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Making the arts accessible

Foreigners already have the desire to learn but many Cambodian families think it is useless to study music. We correct them

The delicate tinkle of a piano is the soundtrack to climbing the stairs at the Music Arts School. Inside, in one of the three brightly coloured practice rooms, a teenaged boy is a picture of concentration as he diligently practices a melody. Huy Bunchhin, 15, has been studying at the school for only three weeks but such is his newfound passion for piano that he now practices four or five times a week at the school and is seeking additional classes elsewhere.

It is this sort of passion that school director Songva Keth hopes the Music Arts School can unleash in other Cambodians. According to Songva Keth, Cambodia does not have a culture of taking music lessons. “Foreigners already have the desire to learn,” he notes, “but many Cambodian families think it is useless to study music. We correct them.” Not only does it provide young people with a creative outlet, it also gives them an opportunity to relax in their leisure time. “It is better than the youth being outside, driving their moto around the city, drinking even in the afternoon,” Songva Keth points out.

Since the Music Arts School opened on June 1, more than 35 students have signed up to take regular lessons, the first steps toward making the school’s primary objective – for Cambodians to grow up playing music – a reality. Because the school operates as an NGO, it can afford to offer rates that are affordable to some Cambodians as well as foreigners ($36 for four lessons). Furthermore, scholarships are available to Cambodian students who demonstrate musical talent but are not able to afford the cost of regular lessons.

The emphasis on creating a place where people can discover the relaxing qualities of music is obvious. In addition to the three practice rooms, a breezy balcony shaded by a leafy garden and adorned with couches, tables, a coffee shop, and free internet mean that the school acts as more than just a place for people to learn music. “This space is for students, family, friends, youth – everyone – to come and relax,” says Songva Keth.

Ultimately, the aim is to improve the standard of music in Cambodia. “Right now, the number of Cambodian musicians graduating from international universities is very small. We do not have people who can join international acts when they come to Cambodia. The standard of education is low,” Songva Keth laments. To address this the school offers two different learning styles: a modern teaching style to appeal to those just starting out, and lessons based on the classical methods of Suzuki and Kodaly, to equip more serious musicians with the skills they need to become international calibre.  

Whilst the school employs both local and foreign teachers, the emphasis is on giving local teachers an opportunity to make a living from music. Speaking from experience, Songva Keth says it is not easy to make a living in the music industry in Cambodia. “A lot of [Cambodian] students graduate from music school but have no job. We want to give them a chance to use their talent,” he says.

Offering lessons in Khmer instruments such as Khem, Takkeo, and Tro, as well as guitar, piano, violin and vocals, Songva Keth dreams of one day having students of Khmer and western instruments play together. In the meantime the focus is on upskilling Khmer students in the western instruments as well as introducing foreigners to Khmer culture through music.

And if Huy Bunchhin is any indication, it’s a recipe that looks destined to succeed. “At first I wanted to play piano because I saw piano players on TV and they seemed cool,” he says, “but now I want to show my friends, my family, and the public how good Cambodian musicians can be.” With the help of the Music Arts School, there is no reason why Huy Bunchhin and others like him cannot, in time, become world class.



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