By Venta Rutkauskas
Photos by James Still
Kevin Yang is a remarkable young man. Let’s just start there, and get it out front. Calm, connected and talented, he’s essentially a renaissance man in a 17 year old’s body. Here’s why: he’s managing a grade 12 workload, whilst excelling at soccer and holding down a part time job. Then there’s the music. He plays drums, guitar and ukulele, is in a band with his older brother Jin, is a member of his church’s band and teaches a few students on the side. And Kevin slays on the guitar. Truly. He plays a unique style called percussive or finger style guitar, and has developed a very strong technique already. Reminder: he’s only 17.
The talented Kevin Yang was brought to our attention by local teacher and musician Brent Morton of Drum and Bell Tower. Kevin was enrolled in Mr. Morton’s guitar class at WLSS , and soon captured the teacher’s attention with his skill. “There wasn’t a lot I could teach him,” remarks Mr. Morton, noting that Kevin’s technique was very advanced. “Kevin’s guitar playing has an amazingly quiet confidence and smoothness that I’ve not seen in a player his age.” Mr. Morton also noted the generosity Kevin displayed in sharing his skill with others, taking time out to lend a hand.
This is one humble young man. His passion for music arises more out of its effect on his audience or his mood, striving to bring relaxation or joy in his listeners. “Music is a way to evoke memories. It’s soothing.” Kevin adds. “Playing music makes other people happy.” Especially when his broad range of influences and song choices trend towards chill and melodic tunes. In the future, he can imagine studying music therapy or becoming a music teacher.
He’s also deeply grateful to God for his talents. There’s a wonderful lyric sung by spiritual songstress Snatam Kaur in her song, Grace, that really reveals this kind of connection: “It’s by Thy grace that I sing…” It’s a significant part of Kevin’s belief system, and it would seem to lend him a strength and a connection not always seen these days. He endeavours to share his talents and give back to his community.
Kevin was born in Busan, a city on the southern coast of South Korea. When Kevin completed grade 2, his family made their first move to Canada, landing in Alberta for three years, after which they headed back to South Korea for a year and a half. It was during this time in Korea that Kevin had his first instruction in music, however at the time, it didn’t capture his full interest or passion. The family returned to Canada again when Kevin was in grade 7, this time spending some time in Cache Creek before heading back to Alberta. By the time Kevin was in Grade 10, the family had moved to Williams Lake, and Kevin had rekindled his relationship to music.
He chose the guitar, in part to compliment his brother, who’d started playing the bass. Now, the guitar has quite an appeal. It’s been with us for millennia, and has wooed many a musician in its long history. So much of our modern soundtrack is inhabited with guitar chords, while the last century of guitar music has revolutionized popular culture in countless ways. Music has set the tone for cultural evolution, with stylistic leaps in sound imbuing everything from fashion, literary style and politics with its character. The guitar has come to symbolize something like freedom for us. Its dynamic sound is paired with its ability to be everywhere, to everyone at an accessible price.
Then, you have the guitar virtuosos, the renegades who take the instrument and break through to another level of playing entirely. So let’s talk about Finger Style for a moment. It’s a technique that’s been evolving for decades, and calls to mind guitarists John Fahey and Leo Kottke. However, it’s a fellow by the name of Preston Reed who really took a leap in the style, and began experimenting with both hands making sound, as well as a more percussive use of the guitar’s body. According to the Toronto Fingerstyle Guitar Association, “physically ‘fingerstyle’ refers to using each of the right hand fingers independently to play multiple parts of the musical arrangement that would normally be played by several band members.” What you will notice with the Preston Reed style of playing is, as Kevin calls it, the “wow factor”.
Kevin’s influences do include Preston Reed, also Andy McKee and a few younger players making their mark on the music industry, notably Sungha Jung and Luca Stricagnoli. Once Kevin had caught onto this style, he started teaching himself via YouTube videos. Kevin stresses how much he enjoys the melodic aspect of finger style, and the prettiness of the sound he can create. He has clearly got the hang of the style, as some of you lucky folks out there can attest, after his interlude during a Safety Meeting at the Central Cariboo Arts Centre not so long ago. At that performance, he covered Preston Reed’s Ladies Night, playing the “wow factor” card to great success.
A few weeks later, he was back onstage for the Safety Meeting concert series, this time supporting the band Flatland Peaks from the drum kit. The band has an impressive line-up of cover tunes, mixed with a few originals written by Kevin’s older brother, Jin. On the drums, Kevin gets to cut loose a little, finding a more active energy to channel. The band is a pretty casual affair. “It’s mainly for fun,” he adds, though they sure do put on a good show.
Kevin has yet to start on his own compositions. He is focused on getting good grades for the homestretch to graduation, in the hopes that it will keep his options open for the next steps after high school. His parents are very supportive of their sons, and despite the fact that they aren’t musical themselves, they continue to encourage both Kevin and Jin in their musical pursuits. “They want me to pursue the things that make me happy, and to have no regrets,” Kevin says, so let’s send Mr. and Mrs. Yang a round of high-5s for that. This young man is not only gifted, he’s committed and kind.
With his humble roots planted deeply into the sound, one wonders just how the future will unfold for him. It would be wonderful to check back in with the talented Kevin Yang in a few year’s time, to see how he made his way in this wild world. It seems the sound has got him in its hold, with music being a guiding force for him to follow. We’ll leave things, for now, with the keen and sagacious observations from guitar teacher Mr. Morton’s eyes: “Though he’s incredibly talented, he has an admirable humility. He’s the kind of player who, if you were to perform with him, you only have to make sure that your part is ready: Kevin is always ready.”