Sunday, May 2, 2021

Kids and Music 5: Kwak DaKyung, Jazz Trumpeter [Born to Groove]

While I’m not sure it makes much sense to say that one musical instrument is more difficult to play than another, getting a sound out of, say, a violin or a piano is easy, while getting a sound out of a trumpet is difficult. Anyone can press keys on a piano keyboard; even kittens can do it, but did you ever hear a kitten play the trumpet? And while kittens don’t play violins, even very young children can do so. Thus you will find many videos on YouTube of young children playing the violin or piano, often astonishingly well. But you won’t hear many videos of young children playing the trumpet, at all.

Kwak Dakyung, a young Korean girl, is an exception. Here she is playing the trumpet at a very young age:

Notice that she rests her trumpet on a stand. In a year or two she won’t need the stand and her tone will improve.


It did. This video was uploaded on March 30, 2021. She’s fronting a jazz quartet playing Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.”

Charlie Parker was one of the inventors of bebop, a jazz style that emerged in the early 1940s. It emphasized rhythmic complexity, angular melodic lines, and instrumental virtuosity.

Many regard “Confirmation” as one of Parker’s best original tunes. While it is based on a standard AABA harmonic foundation (each letter stands for eight bars of music), the melody is more complex, more like ABCA, where the final eight bars start out like the first eight, but the final four bars are different, both harmonically and melodically. The melody is complex – wide intervals, complex phrases – and thus is difficult to play smoothly.

Dakyung (her given name) plays the melody well; she has mastered its rhythmic complexity. She improvises well too. If you aren’t familiar with the tune, you might not even know when she starts improvising (at about 0:51). The repeated figures at 1:08 are nice, and she marks the bridge well (1:08). Notice the repeated figure she uses at the opening of the last eight (1:25). The way she opens her second chorus is brilliant (about 1:34). It is simple, obvious, and common to conclude one phase at the end of the chorus and then begin the next chorus with a new phrase. Dakyung does something much more interesting. She creates an ascending phrase in the last bar (of the first chorus) which reaches its apex at the beginning of the second chorus. It then starts down, in effect, becoming a new phrase. The initial phrase of the second chorus thus serves two function: 1) it continues a phrase from the previous chorus while 2) also initiating a new chorus.

I could go on, but I’ve made my point: she’s thinking about music in a sophisticated way.

Carnival of Venice

Her performance of “Carnival of Venice” is a different kettle of fish. Flashy? Yes. But the foundation isn’t quite there yet. She's young and hasn't had time to build up the endurance required to perform this.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in the 19th century Niccolo Paganini, the famous violin virtuoso, took a simple folk tune and elaborated it with twenty variations, entitling the final composition “Il Carnevale Di Venezia.” The theme was then picked up by other instruments and provided with virtuoso accouterments and horseplay appropriate to each. A French cornet virtuoso named Jean-Baptiste Arban wrote a set of variations which he included in his method book, Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet, which is perhaps the core pedagogical book for ‘classical’ style trumpet and cornet.

Arban’s set of variations on “Carnival of Venice” has thus become a rite of passage for students of the trumpet. Accordingly, you will find many performances of it on YouTube. Some are by well-known virtuosi of the past and present – Sergei Nakariakov, Wynton Marsalis, Maurice André, and Timofei Dokshizer for example – while others are by relatively unknown professionals and advanced students. Some of these performances are better than others, but all of them are brilliant.

That’s the point of the piece, brilliance. But interesting music it is not. “Confirmation,” for example, with its rapid chord changes, complex melody, and off-kilter rhythms, is much more interesting. “Carnival of Venice” is a virtuoso display piece in which the soloist goes a few rounds with Mike Tyson, tight-rope walks over Niagara Falls, rescues a young child from an out-of-control Tesla on full-automatic, leaps tall buildings with a single bound, and threads a needle with a drunken sailor.

That’s the musical mosh pit Kwak Dakyung entered when she performed Arban’s “Carnival of Venice” when ten years old. This was uploaded on December 4, 2019:

Impressive? Yes, alas, for a child.

