K-pop department at Howon University teaches more than just how to be an 'idol'

Shin Yona, dean of the Department of K-pop at Howon University at center, poses for photos with members of girl group A-plus after an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on March 23 at Howon University located in Gunsan, North Jeolla. [PARK SANG-

Practically anywhere in the world, being in one’s 20s is considered a ripe time of youth, full of fresh ideas and opportunities. But in the world of K-pop, being 20-something is often considered too old.

Meet A-plus, a rookie K-pop girl group put together by Shin Yona, a former diva and dean of the department of K-pop at Howon University, who wants to prove that 20-year-olds are still, in fact, quite young and capable.

Professor Shin, in the eyes of the layman, is known better as the legendary singer and powerful vocalist Shin Yona from ballad and R&B quartet Big mama, one of the biggest names in Korean pop music of the 2000s. Since 2009, she has taken on the role of teaching vocal lessons as a professor at Howon University and became the founder and dean of the school’s department of K-pop in 2023.

The goal of the K-pop department is not to make everyone a K-pop “idol,” as they’re referred to in the industry, but to help students understand that there are so many jobs other than singing and dancing in the K-pop industry, showing that they haven’t failed just because they haven’t debuted.

“I know it hurts to be realistic, but they have to accept the reality and harden their inner strength,” Prof. Shin said. Shin is also the mastermind behind the department’s unique curriculum.

“I included everything I wanted to when I designed the curriculum,” she said. “While we do open the possibility of our students debuting as K-pop artists, at the same time, I designed the curriculum taking into consideration the fact that they might not become one. The curriculum doesn’t just let you daydream about a wonderful future, it is realistic.”

The curriculum thus includes not only the obvious vocal and dancing lessons but also Pilates classes, digital audio workstation (DAW) classes that teach electronic music creation, lyrics-writing classes, music recording classes and more.

Captured scenes from girl group A-plus's debut track ″Candlelight″ [SCREEN CAPTURE]
Captured scenes from girl group A-plus's debut track ″Candlelight″ [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Included in the curriculum is the unique opportunity to debut as a K-pop idol, and the faculty’s most recent creation is the girl group A-plus, pronounced “ah plus.” The group consisting of seven students — Lee Hee-ju, Baek Ji-hyeon, Song Hwan-hee, Kim Ji-yun, Kim Ja-min, An So-yeon and Byun Su-bin — debuted on March 2 with the dance track “Candlelight.”

A-plus also has a senior group from the university: Azer. The seven-member girl group, which was the first girl group to debut under Howon University, released three single albums after its debut in 2021. Azer acted not only as a role model but also as a senior group, aiding the rookie group with tasks from writing the lead track and designing the choreography to helping with members’ makeup.

“I’m sure there will be a lot more [idol] groups in the future. I think there will be a lot of different groups, all with varying colors in the university,” said member Kim Ji-yun.

Professor Shin and the members of girl group A-plus sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on March 23 to talk more about the faculty, the girl group themselves and how they strive to be different from every other K-pop idol. The following are edited excerpts.

Professor Shin Yona and Howon University's second girl group A-plus [PARK SANG-MOON]

Q. The department of K-pop is still a new concept to many. How and why did you and Howon University make the department?

A. Shin: To be quite frank, even I once thought that a 20-year-old was too old to start K-pop. I thought, ‘What’s the point? You’d have to start in middle school.’ But when I first saw the students who applied to the course, I saw the eyes of abandoned dogs and cats; their faces read ‘nobody wants me, I’m a failure.’ I can never forget the faces I saw.

At the same time, I was so angered at how they were forced to think, and I wanted to do something to change that. That’s how it all started.

Students and trainees who strive to be K-pop idols are forced to give up a lot of things. But I just wanted them to be happy for once and to learn to pursue their dreams in a healthy way. Even when they face failures in the process, I want my students to think, ‘At least I was happy doing it.’

Is that why you include various lessons in the course, not just singing and dancing?

Shin: People who dream of being K-pop idols imagine themselves spending their entire life being a K-pop idol — when in reality, a majority of them don’t, or won’t even end up being an idol at all. I know it hurts to be realistic, but they have to accept the reality and harden their inner strength, in order for them to not get too depressed or consider themselves a failure when they do face rejection.

If the experiences they gain from the university courses we offer can help them have a more positive mindset, I think that in itself has value.

The school's "study of K-pop" first began in 2019. People first thought that we would just be training K-pop idols judging by our name, but we designed the classes so that we encompass the whole process of making K-pop. We also realized that "study" does not adequately cover the many different aspects that we planned to cover, which is why we expanded it into a full department, to add more depth to the subject.

Students taking a digital audio workstation class at Howon University [PARK SANG-MOON]

Students in an acting class at Howon University [PARK SANG-MOON]

What kind of courses do the students take and how did you decide on which courses to include?

