January 2015

Follow the stories of our grant – the struggles of learning non-Western music, student successes, and most of all the compelling songs of the pinpeat….

20150109_154948_resizedOur pinpeat ensemble is ready.  Our instructor, Master Song Heng, has arrived, along with teachers and paraprofessionals enrolled in this course offered through the Lowell Public Schools. Many of us are music teachers, while others work with preschool, elementary and high school students. We smile and introduce ourselves.  We listen to the welcome speeches, glance at the syllabus.   But many of us are wondering: when do we get to play?

During our first class in January, Master Song Heng introduced us to the kong and roneat instruments, demonstrated the rote teaching of a melodic phrase, and we all took turns trying to learn to play it.  While it appeared to be a simple exercise on the surface, we found ourselves challenged without notation to remember the melody long enough to play it more than once. Our ears were not accustomed to the Khmer tuning, and we were not familiar with the melodies of The Blessing Dance.  We struggled unexpectedly.  Some of the participants’ reflections:

Sharon:  The very first class was mind-boggling for me. The instruments looked pretty simple. I had heard Cambodian music before. I figured it would be easy enough – even without the use of music notation. WRONG. Just learning a little snippet was almost painful. My brain felt fried. But by the end of that class, I was able to get a small sequence learned, barely! The following week, it was all gone out of my head.

Janet:  The first few classes I felt immersed in the music, but struggled to differentiate sounds. We spent a lot of time learning how to copy rhythms and melodies. As the phrases continue, I feel I need to create a notation system so that I can check for errors. I keep trying to put a more equal pattern into the melodies, trying to fit my Western expectations into this new kind of music.

Amanda:  When I signed up for this class, I had no idea what I was getting into. But one thing I did recognize quickly, this was not a theoretical course on Cambodian instruments. We were to have the privilege of “getting our hands dirty” and trying out authentic Cambodian instruments. This is really why I had come, and I was thrilled to be able to try them out. I wanted to master every one of them, wanted to learn.

Jesse:  I have to admit, when I first came to class and saw the instruments I was fairly confident that I was going to be able to easily perform anything that was necessary. I majored in music on drums and percussion in college and usually spent four hours a day working on performance-based training. The moment I knew my assumptions were incorrect was when we were told that there was no form of notation for these instruments, there were no markings or clear physical size differences in the notes. 

Eric: During the first class, I was completely overwhelmed. I was intrigued by how cool the instruments are, and how fun they are to play, but I was completely overwhelmed by the new style of learning. I was used to listening to an eight-note scale. I was used to two-row xylophones with accidentals. And most importantly, I was used to notation.