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Teaching Music Cambodian Style – A Guest Post by Andy Trowers

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Music has always been my passion, whether listening, playing or teaching. I’ve been inspired by a great many musicians and always want to help others explore their musical side too; especially those with limited access to music. So when I got the chance to teach music at a Cambodian school, I leapt at it.

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I had visited the beautiful riverside town of Kampot, Cambodia some years previously and quickly fell in love with its relaxed atmosphere and creative spirit. It’s a small place with a lot of character. The famously friendly Cambodian people are at their warmest in this town and there is a sizable expat community, which makes for an incredible cultural melting pot of music, art and food.

So when I finished a work contract back home and felt my itchy traveller feet start to tingle, thoughts turned to Kampot. I contacted a friend from my previous visit and secured a volunteer post at a local school. I was to teach guitar and basic music theory to classes of under-privileged Cambodian kids.

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I arrived at the school excited for my first day. The classrooms were basic and a little shabby around the edges, floors covered with the pervasive red dust of Cambodian dry season. A gaggle of kids gathered outside playing.

We entered the sweltering classroom and the children set about sweeping up and opening window shutters to let the breeze through. Then they lined up. Standing in front of me in rows, they intoned in heavily accented English

“Hello teacher, how are you today?”

“I’m doing very well thanks. How are you?” I replied.

“I’m fine thanks you. And you?” they chorused.

Realising that I could easily get caught in a ‘thank you’ loop if I replied again, I nodded sagely and they all sat down.

As we started, I soon realised that I would have to re-evaluate my lofty lesson plans. There were around fifty children in the class and when asked through a translator if any played a musical instrument, none put their hands up. I had brought a guitar with me but with only one instrument in the whole school, it was going to be tricky.

I changed tack and played a song and asked them to clap along in time. It soon became apparent that clapping in time was problematic. As is often the way with kids, they would get excited and speed up, or slow down when they got bored.

I had a metronome app on my phone so I got them to clap in time and learned how to say ‘keep in time’, ‘faster’, and ‘slower’ to try and keep their beat steady. This gets dry quickly, so I varied it by playing games like ‘match the rhythm.’ One child would make up a four beat rhythm and the others would go around the circle matching it. When one person changed the rhythm, the circle would reverse and go back the other way with the new beat.

The classes I had varied in age from 6 year olds to 16 but the things I taught didn’t vary too much between classes. As there is no formalized music tuition, the older kids still needed to learn the basics like staying in time. Out of around 200 children that passed through my classes, only one played an instrument and he was self-taught.

Over time, I got them to make their own shakers and drums out of tin cans and corn kernels, which was great. Well, great for us. Not so much for the neighbouring classrooms. I also taught some basic songs to give the idea of melody. Singing songs in a foreign language is challenging, though, so I tried to learn some Khmer songs to make it more familiar. We touched on harmonies, too, but with hindsight, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is not the best song to teach Cambodian kids. The ‘r’ sound is practically unheard of out here so the lyrics were very difficult for them to grasp.

Despite their unfamiliarity with playing music, the children were amazing. They would do whatever I asked of them and they seemed excited to be at school learning. Education is seen as a privilege in Cambodia, and they would show their appreciation at the end of every lesson, lining up to say “Thank you, teacher.” If lessons went particularly well, they would high-five me on the way out.

By the end of my time at the school, they had improved rhythmically and knew something about melody, but it was all still very basic. These were children of rural folk and their parents wanted them to work on the farms in their spare time, not learn music. The biggest change was probably in me. I ended up staying in Cambodia and setting up a charity that buys instruments and teaching materials which get donated to local schools. I want to help improve access to music in this country which is full of music lovers but short on opportunities.


Andy Trowers is a freelance writer and regular contributor to www.for-sale.ie and is the latest advertiser here at Music Matters Blog. We are grateful for his support of the online music education community! If you are interested in finding out more about how you can promote your company, event, or product, just send us an e-mail and we will let you know about our advertising packages.

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