Music Has The Right to Children

I was sent for the opening ceremony of the 27th International Society of Music Educators (ISME) World Conference, a weeklong affair at the KL Convention Centre, and it turned out to be a banquet dinner, along with the obligatory speeches and formalities, and NO CONCERT.

I was initially very impressed with the registration process and the goody bag — a notebook, two pens (whee!), schedules, press kits, and even a complimentary copy of Lee Elaine’s Ethnic Instruments of Malaysia, launched officially by ISME president Greg McPherson at the opening ceremony. Too cool.

Between sign-in time at 7:10pm to ceremony time at 8:30pm, I decided to pick up a quick dinner at the other KLCC (are we running out of acronyms?).

By the time I arrived back at the Banquet Hall at 8:15pm, everyone was already seated, and I was required to sign in again, whereupon I was given a folder with UiTM’s propaganda within, along a mug and another pen (whee again!).

It was a truly international crowd. I’d heard that, due to poor participation, the president of the society had sent out a hastily typed letter expressing his hope that attendance would be better, more supportive, for this particular event. I don’t know how much others had to pay for participation but for Malaysians, it was RM990 for ISME members, RM1180 for non-lSME members, and RM260 for students — so thank god I’m with the press.

The truly amazing thing was the fact that representatives of the 68 countries did not sit with people of their own nationality, but were scattered all over the hall and joined in what appeared to be a large jamboree.

Launching the main event, emcee Mahadzir Lukhman introduced the Ustaz who was to lead everyone in a doa. It was only after a minute of silence that the organisers realised that the Ustaz wasn’t present.

Then there were speeches (and the lack of it). And the official ISME theme song, performed by a youth orchestra. And a roll-call to acknowledge the participants from the sixty eight representative countries, and there was an Awards ceremony, to the winners of the ISME-Gibson International Awards for Music Education. Both the recipients received USD20,000, to be used for projects to advance music education, and a commemorative hand-made Gibson guitar valued at USD5,000. Except the Malaysian Customs had refused to release the guitars in time for the awards ceremony.

I left right after the first course was served — an un-tossed dish of Malaysian Rojak, marched in and presented to the tune of P. Ramlee’s Bujang Lapok.

Buffet problems

The schedule of workshops, outings, concerts and what-have-you is gruelling. Within the Convention Centre alone, there are about three concerts running simultaneously, each roughly running a half hour, for an hour. That’s two concerts a slot, in three locations, which make six concerts. It’s really tough for a participant to catch a lunch concert, and grab a bite to eat, and still be able to watch what she wants without developing appendicitis.

This is not to mention the clashing concurrent concerts going on at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, Planet Hollywood, Sedaya International University College, Akademi Seni Kebangsaan, Berjaya Times Square, and even all the way at Sultan Idris University at Tanjung Malim, where they featured Egyptian Sufi chanting which I really wanna go for. Sigh. The problem with a buffet is that while you’d really like to try everything, eventually, your system will limit you, so you can only choose what you really really like (or can get to), and make do with that, and mourn for what you missed.

Not only were there too many workshops and presentations scheduled, in my case (and in both occasions), the presenter failed to turn up. One in particular, a presentation on “Islam and Music”, had quite a few attendees, who were, quite surprisingly, not Muslim at all.

The attendees, while waiting for word of the missing presenter, struck up a discussion on the characteristics of Islamic music, including the social and theological influence the religion has on music overall. This brief discussion, and the different skin colours and strictly academic interest, really opened my eyes.

An interesting workshop that did happen, and held in one of the main hallways of the convention centre, was the Orff-Schulwerk (literally, German composer Carl Orff’s school work) method workshop. This method, apparently common in elementary schools in the West, uses everyday activities as percussive effects to engage children in music creation.

In this workshop, as is most of the ISME conference, the target market are little children. So, to help adults understand the Orff-Schulwerk method, the facilitator at this workshop treated the adult participants as if they were kids. They were made to do elementary exercises involving rhythmic recitations of their names, a little ditty about a car, with the strapping in of seat belt and driving around while mimicking the actions suited to the words. At one point, chopsticks were brought out, and in true kindy fashion, tossed onto the ground, whereupon these full-grown adults had to scramble for their respective pairs. There was much scrambling and laughing. It was totally childish and it really worked too. Before these adults could introduce the method to kids, they first had to have it introduced to the kids within themselves. This was the funnest fun I had in the whole conference.

Big harmonica players

I’m going to side-track a little, and share with you my shopping experience. I was told the exhibition hall didn’t have all that much good stuff. It’s not a large hall, but it had a decent variety of stalls.

Included were a Roland dealer, private music institutions, higher music education booths, the obligatory Yamaha booth commanding centrestage, and a booth by a local luthier with beautiful guitars on display as well as for sale. The primary draw for me: A Music Sales brand booth.

