YouTuber Emma Chang on her musical journey and running a K-pop reaction channel

YouTuber Emma Chang a.k.a ReacttotheK’s Umu speaks to Cold Tea Collective about how her relationship with music led to her running a K-pop reaction channel.

Emma Chang didn’t think that she’d become the “famous friend.” But nowadays, when she joins a group for Among Us, a friend will eagerly add that she’s “famous.” 

This wasn’t part of the plan. Chang had started her YouTube channel five years ago to make new friends at university and keep in touch with ones back home. But a hangout ritual quickly turned into Chang’s current full time role running the hugely popular YouTube channel, ReacttotheK. 

Cold Tea Collective got to chat with Chang about how her French horn career suddenly swerved into running a K-pop reaction channel, the weight of this newfound influence, and her relationship with music. 

Meet Emma, or Umu

Chang admits that she has several ways to introduce herself. If she’s meeting a musician, it’s Emma, the French horn player who went to Eastman and runs a YouTube channel. If she’s meeting someone at a K-pop convention, it’s Umu, ReacttotheK channel creator. And if it’s her doctor or dentist, it’s Emma, producer of a YouTube channel where classical musicians react and analyze Korean pop music. 

In fact, her names also fall cleanly between before and after ReacttotheK; Emma for friends from music events, Umu for K-pop fans. 

But if she had to identify herself, Chang calls herself a musician YouTuber. Though the YouTuber aspect came as a complete surprise, the musician side of Chang didn’t. 

The French horn girl 

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Chang grew up surrounded by music. She was raised on a diet of folk music like Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens, and her dad and mom played the guitar and piano respectively. For part of elementary school, she attended a Waldorf school, where the arts were prioritized over math and science. 

Interestingly, Chang’s instrument could have been something totally different, if it wasn’t for her middle school band director. During the standard instrument trial where students try to make sound on an instrument, Chang was successful on two instruments: the flute and the French horn. Her first choice was the flute, but because there weren’t many girls playing the French horn, the band director assigned her to the brass instrument. 

Chang laughs that she could have been a flautist because she feels like the French horn suits her much more. “There’s a thing about French horn players… you just know when someone else plays the instrument,” she says with a chuckle. 

To Chang, though, it was always more than just loving the French horn. In sixth grade, she learned that she had a language disability, which was responsible for her tendency to be very expressive and use large gestures when she speaks. This made sense to her and explained possibly another reason why she was so drawn to music in general: it let her express complex emotions beyond words. 

ReacttotheK's Emma Chang with her French horn
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In her junior year of high school, Chang experienced a pivotal moment when she attended Kendall Betts Horn Camp for French horns and got to experience a piece where as an audience member, she was surrounded by French horns on the balcony and all around her. Enveloped in music, Chang knew in that moment that she wanted to do something like this forever. 

The day she came back from camp, Chang told her parents that she was going to pursue a degree in music. There was nothing she loved more; it just made sense to her.

Seeing how Chang was placing first chair at her various ensembles and how her teachers spoke about her, her parents supported her decision. 

Little did Chang know that something drastically different would happen. 

Making friends, unknowingly making a new path

Chang decided to go to the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where she also studied digital media studies at the University of Rochester. Around this time, she started to get into K-pop and wanted to have friends with similar interests. 

So she decided to bring K-pop to her peers. Her first videos were more of a way to share cool videos with her fellow music classmates and stay in touch with friends back home in Southern California. 

But then Chang started to notice the comments section of her videos. 

People liked the videos, and they also wanted more than just reactions to the theatrics of a K-pop music video; after all, wasn’t Chang a musician? With this feedback, Chang started to change the videos and advised her friends to react to the music with their classical training in mind. 

And the viewers liked it. A lot. Only a year after starting the channel, Chang’s channel, ReacttotheK, was invited to KCon, the largest Korean culture convention in 2017.

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See also: To start again: singer Sunmin Baek’s story

The joy and the burden 

Currently, ReacttotheK is at over 700 thousand subscribers and in its fifth season. But this has both its pros and cons. 

“I love that I get to teach people ways to further fall in love with [K-pop] songs,” Chang says. 

Fans have told Chang that they’ve picked up their instrument, learned music theory, or started to listen to music differently because of her videos. Likewise, because of the sheer following of ReacttotheK, there is also weight in which Chang’s videos affect the artists they react to. For example, indie artist Cacophony’s music video went from one thousand views to fifty thousand after a ReacttotheK video. 

But this means there’s also a gravity to everything Chang says. 

Because so many people look up to Chang, her opinions on songs can sway people’s opinions and possibly even turn them off from a group. When Chang made the channel, she didn’t expect its explosive growth or that she’d have to be more cautious about what she says. 

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As her parents told her, she had to build a “turtle shell”. Now as someone as visible as she is, she jokes that the turtle shell needs to be upgraded to bulletproof protection. 

“I’m becoming an adult quicker because I have so many people watching me,” she says. 

As ReacttotheK was taking off, Chang’s musical career hit a roadblock; she started getting jaw pains, making it difficult to play the French horn. As such, Chang started to ease off of music and put more energy into YouTube with the support of her parents. 

But running the channel also started to take toll on Chang, especially as she’s currently a one woman show,  juggling filming, editing, and social media by herself as she’s currently financially unable to hire people to lighten the load. When she graduated, it resulted in tendonitis as she spent more time editing. 

Expanding towards something new

Chang is still getting over a mourning period of sorts with her instrument. She visited 15 different therapists about her jaw pain, with one even saying that she just had to pick a different instrument. 

After spending so much time and money running after music, Chang started to worry if it amounted to nothing. However, she’s slowly recovering and finding new ways to keep music and the French horn in her life in less rigorous ways, such as arranging music, and hoping to perhaps one day join a community ensemble. 

But in the meantime, she’s also been shifting her sights onto what she can do with her channel. Her current dream is to continue to grow ReacttotheK, especially in the new videos where she interviews people behind the scenes of K-pop: songwriters, producers, and A&Rs (artist and repertoire). 

In a similar vein, Chang’s also expanding her musical consumption. She’s currently learning more about Bollywood and South Asian music, and especially wants to learn more about traditional Chinese music. 

“I’m half Chinese, but I don’t feel that,” she explained. Chang was raised in America with a Chinese father fluent in English who was never taught Chinese. And with her paternal grandparents passed away, she doesn’t feel much connection to her Chinese heritage. But she wants to find it through what she loves and knows best: music. 

As she expands her musical horizons, Chang also hopes to eventually visit Korea and do more interviews. And one day she wants to be an A&R at a K-pop company, and get to be behind the music that literally changed her life. 

See also: Jimin x Jamie is staying true to herself

Being an ambassador for music

When asked to reflect on her journey, Chang says that perhaps there were signs that she’d end up here. Chang was her kindergarten’s voluntary ambassador, introducing new students and including them in new tasks. In middle school and high school, Chang single-handedly recruited half of the musicians at her youth orchestra. And she invited friends to music camps, connecting them to a more focused music space, and some friends went on to pursue careers in music. 

“I love introducing what I love to other people and being able to change their life that way,” she says. 

Now with ReacttotheK, she’s able to do that on a much larger scale. 

Featured photo submitted.

See also: K-Pop The Odyssey: A journey through law, music, and identity

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