I began getting worried at about 2:56; the tempo seemed a little slow, not quite up to the mosh pit standard. My worries increased at about 3:52; we’re still a little slow, and this variation involves wide interval leaps from the middle to the lower register, which are difficult. The bottom notes were there, but not speaking loudly enough. At 4:10 we have the first displays of double-tonguing – don’t worry about just what that is; it’s difficult and you put points on the board if you do it well. (But I never heard Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker’s brother in bebop, double tongue. If Dizzy doesn’t qualify as a trumpet virtuoso, the term has no meaning.) And then, whoops!, at about 4:45 some notes don’t speak at all. It passes quickly and you probably wouldn’t notice if you weren’t intimately familiar with this music. Then at 4:49, another flubbed passage, but it passes quickly. And so it goes.

Let’s skip to the very end. She’s finishing a variation that punctuates rapid twiddley figures in the middle register with rapid wide-interval leaps into the bottom register. Those leaps burn your chops and tax your air supply. They are exhausting, especially coming at the end of a long and taxing blow. This is the point where you act like you could keep playing for hours no sweat! if it weren’t for the fact that the stage hands would have to be paid double-overtime, which would break the budget. Of course you can’t actually do that. You’re almost dead. But you’ve got to put on a show. And she’s not quite up to it. She’s exhausted. You can hear her reach for breaths (c. 9:24 and after) and her tongue staggers just a bit at the end. 

Here's the point: Minor faults like those would be of little consequence in a jazz improvisation where everything else is fine, the rhythm is sure and the melodic line is fluid. In that context technique is subordinate to imagination and soulfulness. In a piece like “Carnival of Venice,” however, technical brilliance is the focus of the piece, its reason for being. In this context even minor technical flaws undermine the performance.

There’s no doubt it my mind that in a couple of years she will be able to paint the town red with her technical brilliance. But she might have more fun working on the repertoire that the great Rafael Mendez left behind. The sheet music is readily available and there are plenty of Mendez clips on YouTube – I don’t know about availability on CD, much less vinyl. The music is full of technical challenges and, best of all, it’s real music, not stunt music. Mendez’s repertoire will help her develop her musicality, not just her technique.

Back to jazz. 

[See the coda at the end for a different performance of “Carnival of Venice”.]

All the Things You Are

All the Things You Are” is a show tune from 1939 that quickly became a favorite of jazz musicians because it puts some interesting twists on the standard 32-bar AABA form. Once again DaKyung fronts a quartet. This performance was uploaded on April 15, 2021:

I won’t belabor this performance with long commentary, but I would like to note the transition into her second improvised chorus, starting at about 1:34. It’s a sequence of 4-note arpeggios followed by a short descending figure that lands her exactly on the first note of her second improvised chorus as 1:40. I don’t know whether she worked it out in advance or just hit upon it in process – both are possible – but it is very clever. She was clearly anticipating that transition. She closes out the second chorus with some nice runs at about 2:17 and after. After the piano solo, starting at 5:06, she leads the group in trading phrases with the drummer before the final chorus. Notice that the piano player tosses in a line based on “Fly Me to the Moon,” one of DaKyung’s favorite tunes.

She’s not just running through the chord changes in a quasi-mechanical way. She’s a very thoughtful musician.


Avalon” is a well-traveled jazz standard dating from 1920, when it was written by Al Jolson, Buddy DeSylva and Vincent Rose. Benny Goodman played it at his legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. This clip was uploaded on Apr 23, 2021 (I think that’s DaKyung’s father on bass):

When I first heard it, I remarked in a comment at YouTube: “Am I right that a new freedom is entering her playing?” Her father replied, “I think so. She is changing.”

Let It Be

This of course is a Beatles tune by Paul McCartney originally released in 1970. DaKyung is playing it in a studio with a pre-recorded backing track. This was uploaded on Feb 14, 2021:

Listen carefully. I’m going to make a few comments about her improvised solo at the end and then make a more general remark about this performance.