Oh maaaan *drooool* …  they had a box FULL of sheet music for choirs and a capella music. Naturally, I spent money there, and even went back, every time I attended a lunch concert, in the (vain) hopes that their stock would be replenished.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to get chorale, much less a capella sheet music off the shelves here? In the end, I managed to get a barbershop quartet songbook from Novello as well as sheets for “Killing Me Softly” and “Wonderful Tonight”.

Yamaha featured their own demonstration-cum-lunch concerts. I caught one of a harmonica trio at the exhibition hall itself.

Two ladies and a gent, dressed in black, and wielding the most abso-fricking-NORMOUS harmonicas (these were like industrial sized, double/triple-decker puppies, with serious length), were playing classical music. With much flipping and flapping of harmonicas and accumulation of spit, the performance was delivered with a sombre sort of flair.

I was really impressed with the sound, but I can tell you, it took me a while to get there, as the sheer size of those things boggled my mind.

Finnish pitch benders

Naturally, the concerts held in conjunction with this event by Music Educators were mostly by students of various institutions, both local and international, showcasing the talents of youth, and the teaching prowess of their respective educators-cum-conductors.

I caught a back-to-back chorale performance by two different choirs, from two different countries. The first I watched was an Australian chorale group, Schola Cantori. Their formations were impeccable, their conductor had perfect pitch, their eyes never strayed from the waving of the baton, and if were to be able to pick on any one thing to simply bitch about (for lack of anything better), I’d say their voices weren’t perfectly blended. And that’s hardly a cause for complaint. Mind you, if I were to estimate a guess at the average age of the group, I would say 16.

The second group, Juvenalia Choir from Finland, looked more like college students. Dressed in formal black attire, with the ladies with crimson pashminas or shawls, they filed in and swung into a rap-style a capella song. Their brand of music was more discordant, and definitely very interesting, as they were bending their pitches like crazy. It was very well done, and I regret not being able to get my hands on a programme to find out exactly what they were singing.

A children’s choir from Hong Kong, also very attentive but a little more light-hearted than the other choirs, sang songs in Mandarin and English. There was this cute kid in the front row who was so emo the whole way he looked like he was training for Il Divo.

An African wedding

An interesting, yet annoying part of the concerts held at the Convention Center’s Plenary Hall and Plenary Theatre, was the informal seating.

And when I say informal, what I mean is that people were allowed to come and go anytime during the concert. Being used to the etiquette imposed upon us during performances in this country, it was a bit of a culture shock to have people constantly opening and closing the doors into the hall, and moving back and forth in front of me.

All the performances I managed to catch were impressive, and the performers were disciplined and attentive. Keep in mind that all the performances featured children, all the way up to teens. The level of ability and musicality was simply staggering.

The Vasek School for Violin and Strings Ensemble had children from the age range of what looked like 6 years (little tykes whose feet couldn’t reach the ground) to late teens. I only managed to catch the tail end of their performance, but they were standing there in three rows, accompanied by a piano and playing from memory. That never ceases to amaze me, because my own memory stinks to high heaven.

While most groups who performed were following the concert etiquette, one group from Africa actually stood out from the rest. The students of Ballanta Academy of Music, Sierra Leone, started out with four percussionists on hand drums playing a basic rhythm that, to my ear, didn’t sound orchestrated or uniform.

The percussions kept this up throughout the entire half hour session, during which a story unfolded, pantomime style, while the assembled actors and players on stage sang and chanted. The story revolves around a father and mother trying to wed their young daughter, who was of age.

The parents of the girl, as well as their entourage of young children rejected the rich proper British-type suitor with his careless regard for his wealth and his disregard for tradition, as well as the American-type gangsta rapper. They finally settled on a well-muscled traditional African man in a loin cloth.

Good choice, mom and dad.

Creativity shouldn’t be an option

If I had one wish for music education in this country, it would be for ABRSM standard to be brought to the classroom in primary school.

While music is still a luxury, it is also a language of its own, and so some form of standardisation in terms of language would be really nice. It’s like the problems I had trying to learn mathematics from my father who spoke no BM, while the school was teaching it in BM.

Newer methods, like the Orff Schulwerk method, would be a real eye opener to youngsters. Music is not just about the system, it’s also about creativity. While I feel the local system respects the syllabus greatly, they have left it entirely to extra-curricular activities to encourage creativity.

Maybe, just maybe, creativity shouldn’t be an option. Is it because music seems like too much fun to be necessary? It should be a fun necessity. In a lot of ways, this conference addresses more and more methods to make this possible.

Finally, in spite of the slightly wonky organization, the gross-over-scheduling, and my frustration at not getting to everything I wanted to catch, I think ISME was a spanking success. I’ve no clue if we’ll ever get a chance to host this event again, but if it comes around again, I’d love to be there, see more, hear more and take in more.


Zalina Lee is a professional musical bum who moonlights as a voice teacher.

First Published: 18.08.2006 on Kakiseni

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