01 April, 2015

Bridging Cultures Through Music

Erin McAuliffe is a native of Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated from The Ohio State University with a B.A. in Political Science and German and a minor in International Development. She is a 2014-2015 ETA in Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai Province. Post-Fulbright, Erin will complete an MA in International Affairs (Southeast Asian Studies) under a FLAS (Foreign Language Area Studies) Fellowship at the University of Washington and will subsequently pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science and hopefully enter the world of academia as a professor. Her professional interests are in the role of the civil society, particularly educational institutions and student movements, in democratic transitions in mainland ASEAN countries. She hopes to use her Fulbright experiences teaching to assist her in successfully engaging and collaborating with young Southeast Asian professionals and students in future research.

“Where words fail, music speaks.” – Hans Christian Anderson

Music has always been an important way for me to express myself and communicate with others, both within my native culture and cross-culturally. Learning instruments came easily to me and I was always eager to learn about the different ways that certain sounds and certain instruments were used to represent different feelings or express certain types of people, emotions, or movements. I formally have studied the trombone and violin for over 10 years and have training in music theory and composition. As a result of these skills combined, music has become the most powerful way for me to communicate in personal, cross-disciplinary, domestic, and international realms.

During high school, I used music to work on confidence building with young middle school students by working one-on-one with them during their music class periods. I also used music to cope with the buildup of emotions I experienced after my younger cousin died of cancer. I compiled my emotions into a string quintet composition that expressed my memories of her, her inner beauty, and my grief through musical harmonies, dynamics, and rhythmic segments.

Usually the biggest crisis I face when going abroad for a significant period of time is whether or not I can or should bring an instrument, considering it normally counts as a second piece of luggage or my hand carry-on when I am lucky. While packing for my Fulbright year to Thailand I didn’t even consider bringing my trombone or violin because I didn’t think these types of instruments, orchestral instruments popular in European and North American cultures, would be very popular among children in a rural area of northern Thailand. Instead, I expected many people to be learning and performing traditional Thai instruments, Lanna instruments in the case of my geographical placement. Lanna is the term used to describe cultural aspects of the area of northern Thailand that was historically the Lanna Kingdom. It was this music culture that I desperately wanted to experience. 

M5 student, Erin, Kru Peter, and a recent alumna perform at the abbot's birthday 
at Wat Phra That Pha Ngao near Chiang Saen.

Fortunately, I have been successful in learning a traditional Lanna instrument and performing; however, my initial views on music culture and education here in Chiang Saen were far off as I realized how prevalent orchestral instruments, marching bands, and jazz music were and how endangered traditional folk music is becoming. I was, however, pleasantly surprised with the interest in these genres of music and pleased that, like with other experiences abroad, how surrounding myself with music, both familiar styles and new styles, opened numerous doors for me to build relationships at school and in the community. 

I didn’t have to look very hard to find the opportunity to learn a Lanna string instrument. Having written about this desire in my Fulbright personal statement, the head of the foreign language department at my school, who teaches traditional Lanna folk music, was aware and eager to help me learn. He started by showing me the salor (pronounced: sah-law), a small, two stringed bowed instrument that is played upright while typically sitting on the floor. It is also known as the “northern violin.” 

Kru Erin and Kru Peter perform with an M6 student at open house.

After showing me how to properly hold the instrument and the bow, he demonstrated the notes by playing a simple major scale. At that moment I realized that the strings and finger positions are roughly the same as two of the strings on the violin. I quickly played a simple “ode to joy” on the instrument and surprised everyone in the room as my violin experience was previously unknown. Even though the hold of the instrument and playing techniques are very unique and these aspects would take me time and practice to master, producing the correct sounds came easily. News that I had played the violin spread quickly throughout school and by the next day I had a few students asking me if I could help them with the violin and the music teacher offering me a spare violin from his house to use for a few months. I never expected to find eager, young violinists here in Chiang Saen but was excited that the opportunity to engage with some students one-on-one in their comfort zone had presented itself to me.

Through meeting students to play violin, particularly one who I work with twice a week, the music building has become my second home at the school. Additionally, a week off from classes due to an unexpected administrative occurrence at the school allowed me to frequent the music building during that week and play trombone with the band students using the time off to practice. My attachment to the music room has further allowed me to establish a friendship with the band teacher, a teacher I otherwise may not have gotten to know easily. Although he knows a few words in English and I have a basic ability to communicate in Thai, establishing a relationship through verbal communication would have been difficult; music, however, has filled this gap. Typically, he will show me the music of a march or swing piece that he wants to work on with the students and ask me to play or sing the rhythms while he plays the drum-set. Not only do we both enjoy communicating this way through music, but it is also a lot of fun for both of us and allows me to share what I have learned growing up in interpreting and playing these popular American styles of music with my host community in Thailand.

Teachers from various departments play together during a day of class cancellations.

