Earlier this spring, I had the opportunity to attend the annual South East Asian Directors of Music (SEADOM 2018) congress.
The conference location changes each year and this time, it was held at gorgeous Mahidol University in Salaya, Thailand, about an hour outside of Bangkok. The setting was glorious! Several buildings were interwoven alongside swamps, streams, and beautiful trees. The sounds of birds and musicians practicing filled the air.
On top of that, the event was a friendly and fascinating gathering of musicians, educators, and administrators mostly from South East Asia, with a handful of “others” like me from the U.S. and elsewhere.
At the conference, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel and meet music school and conservatory directors from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines, as well as other visitors from outside of the region including Australia, Norway, and Estonia.
3 Takeaways and Insights from SEADOM 2018
It’s easy to get locked into a particular view of what it means to engage with and succeed in music, especially in higher education.
But there’s a broader picture of how music fits into society—and looking outside of our culture and borders helps bring that picture to life.
Takeaway #1: The differing views of entrepreneurship
I was curious to see whether music entrepreneurship would be a dominant theme in this region, as it is a growing field in the United States and Europe.
It seemed to depend country to country, but the impression I got is that a music career requires a more entrepreneurial approach in countries where there is less of a music industry infrastructure.
As difficult as it may be to get a symphony job in the US, it’s an even less viable career pathway in South East Asia for many reasons, but mostly because of the very different ways that music exists in society.
Although many of the countries have complex political and economic landscapes, there was no shortage of stories of individuals moving mountains to make something incredible happen.
For example, Dr. Sugree Charoensook was revered by all for establishing the School of Music at Mahidol University in Thailand, the first higher education institute in the country that offered doctoral degrees in music. It enables musicians to achieve a terminal credential that gives them a new level of legitimacy and perceived value in society.
As Dr. Charoensook stated in an interview, “Skilled musicians used to receive only compliments, flowers and applause. You can’t feed your family with any of those things. Changing those things into money, that’s what I do. I need to make sure that my students, no matter where they go to perform, are of the utmost quality.”
Establishing a music school of the scale and beauty of the School of Music at Mahidol was no small feat. Dr. Charoensook secured tens of millions of dollars in funding from the government and individuals supporters to make his dream a reality.
During our panel, when asked how he did it, he shared his: Everyone is your friend and funder.
Dr. Charoensook saw every person he met as someone who could be part of his vision. In a country where it’s easy to feel limited by politics, bureaucracy, and corruption, he looked beyond that.
It got me thinking about musicians in the U.S.
As we set out on our path, it’s easy to make excuses for other people’s success. We tell ourselves they have a leg up over us.
But sometimes lacking funding, privilege, or resources spurs innovation and creativity. Dr. Charoensook is an inspiring example of that.
Takeaway #2: Music in Community
Music exists in a different cultural context in South East Asia and there’s a lot we can learn from it.
In the western classical tradition, we spend a significant percentage of our music lives alone in a practice room.
Across South East Asia, music exists as core component of cultural heritage and shared experience. Traditionally, music exists in community and not in solitary confinement.
As lovely as this is, my experience at this conference also illuminated the challenge that this cultural model holds for some musicians.
Because music occupies a more prominent place in culture—it’s something that nearly everyone participates in—there can be a barrier to becoming a “professional musician.” The notion of a professional career path in music is less defined within society.
Of course, all of these fascinating dynamics come to a head in the context of higher education, where traditional music and western classical music (in the shadow of colonialism) co-exist and, in some cases, compete.
The role of music plays in each country in Southeast Asia is extremely complex and diverse, and significantly impacted by history, politics, colonialism, and much more.
Takeaway #3: Listen to the quieter voices
A highlight of the conference for me was a talk given by Dr. Kit Young, an American pianist who has spent decades teaching in Asia, currently in Myanmar.
Dr. Young’s talk centered on how we as musicians, educators, and listeners can think about balancing dominant voices with quieter ones.
For example, there is no one form of traditional music in any country. Instead, there countless variants therein.
The western colonial strategy facilitated the formation of countries where a multitude of different cultures and kingdoms had long existed, each with their own music and cultural heritage.
In part because of colonization, each region now has dominant musical voices which can be considered to be the representation of that culture’s musical heritage.
But the much of the musical heritage of those original kingdoms still exists today.
Dr. Young’s message was: Listen to the quieter voices.
We’re naturally drawn to the loudest sounds but we must ask ourselves:
How is that hurting the evolution of music? What “louder” sound are we listening to culturally? What sound are we encouraging our students to pay attention to?
Listening is such an important part of being a musicians and we must remember listen and support the quieter voices, as well.
Searching for answers
As music business consultants, we help people create their ideal careers in music. But the bigger conversation is about creating a life in music.
What does that look like and how can we look beyond our own borders to find the answer for ourselves and our communities?
Most musicians I talk to want to travel and experience their careers in a global context, which is fantastic.
There’s so much more out there to be understood about music — it’s not just about the professional potential but about the personal and human side of what music is and how we can engage with it.
Our experience of music can be enhanced by understanding how other cultures use it.