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A normal teacher's day

January 3, 2012 at 1:49 PM

Because of the New Year celebrations and a holiday break in Thai school some of my students have been moved to today. 

I arrive at the school and sink into the familiar routine. The boy with the hanging lower lip and the eternal bored look imprinted on his otherwise handsome face who never says 'hi' to me (I'm not even sure he understands English) and the friendly girl with smart eyes who is struggling to read the first few bars of the O.Rieding Concerto and is not yet familiar with the concept of whole and half steps...

I've inherited both of them from a Thai teacher in a private music school and to be honest, I'm not sure he knew about the half steps either. Once I've got a chance to see his lessons from a closed door: the guy sat cross-legged (more precisely, his right foot resting on his left knee), his violin somewhere halfway between his chest and his belly, played a note of indecipherable tune and then urged the student to do the same. Unfortunately, needless to say, one could not hear any difference between him and the student.

Why do I mention this now? Do I enjoy bashing the education of the uneducated and playing a role of a Big Mean Kitty? Or am I just annoyed to my core about the lack of any professionalism in Thailand's music scene? Or maybe my astonishment is just another side of the immense pity I feel for these kids who were taught by another one who in return never had any proper instruction himself? This is a violin, this is a bow, 4 strings, remember their names? Ok, ready to go teach others now...

I take a deep breath. The boy who never says 'hi' (it is highly impolite anywhere in the world but here in Thailand it must be downright offensive) surprisingly tries to change his bow hold to the way I showed him during our last lesson and shakes his head when he accidentally hits C# in G-major. (Granted, he accidentally hit C# 10 times over but at least he knew it was wrong.)

The girl looks generally excited by the concept of whole and half steps and 5 minutes later she is seemingly thrilled by the simple beautiful melody of the Rieding's Concerto which she can not easily read, just copy my sounds.

And then I find my peace. Then I remember things I should not forget. I smile seeing how after the lesson she carefully cleans her cheap ugly violin with a piece of cloth and puts it away with a clear look of accomplishment on her pretty face. 

All in all, I must say, I had a nice day.

What about you?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 7:35 PM
That sounds tremendously challenging, but your graceful conclusion makes me think of one of those Suzuki quotes: Meet every student where they're at. Dangling preposition aside, it's a wonderful idea for all kinds of teaching and parenting. You can only take someone places if you can acknowledge where they stand, and move them from there.
From Dottie Case
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 8:02 PM
This is very interesting to read. I came across a couple of High-School exchange students this year from Thailand, both from the same school and orchestra in Thailand. Their host families had gotten in touch with me thinking the students might wish to play with my (advanced level) youth orchestra since they each had their violins with them.
I took a look at the music folder from his Thai orchestra that one student had. It was filled with old staples.... Brandenburg 3, Eine Kleine, and Water Music. This student had 1st violin parts, so my assumptions was that he was likely do ok with my group, though perhaps would play 2nd violin.
I was stunned to discover (when attempting to read some basic level chamber music with him) what truly a beginner he was. Intonation was very shaky, his set-up was pretty bad and he clearly didn't understand or know the difference in finger position in basic keys... no concept at all of 'high or low' 2nd fingers. I could not understand how he could possibly have been sitting in the 1st violin section of an orchestra playing Eine Kleine, etc.
The other student, a girl, attended a rehearsal of my youth orchestra on a day when I was out of town. My assistant was conducting the group and I heard from him and the section leader that this girl was absolutely and totally lost in the 2nd violin section. I later received phone calls from the host mother about teaching sight reading skills. At the time we were working on some basic level Christmas music, chosen to allow some less-advanced students join us for our concert.
She never came back after 1 rehearsal, and even that simple Christmas music was far above her skill level.
This made me really wonder what sort of program they were enrolled in in Thailand, as these students come from privileged families.
I wanted to encourage the kids to take some private lessons while here, but so far have had no takers. I think they are both a little overwhelmed by the general level of players here (in this small, low-income area!) comparatively. I think I'll try to touch base with the host families again and see if we can encourage that.
Still, it's a bit upsetting to think that this sort of 'music education' is systemic, because it's the students who are being robbed. They can't know what no one has never taught them.. it's sad.

Dottie Case

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on January 3, 2012 at 10:44 PM
Mariam, your description of the teacher's posture sounds close to what is used in India in the Carnatic style of violin playing. Any chance that this is what his background is? On a similar note, when you talk about lack of familiarity with whole and half steps, what is traditional Thai music like? I'm guessing that it doesn't use Western scales. You may be having to teach these kids more than you suspect!
From Mariam Hembrook
Posted on January 4, 2012 at 8:32 AM

Thanks for encouraging words. The Suzuki's quote is truly a gem. I hope the teacher's dream to see them one day in a better place than where they were met will become true.


Thank you so much for your interesting if somewhat sad story! On the other hand I was not so surprised to hear about Thai students' experience abroad. Do you know what school/orchestra are they from? A couple of International schools in Bangkok try to put up a good show with their music programs now and then but sadly, it's the same story over and over again: they bite more than they can chew. I think part of it lies within the mentality. In the age of globalization everybody with high income (and there are lots of it here) would like to pretend that they can achieve high levels of life equal or sometimes even surpassing western standards. Unfortunately, what can be done in such areas as commerce and say, industry, for obvious reasons does not work for education and culture. 

In general, local education does not seem to be goal-oriented. Teachers for the most part are even a little bit afraid that the student might know more than them and thus will make them look bad. They discourage progress, nobody's allowed to ask questions, doubt the authority etc. So instead of growth and minds' nourishment you get formal activities and a blind obedience. Another typical trait you described so well is the "ostrich politics" which you see here on all levels. If confronted with a problem or a challenge, instead of getting frustrated and then maybe attacking the issue and becoming stronger through it  (in your case it would be recognizing one's weakness and taking lessons to fix it) Thai student will smile and try to disappear as quickly as possible because to lose face in this society is something so horrible few of us can imagine. I think those ideas are so deeply imprinted here that it does not really matter how privileged or westernized one's family is.

Needless to say that it's VERY different from my ideas or character.

Your phrase "They can't know what no one has never taught them" is so true, though. We can only do our little job step by step and hope it will eventually work out for the greater good. 


You are right about Thai music being very different from the western one. On many occasions I had to play in orchestra with a soloist banging on one of the traditional Thai instruments which were tuned not in half or even quarter steps. The idea to put a traditional instrument tigether with the classical orchestra in itself is ridiculous enough but I can't tell you how bad my headache was afterwards! I even wore earplugs to concert...

Still, the problem is something else. 

The teacher I've described is by no means Indian. Actually, I find Indian music very interesting, I enjoy it when I get the chance. But here we are dealing with the incompetence of people put in higher than deserved positions. Again, nothing personal against the guy. He even wanted to take lessons with me but then his fear of looking inadequate took over. Pity all around. 

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