that’s affected you if at all? Do you think that this is a particular problem in the guitar community?

“Yeah, so this is really interesting because in Europe it’s not- it’s very 50/50.  I think it’s definitely a US thing, from my observations. For classical guitar, I don’t why that is, maybe boys were more interested? Maybe it was because there weren’t enough female influences giving courage to young female guitarists? You know when I grew up, I think if I hadn’t seen Kaori Muraji, who looked similar to me- an Asian, female, guitarist, I don’t think I would’ve had the courage. However, it’s also the same with composition. I work with a lot of composers, and this is something that they talk about. It’s very male dominated and has always been a ‘boy’s league’.  But, I feel that it’s a really good time now. I think things are changing. It hasn’t been too long ago, that women weren’t allowed to do these things, and now they are. I think it’s just a society’s view that guitar is a boy’s instrument or a boy’s thing, but, now this is the generation where we’re starting to say no. I mean classical music is a very insular world, and we have this very narrow history where women weren’t allowed to play music and women weren’t allowed to write. Now I’m going to come back to how I feel. Yes, it has in a way affected me, and I really think we as women guitarists have a huge role. We can lead younger generations, and I think we really have to stick together and support each other. I also think if we really want equality, we need to start from big organizations and big festivals to have that representation.  It is their duty too.”

 

Have you ever had someone make an outwardly sexist comment to you?

“{Laughs} I mean all the time! I get ‘Oh you’re cute, are you a Professor? You don’t look like a Professor.’ You know though, that’s their loss, and I try not to care so much. At the end of the day, I’m more interested in my own art and my projects, and if they’re going to say things that are stupid, that’s on them. I try not to care, but if they say something really out of line I say something, and I don’t take it back anymore!”

 

What do you think is a cultural trend that you see in the guitar community that needs to change? Not just about the representation of women, but just any kind of thing you think we need to be pushing more to broaden our horizons?

“I think about this a lot. I’m going to give an example from another area, because I think this is a really great example. Before Segovia, guitar wasn’t really a big thing. I mean it was, but it wasn’t really visible.  There are a lot of things about Segovia that I don’t agree with, but he did it. He commissioned so much work for the guitar. Some of the composers weren’t happy with what he did, such as adding notes, taking a lot of liberties, but he did it. So, again I’m going to talk about this other department. Percussion was always in this orchestra setting and never really a solo instrument. In the mid 20th century, they had this transition where they really broke out and reinvented themselves as a serious solo instrument. So what they did that was so important was to work with all these amazing composers, and the repertoire just expanded! They worked with all these different composers, and became really well rounded musicians.  I feel like this is what I do. I feel like there isn’t only one way or path to being a guitarist, and we need to branch out more. I feel like we’re kind of in this loop, and we need to break out of it! I need the guitar programs to branch out and explore new music more, we need to stop being in our own pocket and collaborate with other musicians more.”

 

What advice would you give an aspiring concert guitarist?

“I would say, make a lot of friends. You’re in it together in this world, and your friends are going to help you out. Never feel like you have to be something that you’re not, be honest, and be real, and that’s how you’ll be loved. Also, be okay being vulnerable! It’s okay to be rejected- you’re not going to be accepted by everybody. You just be you- that’s my advice.”

~

I can’t thank JiJi enough for talking with me, and for offering so much wonderful insight into what it’s like to be a young, very accomplished, female guitarist in a community that is still growing and evolving so much. It’s an exciting time and cultural climate to be an artist, and my conversation with JiJi couldn’t have been more inspiring.

-Kathryn Lambert

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