“Where words fail, music speaks (Hans Christian Anderson),” is the best way to describe how I have overcome language barriers in Thailand to develop relationships with teachers and students. Through music we share a passion and through music we can fill the silence that would otherwise exist, effectively communicating in this universal language. Most of the students I encounter through music are not students I regularly see in class, as most are not “English track” majors. Therefore, music has given me the opportunity to immerse myself deeper into the school’s culture, getting to know a wide variety of students and allowing a larger number of students the opportunity to work with and develop a relationship with a foreigner. 

Although many of these students are limited in their English abilities, they are learning how to effectively communicate through various means, mainly a combination of simple English and body language, when additional communication is needed to supplement music. Although I would love to see these children develop stronger English skills, I think it is valuable that these students are still learning several ways to communicate and are becoming comfortable engaging with a foreigner. Given that I never expected to be playing violin duets, brass band marches, and popular concert band arrangements in Thailand, I have been pleasantly surprised by the manner in which it has facilitated my integration into the school and allowed me to develop relationships with a variety of the students.

The salor has also opened many doors for me to become an integral part of my host community in addition to my school community. Coming to Thailand, I expected folk music to be very prevalent, particularly in a rural part of the country. The reality is that very few students know how to play these instruments and very few have an interest in learning. To many, it is a piece of the past, something considered “backwards,” and is not in line with the more modern, popular, and hip music cultures of both greater Asia and the entire world. In agreement with the head of my department, I believe that it is vital to preserve these unique cultural components of a society and I am hoping through my presence with the salor in the community and school to facilitate a desire to learn the traditional folk music. 

So far, I have been able to play with teachers from various departments during lunch and free periods and have been asked to play during school events with these teachers and the few students who do play. Hopefully, this will ignite a desire among current and incoming students to learn these instruments. The mentality of the head of my department is, if the foreigner can learn and play, why not you!? I hope that by playing both the violin and salor in the school with the students I can initiate and drive an exchange of music cultures and encourage students to become more involved in music, both traditional Thai folk music and Euro-American orchestral music.

Having previously only played traditional orchestral instruments in orchestral based ensembles in America and Europe, I will admit that I held the naïve belief that all aspects of the musical language were universal. The language that music speaks and that one hears is universal; the sounds produced remain the same across cultures, allowing people of diverse backgrounds to interpret them as a language. What I did not expect and what I was surprised by was that the written language of music, music notation, is not universal. During the first few days of learning the salor, I learned through listening and reproducing sound. After listening to the various teachers gather in the office and play together, I naturally wanted to join in and asked for a set of music notes so that I could read along. I was surprised and felt initially defeated when I was handed a book of sheet music with music notation that was written using the Thai alphabet and had no obvious distinctions between octaves, note length, and style.

At first I thought I would simply learn the songs by ear and write them out using the orchestral notation that we Americans are all taught in school. This, however, became tedious overtime and made me feel like an “outsider” in a culture I was trying so hard to be on the inside of. Even though I was learning the folk instrument, I was writing and reading in a “funny” script, to quote the Thais I played with, that was foreign and unfamiliar to my fellow musicians. In a sense, I was distancing myself from the culture by doing this. Eventually, I realized that not only would taking the time to learn to read the music help me advance in my ability to play and perform but it would also help me be fully on the inside of this art.

Learning to read the music was easier than I initially expected as I quickly realized the Thai characters corresponded to seven familiar scalar notes: “Do-Re-Mi-Fah-So-La-Tee.” I learned that the octave the notes are played in could be figured out through familiarity with the folksong or could be based on the preference of the player. The head of my department helped me decipher the other markings, such as note length, which is dictated through the use of dashes following a note. Now I am able to sight-read any piece in the book with few difficulties, which has allowed me to perform with groups in the community. 

Chiang Saen Wittayakom School's marching band in the Sports Day parade.

To me, cultural immersion and awareness is the act of learning and allowing oneself to be taught a particular aspect of a culture. In order to fulfil this while abroad, I desire to do more than have a presence in a community; I desire to become part of the community. The salor has facilitated my ability to do so given my limited Thai language skills and the cultural “shy-ness” of many Thais towards foreigners. Through performances at the school and the temple I have become a familiar face in the community as a foreigner who has genuinely cared to learn an aspect of Thai society. Not only are people intrigued by my ability to play the salor and my desire to learn, given that it is an endangered art, but they are also impressed that I have taken the time to learn their written script and music notation. The respect I have gained through music has helped me to establish a positive position as a foreigner in my small host community.

Even though I completed a semester abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a few years ago, integrating into a small, rural Thai community has been more difficult than integrating into student life in a Thai city. However, similar to other international experiences, music has been my key to unlock the door to the heart of society. Not only have I been able to share my love for and expertise in music with students and teachers interested in Euro-American orchestral music, but I have been able to let myself be a student of music, learning a traditional folk instrument and becoming more aware of how diverse the language of music really is. When I return to Chiang Saen in May for the new semester, I hope to become more involved in making the traditional folk music more appealing to the students at my school.

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