SM Entertainment helps children with hearing impairments through K-pop

Children take dance lessons at SM Universe for the SMile WoW education program. [SM ENTERTAINMENT]

It was a bright and sunny Sunday in April at the SM Entertainment K-pop academy branch, SM Universe, in southern Seoul. A group of 10 children of different ages had assembled to dance to girl group aespa’s 2023 hit “Drama.” The children danced enthusiastically, following their trainer's movements as best as they could, but their arms and legs failed to keep up with the fast and challenging beat of the K-pop dance track.

The children weren't K-pop trainees aspiring to fame and fortune, and many struggled to stay in time with the music. But filling the room was a feeling of joy and happiness that would not only raise the children's spirits, but also aid in their recovery from cochlear implant surgery.

The dance class took place as part of SM Entertainment’s SMile WoW Art School initiative that began last month in collaboration with Samsung Medical Center. The program helps children recover from implant surgeries through vocal and dance lessons from professional K-pop trainers. It started in March and goes for eight weeks.

Samsung Medical Center gave SM Entertainment a list of children who had undergone implant surgery at its hospital, and the K-pop company hired professional music teachers for both vocal and dance lessons. The teacher’s salaries are covered by SM Universe.

Children take vocal lessons at SM Universe, SM Entertainment's K-pop education branch in southern Seoul, on April 7. [YOON SO-YEON]

Cochlear implant surgeries help people with hearing impairments through a small electronic device that is placed inside the ear to enhance their hearing ability. Recovery from the surgery itself takes weeks and repeated practice is necessary to make sure that the brain and body adapt to the newly achieved auditory capability.

This is where K-pop comes in — thanks to its inherent ability to stimulate both the auditory and visual senses.

“SMile WoW came as part of SM Entertainment’s dedication to society and its aim to make the world a better place through the power of K-pop, especially for those that have been underprivileged in society,” Jang Jae-won, CEO of SM Universe, told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview on April 7.

“It takes time for people who go through cochlear implant surgeries to get used to their own voice or listening to other sounds. Music is the best way for someone to learn to control their own voice, and dancing allows people to get a better command of their own body, therefore developing a sense of confidence that will help them settle in society faster.”

Jang Jae-won, CEO of SM Entertainment's K-pop education branch SM Universe [YOON SO-YEON]
Children taking the SMile WoW education program at SM Universe sit down for a chat with SM Universe CEO Jang Jae-won, far left, to talk about their experience at the K-pop academy center on April 7. [YOON SO-YEON]

The aim of the program isn’t to turn children into K-pop stars but to help them grow their confidence and self-esteem, according to Jang.

The changes are readily visible, as children start on day one hiding behind their parents or sitting quietly in the corner, but they slowly start opening up to each other and the trainers of the program as the weeks pass, Jang said.

“Many children with disabilities blame themselves and think, ‘I am the reason that my parents have to go through so much trouble,’” Jang said.

“But I see the children getting happier and brighter with each session. They come to us and tell us how they could talk to the other kids at school thanks to what they learned here at the program. For us, that’s all we need to see to know that SMile WoW has been a success.”

Vocal trainer Kim Tae-jun said the key of the program is to treat the children as they are — young children with the potential to become anything they want.

Children take dance lessons at SM Universe, SM Entertainment's K-pop education branch in southern Seoul, on April 7. [YOON SO-YEON]

“There are things that we approach with care during the lessons, but at the end of the day, it’s about communicating with them on a personal level as I would with any other student,” Kim said.

“These children started out scared to just let their voice be heard by other people. They were used to other kids making fun of them when even they felt unfamiliar with their own voices. It’s not about turning them into singers after the eight weeks, but if they learn to control their vocal chords, enjoy singing and enjoy speaking, we consider our mission accomplished.”

There are no plans to extend the program or start a similar project like SMile WoW just yet, but the academy is open to any opportunity to help not only people with disabilities but also talented children from underprivileged households or other difficulties.

“Not everybody has to be a K-pop dancer or singer, but I hope that more people get to know the pure joy of moving their bodies,” Jang said. “We will be willing to hold more programs to help more sick children and students overcome their healing period and take more initiative in their lives through the power of music.”