Letter from Thailand: Accomplished and spicy
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2012 - Kap Khun Krup (thank you) from Thailand, where the Association of American Voices recently finished our 4th annual YES (Youth Excellence on Stage) Academy in Bangkok.
I recently reported on our new program in a small town in rural south Thailand with the Yala Youth Orchestra. Ten of the string students and teachers from Yala followed us back to Bangkok for the YES Academy, which was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.
Anda, the 14-year-old violinist who I wrote about in my previous post, was by far one of the strongest players and served as Co-Concertmaster of the Advanced Orchestra. Again, Anda excelled, leading the performance of Mendelssohn's 10th String Symphony. The older high school and college students did not intimidate her as she led with poise and a strong, calm presence, unusual in a society still often dominated by men.
About American Voices
The Association of American Voices is a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization that conducts cultural diplomacy programs, mostly in countries emerging from conflict or isolation. Most American Voices projects are funded by U.S. Embassies in those respective countries, as well as some local in-country foreign ministries, corporate sponsors and generous individuals that understand the need for this type of cultural diplomacy.
Our flagship program is the YES Academy, which provides music, dance and theater arts classes for students that don’t always have access to top-level arts educators. The YES Academy program provides lessons in classical music, jazz, hip hop, dance, Broadway theater, among other disciplines.
She also impressed everyone earlier in the week with a performance of Schubert's Sonatina for violin and piano. American Voices will certainly keep track of her as she grows and progresses.
This year in Bangkok, we had almost 300 students from all over Thailand, as well as from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, India, Vietnam, Gaza and Kurdistan. The other string teachers were Greg Hurley, a viola instructor from East Carolina University, and Andrew Rammon, a cello instructor from Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. This was Andrew’s first time working with American Voices, and it was a pleasure to have him join us.
It is always a challenge to keep track of the Thai names, often long and hard to pronounce, such as Wannapatson Khampanpoo, Suthipong Tantivanichkij, or Pongsakorn Maneerasayakorn. I frequently receive emails or Facebook messages from students and have no idea who they are, what instrument they play or if they’re male or female. Fortunately, they all choose short nicknames to use on a daily basis, which is often all that I can remember. Most are one syllable such as Sun, Note, Peach, Ploy; my favorite this year being Beer, a stocky male violinist. We also had a Cookie in the violin section, so I told them they should sit together.
Most of the YES Academy took place at Chulalongkorn University in central Bangkok including strings and orchestra, piano, dance, hip hop and the Broadway program. The jazz program was held at Rangsit University in the north outskirts of the city where we’ve had the entire program in the past. But the floods this past fall were very hard on Rangsit, and the school was closed for many weeks. Because of the delay and the damage to buildings, regular students at Rangsit were still in class in mid May, which is normally part of summer break for Thai students.
It's always a pleasure for me to come to Thailand and work with the students in Bangkok because they are always so kind and gentle. The level of playing is very high, and they are eager to learn more, to play different styles of music and welcome us to their country.
The food is terrific and it's a fun place to spend a few weeks if you like warm weather and palm trees. Beautiful beaches and island paradise are just a few hours away and the cost of living is very low. A terrific dinner of Thai food, rice, soups, curries, seafood and noodle combos with beer can cost $3-5 a person. Don’t forget the ice in the beer or it will be too warm too quickly.
And be sure they don’t make the food as spicy as they would for their Thai guests or you may not survive the meal, no matter how much you think you like and can withstand spicy food. Don’t be fooled: ‘Thai hot’ makes jalapenos look like baby food. If I’m eating outside at a sidewalk restaurant and the food is still somewhat hot, I may need a towel to dry my face, head and tears, though the food is too good to stop eating.
We had a record number of students in the string program, more than 75, so we formed two string orchestras and performed music by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Handel and Sammartini. The combined orchestras performed some Thai folk songs arranged by one of the violists from Yala, and was conducted by a violist from Chiang Rai. This served as a beautiful finale to the strings portion of the final Gala concerts.
On May 11 and 12, we presented two final performances at "Chula" University. On May 11, the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, was in attendance. She has been a big supporter of our work in Thailand and we were thrilled to see her in the front row. She realizes what we’ve seen in numerous countries across the Middle East and other regions: 10 American faculty can work with 300 students and connect with thousands more among friends and family members, leaving a good impression of Americans and counteracting some of the negativity that dots the media landscape.
Thankfully, the U.S. Department of State is still budgeting for this kind of cultural diplomacy to demonstrate what we all have in common and how we can all learn to work together.