The improvisation starts at about 2.38. She starts off with her own phrase, but then rejoins the original melody at about 2.44 for a bit. She weaves in and out of the melody several times. She’s not really playing the melody, but she picks it up or glances at now at then. She’s clearly playing in relation to the melody and I’d bet that if we superimposed the melody on her solo we’d see that her nods to the melody are at the right time.

Now listen at about 2.50 and following. She tosses a so-called blue note into an embellishment in a phrase. Another one at about 3.07, another at about 3.14, as if to say, “that’s right, I’m doing it deliberately.” And a couple more, like at about 3.45.

Two things: First, this is not a blues and there are no blue notes in the melody. And I don’t hear any blue notes in the (short) guitar solo. DaKyung has introduced them on her own. Second, jazz musicians will introduce blue notes while improvising on non-blues tunes, they’ll even add them as embellishments to the melody. However, blue notes do not seem to have been characteristic of her style to this point, and least not that I’ve noticed. This is new. [Upon further listening I may have overstated this point. I’m not sure.]

Something else is new, and it is audible from the beginning. Her tone, there’s an edge to it that I haven’t heard before. I suspect that means she’s gotten in touch with her ‘lizard brain,’ that ‘old soul’ part of the brain that is the seat of emotion, and it shows up in her tone.[1] That’s magic, and if she can nurture it without being consumed by it she could become a great artist.

In concert with Henry Lau

Henry Lau is K-pop star who has created a series of videos with music prodigies.[2] Each collaboration involves two videos. In the first Henry and the prodigy share a meal and get to know one another. In the second one they give a short concert together.

Here is the concert he did with Kwak DeKyung:

The video begins with a recap of their meeting, then they enter Henry’s studio.

At about 1:35 they wave to an imaginary audience. This is play acting; but he’s also coaching her in stage craft. The performance starts with DaKyung accompanied by piano, bass, and drums – probably prerecorded. Then she introduces the next tune, “Another Day of Sun,” to the imaginary audience, though there is obviously a small off-stage production crew in the studio. Notice how they interact, making it up as they go along. Now he gives her a chance to sing a hit from 2019, “Dance Monkey” (a metaphor for the life of a street musician) – this has shown up in a number of his prodigy videos. When she’s finished singing he starts a backing track and joins her on violin while she plays trumpet.

Yes, I know this is obvious. You don’t need me to point it out. But I think it is important to think about what he’s doing and why. He is treating her as a serious musician, acting as a performance coach, and they’re having fun together.

Now they perform “Fly Me to the Moon.” She announces it and he joins her on violin. He opens with a short cadenza in free time and then she counts it off. They make it up from there.

I won’t comment on the concluding moments. But Kwak DaKyung isn’t the only one with tears in her eyes.

* * * * *

Selfies with Henry:


[1] I devote a chapter to this in my book on music, “Blues in the Night,” Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, 2001, pp. 93-115.

Some relevant posts at New Savanna:

Spontaneous Combustion: Improv from the Inside, March 15, 2011,

A Jazzman Prepares, July 24, 2012,

Paul McCartney on Emotion While Performing, July 8, 2015, Note, McCartney is talking about something that happened to him while performing “Let It Be” in South America.

[2] I’ve already posted about his collaboration with a young violinist, Seol YoEun. See Born to Groove, Kids and Music 3: Henry Lau has a good heart & knows how to work with kids [kawaii alert!], April 23, 2021, 

* * * * *

Coda: Compare her performance of “Carnival of Venice” with this one by Seong Jaechang, especially the finish:


  1. Kids make trumpet sounds as toddlers with fist to mouth. An actual trumpet at that age -- well, very few parents would ever think of it. Her musician father didn't see an obstacle; just propped up the trumpet.

  2. Hi Bill,
    I just wanted to thank you for your very interesting and enlightening analysis of Kwak DeKyung trumpet playing and her improvisation skills. I have only recently discovered Kwak DeKyung through listening to her jazz performances on YouTube. Your article 'Kwak DeKyung - Born to Groove' has helped me to appreciate her trumpet playing even more. Keep up the good work.