The tagline of the national airline of Malaysia is “Journeys are made by the people you travel with.” A seven-day stay in Kuala Lumpur with three others from the Berklee community has proven that true. Amazing journey, amazing colleagues. Berklee sent us here at the request of our Malaysian Berklee International Network (BIN) school, the International College of Music. We came to share our expertise, but Malaysia has shared just as much with us.
We have grown both inside the workshops and outside on the streets. Inside, during the four day-long workshops at ICOM with music teachers and industry professionals from all over Malaysia, my colleagues have delivered not only facts but also perspective. From Music Education Chair Cecil Adderley, who spoke about technology in music education and led a full-day workshop on ensemble leadership and rehearsal techniques, we learned to think about learning music through performance. Vice President for Curriculum and Program Innovation Jeanine Cowen presented two workshops, one on PA setup and another on game audio, and reminded us that technology is a tool, not an end in itself. Associate Professor of Music Production Prince Charles Alexander reinforced that message in an inspiring day-long workshop in which he discussed the evolution of music technology, the history of hip-hop and innovation, and production and engineering techniques. He emphasized that technology supports our central goal as musicians: to communicate—to express things that are central to the human spirit. And I led a full-day workshop for ICOM faculty on online learning, and was reminded by my colleagues here and in Malaysia that innovation is infectious.
For ICOM President and CEO Irene Savaree, a Berklee grad and founder of school since 1996, bringing this expertise and these mindsets to her college helps to support her underlying goal—nation building. Together with her brother Ravi Savari and her inspired staff and faculty, ICOM is helping to create a thriving music scene and arts economy in a nation that is still designated Third World yet boasts the world’s tallest twin towers. They are making history here in Malaysia, working tirelessly to build a musical culture. For me, they have redefined what it means to be gracious, to be visionary, to be inspired, and to be open—and to enjoy the journey.
Indeed, they tell us it is a challenging culture in which to forge change. Malaysia is a diverse county, split between three cultures, Indian, Chinese, and indigenous Malay, the last of whom make up just over 60% of the population. The schoolteachers we met in our workshops, almost all Malay, struggle with many of the same issues as music teachers in the US. Malaysian educators face challenging national curricular goals and standards set by the Ministry of Education. They teach theory, vocal and instrumental music, but also physical education and academic subjects. One educator described his music education community members as “Jack of a million trades; master of none.”
Teachers expressed frustration that there is so little time in the school day to experiment with new ideas or techniques, including how to use technology to further their aims. If teachers wish to expand on their approaches, they must do so on their own time, and parents not always willing to let students stay late at school. Teachers feel that the curricular goals set by the Ministry of Education are aggressive, given the time they have available. They feel that they goals are clear before them, but they don’t quite have the support and guidance they need to help reach those goals.
In that regard, it is a great honor for us to be here to share some of the innovative approaches we have employed in the US—but the sharing has been completely reciprocal.
Outside in the diverse streets, shops, and restaurants of Malaysia, our trip has been a creative journey as well. Inspiring conversation about culture, the arts, and the experience of being an artist has led to colorful cross-pollination and new friendships. Big, healthy laughter has punctuated every conversation. Every moment is filled with discussions about intellectual property and compensation, about innovation, bravery, and the future of music, politics, war stories from the bandstand, and healthy razzing about the personal quirks we’ve discovered in each other. The one-line quips and wise-guy remarks have turned in to motifs that have kept us laughing throughout the journey. I could not have foreseen how important this sort of trip is for collegiality and for professional reinvigoration, but it makes perfect sense: Put four creative and open individuals in a new, inspired environment for a few days and you can’t help but encounter new ideas.
This is how innovation begins. We bring these new ideas home to enhance our lives both at Berklee as music educators and outside of Berklee as artists and practitioners. When we land in Boston, our suitcases will be full of batiks, Royal Selangor pewter, and Malaysian handcrafts, but the most important gift we bring home from Malaysia is that we are richer and more creative music professionals for having journeyed here and back, together.