Murkland School Lowell Public School music teacher Rita McLaughlin wrote in May 2015:
“God bless the music teacher! Thank you for teaching my granddaughter Khmer music.” So wrote a third-grade student, quoting her grandfather’s reaction after she demonstrated what she’d learned of the Chut melody. The grandfather, who has a roneat (xylophone) at home was delighted to discover that his grandchild was learning the music of her heritage at school. It was the first time he’d allowed her to play it.
“Guess what? I told my father this morning that I’m learning to play the roneat ek, and he said to me, ‘Did you know your grandfather played these instruments?’” This student’s father showed her, for the first time, videotape of her grandfather expertly playing several of the instruments of the pinpeat ensemble.
These are just two immediate examples of the impact our efforts to teach Cambodian music in the Lowell Public Schools have on the students in our classrooms and community. When students have an opportunity to learn about this music and to experiment with the instruments, conversations take place at home that lead to connections and discoveries such as these two young students experienced. I encouraged these students to explore further their family history and perhaps to write about these musicians in their families. Since so many musicians were killed during the Khmer Rouge era, there is an urgent need to preserve the musical traditions in order to provide a sense of cultural connection, belonging, and pride to people of Cambodian heritage in the Lowell community.
In the spring 2015, as our graduate class wrapped up, I began to work with a group of students in the early morning at the Murkland School as a precursor to our work during the next school year. Students were very excited, and by the end of the month our small group quickly blossomed, often numbering a dozen or more enthusiastic youngsters in grades three and four.
Our format was quickly established and naturally mirrored that of our adult learners. The students explored several instruments and soon selected a favorite on which to focus. Students worked together in small groups of three or four. I demonstrated snippets of melodies as needed, encouraged and coached, and let them practice. Perhaps children are more accustomed to learning by rote, or more trusting in themselves and their own learning process, but they took to it quickly and with confidence. Having the option to come in every day if they wished, many children learned an entire section of the Chut melody in just a few days, while some came in less often and learned it over a couple of weeks. Several students also learned the Tao and the second section before our brief introduction was interrupted by the end of the school year.
We look forward to continuing our venture into Cambodian classical music in the fall!