Shin: I included everything I wanted to [laughs]. To be realistic, first- and second-year students still have the possibility of becoming a player in the K-pop industry, so we have acting lessons, vocal lessons and dancing lessons to try and prepare them.

Moving on to third- and fourth-year studies, the course is then designed to teach students to compose and create music. They are also given opportunities to go one step further and play in a musical, learn video editing, take part in music production, record their own songs and more.

What were your favorite courses? Were there any courses that you didn’t expect?

Kim Ji-yun: Performance-creative is my favorite. The module collaborates with students in the division of applied music — you know, the one that our university is well known for — where we combine songs they composed with choreography we designed and lyrics we wrote to make a final piece that we get to perform. The fact that we are producing our own music from the ground up without following or copying existing songs really feels special and attractive to me.

An: Pilates and ballet lessons. I was very surprised to see those lessons offered in the course, and at first I thought it didn’t suit the studies of K-pop. But the more lessons I took, I learned that not only are they useful as a means of exercise and warming up, but the mindfulness and meditation we learned during the process also helped us a lot.

Shin: I’ve seen way too many K-pop artists start dancing without the basic fundamental physical strength built up, and suffer from all kinds of health issues when they are in their 30s. Just like how vocal exercises make the basis of a good vocalist, good dancers, and furthermore good artists, also need different fundamentals. I know the boys in the course hate the Pilates and ballet lessons [laughs], but it’s all crucial for them.

Song: Audio editing classes, or DAW courses were also enjoyable because it was more than just what people expect from K-pop, which is dancing and singing. We learned to record our own voices, which we then edited and mixed to produce new results. I think classes like these will come in handy in the future when we want to join the industry not as an artist, but as a producer.

Are the courses much different from what K-pop agencies might offer their trainees?

An: Life as a trainee [at an agency] is extremely tight, tough and without freedom. When I first joined the university after multiple years of being a K-pop trainee, I too expected it to be similar, but the university gave us so much more freedom. Especially in losing weight! Nobody pressures me to stay thin, so I can eat whatever I want and play whenever I want to: I find the girl group life [at the university] much more satisfying. Oh, we can also use our phones freely!

Students take note during a piano and harmonics class at Howon University, North Jeolla[PARK SANG-MOON]

K-pop critics often say that K-pop artists are not really artists — do you agree with that?

Shin: K-pop really was an industry, as they call it: a factory where products, under the name of idols, were designed and launched by professionals. And as someone who worked in the field as a background vocalist for a long time and has seen and experienced it all in the industry, it was a pity to see them.

The ability to make and create for themselves is really a crucial factor [as an artist], and I did have that in mind when I designed the courses. I obviously don’t expect first-year students to write and compose songs, but after taking the courses, I hoped to have senior students teach something they know to the newer students and learn it themselves. When teaching someone, not only you can learn from the experience, but also you have a higher chance of staying in the industry in the long term.

Members of girl group A-plus dance to their debut track "Candlelight" in a studio located inside Howon University, North Jeolla[PARK SANG-MOON]

Are Howon University and its department of K-pop open to foreigners?

Shin: Yes! And I really hope more foreigners join our university in the future. We have a dedicated Office of International Affairs designed to help international students, and we also signed agreements of cooperation with Silpakorn University in Thailand.

But obviously, I don’t mean “anyone” can just enter the university: Applicants will have to pass auditions, just like how Korean students have to when they apply to our courses.

Do you have anything to say to someone is thinking about being a K-pop idol, or considering applying to the university?

Baek: I hope people don’t get anxious about their age. Age definitely is not everything, and I think it all comes down to how you set yourself to be. Once you think you’re too old to do something, that’s when you give up. Go break that prejudice. I know that it’s easy to call yourself a failure when you fail auditions or get kicked out from K-pop agencies — I think the set environment makes you think like that. But I hope people think of it as less of a failure and more of an opportunity to grow further.

Byun: If you think you want to do something, do it, and do your best in the given circumstances; that’s my motto. I never expected to join a girl group when I first came to the university, but look at me now! I think it was only possible because I did everything I could.

Shin: I think it all comes down to a healthy mindset. Whatever you do, if you think you’ve failed just because you haven’t reached the goal, wouldn’t you be miserable your whole life? You have to remember that a goal is there to set your direction, not necessarily somewhere you have to get to at some point. If you’re going in the right direction, that’s good enough. And even if your direction changes, then I hope you can find happiness in the new reality. That’s success, in my opinion.

Shin Yona, dean of the Department of K-pop at Howon University at center, poses for photos with members of girl group A-plus after an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on March 23 at Howon University located in Gunsan, North Jeolla. [PARK SANG-