Singing in the Kampung

Guest Article by Sophia Butler
St Olaf College

I am a musician because I believe in the power of music to create community, confidence, and cross-cultural understanding. I never really pictured myself as a classroom music teacher, but truthfully, teaching has enabled me to be a musician in many different places, including Malaysia! Before coming to Malaysia, I was doing my Masters in Teaching in Juneau, Alaska as a part of an El Sistema inspired program that brings music education to underprivileged communities. I came to Malaysia because I was interested in learning about music traditions such as the Gamelan orchestra and the Sape, as well as ways that music creates community here. Now I live on the island of Borneo teaching English at SMK Siburan, about an hour outside of Kuching. I had no idea that I would end up with my own choir of 55 students.

Day 1 of choir- gotta take a group photo!

Surprise choir, surprise piano. When I arrived to my school, I had mentioned the idea of a music ensemble but ran into many obstacles: obtaining a piano or other instruments, communicating with students, finding a consistent rehearsal space, finding repertoire, and many others. However, on my first day of choir, 40 students showed up! The next day, the younger students who have school in the afternoon during my choir practice asked to join choir. So, of course I started a choir for them, and on their first day, another 40 students showed up! That number has since gone down to 55-60 students total, but still I was overwhelmed by the response. During the first few weeks, I focused on breathing, vocalization, and some basics on reading music. Music education doesn’t exist in the public schools in Malaysia, so their idea of singing has more to do with solo pop singing than singing in a large group. However, because many of them learn pop songs from the radio and/or traditional Dayak, Malay, and Chinese melodies from listening to their elders, they are really fast at learning melodies by rote (by ear). Their quick learning style was helpful since I didn’t have a piano for the first month, but it also meant I lost my voice after every choir day…..

One day, I learned that the school does indeed have a digital piano! It had been a gift many years ago and according to one teacher, it was broken. Upon inspection, three of the keys were non-functional, but otherwise the piano just needed a new adapter. VICTORY! Voice saved, accompaniment problem fixed.

Repertoire. Upon arrival, I assumed we would spend most of our time in choir doing simple rounds and part songs. My students were learning music so quickly, however, that I turned to my dad, who is a choir teacher in Minnesota and could share some of his choirs’ scores. We are talking 3 and 4 part songs here! Then one day, a teacher handed me a score of an arrangement of Malaysian folk songs for choir. The story of how this score ended up in front of me is irrelevant and boring compared to the fact that my students would be able to combine their knowledge of their own traditional music with their new knowledge of choral singing! Plus, in the vein of cross-cultural understanding, I value my students being able to teach me their own language and folk songs while I can teach them to read the music on the page.

Ms. Sophia conducting choir rehearsal in the grandstand during sports day!

Gaining momentum. Teachers were talking about it, the principal was talking about it, teachers from other schools in the area were talking about it! My students were very excited and expressed that they want to continue the choir after I leave in November. In addition,, we were invited to sing for an upcoming event at our school where the U.S. Navy Band would be playing. In anticipation of the event, our focus turned solely on getting one song ready, instead of balancing it with learning to read music. The week before the performance was Sports Week, which means no extracurricular activities could happen at school. Since we needed another rehearsal to put the two choirs together, we ended up having a rehearsal in the grandstand at Sports Day in front of the whole school. No one could hear each other, but it served a purpose: everyone got a chance to run through the pieces as one choir with the recording of the piano part. And our first performance? Went off without a hitch–oh except that the piano broke….back to square one! My students have even more motivation now to be in choir since the success of our first performance, especially after the district officials in Sarawak came and gave us high compliments.

SMK Siburan Choir performing at the US Navy PP17 program

Sustainability and flexibility.
Since there is so much excitement about the choir, I am hoping to make it sustainable by teaching the students to read music and developing some support in conducting and piano playing from the teachers and older students. In some ways, teaching music here is very similar to my experience teaching music in America. In America too, you have to be flexible and creative with your given rehearsal time and resources in order to prepare for concerts, since the structure of public schools often don’t support the arts. Or as in the case with our repertoire and the piano, many times I just have to have faith that everything will work out just fine, and usually something appears because someone has been touched by the work we have done as a choir, as a music ensemble. Aside from the obstacles, choir focuses on the students having an experience of being in something greater than they are. Some of my students would never dare sing alone in front of anyone, yet they come to choir to sing because it is an environment of learning and ensemble.

Check out this video of the choir’s first performance to see Sophia and the students in action.

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