Theodore Whang - an American music teacher in Prague

Ted Whang

In One on One Jan Velinger's guest is Ted Whang - an American music teacher and English teacher of Korean, Japanese, and Czech descent, who has lived and worked in Prague since 1992. Ted studied music education in Valpairaiso, Indiana, and taught piano and English in the now defunct theatre department at the conservatory in Prague. Involved in numerous music projects, he wrote the lyrics for several songs for two up & coming stars: contestants in first Czech edition of Pop Idol who have since become household names.

You'll hear a bit about that, but first her'e Ted on his family and Prague.

"I come from a family of travellers: my father was born in Korea - North Korea - and fled to South Korea during the war and immigrated to America where he met my mother. My great-grandfather was from Japan and my great-grandmother was from Pilsen in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I was born in New York and came here."

What do you know about your great-grandmother?

"Unfortunately we don't know very much about her. Her last name was Kandlova and she met my great-grandfather when he was working for an American businessman in London. They went to Germany on a trip and went back to America together. Her daughter - my grand-mother - had a lot of documents about her, but my mother, feeling that nobody in the family spoke Czech or was ever going to speak Czech threw out all the documents about a year before I decided to come here and start learning Czech!"

That is a shame!

"It's a terrible shame. Someday I have to go to Pilsen and try to look her up but I'm a little bit afraid what they're going to say when I show up at the registry and say 'Excuse me, I'm looking for family records {laughs}. Because, I don't look very Czech!"

You came here in 1992 - what was behind the decision?

"That's another kind of bizarre story: our family is just full of them. But, ah, I taught high school music for three years in the States - which I had wanted to do ever since I was a little kid - and it didn't work for me. They were the three worst years of my life. I hated my job, I hated going to work in the morning, and when I finally quit I was very confused because I had basically wanted that job all my life.

At the time I was living in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and I went to Minneapolis to see a musical, which I wouldn't have done except somebody paid for my ticket. After the show we called a friend of ours, which I probably also wouldn't have done except somebody else thought of it, and, we went to a restaurant. While there, a friend who I hadn't seen for four years walked in: he discovered that I had nothing to do and he said 'In a month I'm going back to Prague, want to come too?'

The whole time that I had been trying to figure out my life I had been basically praying for four things: I wanted to live in a big city again. I wanted to go someplace a little bit far away and start fresh. I wanted a small church with a family atmosphere. And, I wanted a big adventure. And, I was thinking about Houston - I thought that was pretty far away - but when he said 'Prague', even though I didn't exactly know where Prague was {laughs}, like most Americans I had some faint memories from high school history, I just knew that that was it. This was the big chance that I shouldn't let go.

So, I sold the car. Returned the apartment. Moved my stuff to my parents. And bought a plane ticket. I haven't looked back since."

What did you end up doing in the first years that you were here?

"I started to teach English, it was all conversation at that point because I wasn't... I was trained as a music teacher, not as an English teacher. But, through the years I've gained that experience. Mostly now I teach English, do a lot of music as well, I spend a lot of time in the studio with singers who want to sing in English, checking their pronunciation and their phrasing and their expression. I write texts for singers, I translate for Supraphon, the Czechs' largest classical music label, what else do I do..."

A lot, evidently, a lot! When I first met you it was through a story about the first edition of Pop Idol, called Cesko hleda superstar and professionally you were involved with two of the people who took part in that contest, who have since become nationwide stars. Samer Issa is one, Martina Balogova is another. Tell me, what it was like to work with them on their individual albums.

"They were very positive experiences and I really learned a lot from Jorge Corante, a top producer from America who has done songs for Janet Jackson and Celine Dion and people like that. He did Samer's album and I really learned a lot in terms of even the legal side of the business and all kinds of details. Now, I'm looking forward to Samer's next one, which we're writing at the moment.

Martina was also really good: she has a fabulous voice. She learns really quickly and I hope that she also does another album but we'll see."

In terms of their talent are they superstars, are they really pop idols?

"It depends on how you define talent. I think it's very important to make a distinction between show business and music. Not that people who are in show business are not talented, but it's a different set of talents from people who are musicians. Samer is a spectacular showman: he makes a connection with the audience and particularly with his audience he makes a very, almost tangible connection. Martina, on the other hand, probably has more musical talent, but she doesn't always connect with her audience. So yes, they're both very talented, but in different ways."

There are legions of young fans and teenagers and some grown-ups as well who would 'kill' to be in your shoes...

"Oh! I hope so, because I hope they buy the albums {laughs}!"

Now tell me about the songs that you wrote, how those came about.

"The songs that I wrote for Samer, the music was written by Ondrej Brzobohaty - one of the hosts of the first round of Pop Idol - and I wrote the lyrics somewhere along the way. One song is called 'Wass Up'. In the song he sings to a girl, I don't know, in a club or on the street and she's really gorgeous and he doesn't know if she's looking at him... I think it's a situation most of us have been in!

And, the second one, 'Let Me Apologise' is more romantic, the song on the album that was most in the direction of jazz almost. And, it's a song that says 'I was wrong, I was stupid, and I want to say I'm sorry'!

Mostly, I try to pick up on the mood of the song and find the hooks in the song, the parts that have to be really catchy and have to really make an impact. That's where I try and centre the message of the song."

When do you write?

"Uh, my best ideas always come to me in the shower, in the metro, or on the bus: anywhere where I don't have a pencil and paper. I try to have them with me everywhere now, but usually when I'm trying to think about other things, is when I get ideas for lyrics or songs."

I'm sure people ask you this all the time, but, how long do you intend to stay in the Czech Republic?

"Traditionally - as the oldest son - when my parents get old that they need help on a day-to-day basis I will probably go back. But, if I had my way... I would stay here forever."