People carrying guitars on the street have been a rare sight in Cambodia over the past 10 years.
But now, as the Kingdom’s young population continues to grow creatively, musical-instrument shops are popping up around the capital, with more people interested in learning to play, especially teenagers.
Since its founding a year ago in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang I neighbourhood, The Music Arts School, an NGO aimed at promoting arts education, has received as many as 170 students, 70 to 80 per cent of whom have been Cambodians.
Students range from age four to adults, but the majority are between 15 and 16.
“In the past 10 or 20 years, people in the capital didn’t want their children to study music,” says Keth Songva, 28, the director of the Music Arts School. “I think only a few parents still think like that, but most of them see music as a way to make their children smarter. So they send their children to learn at least one musical instrument.”
The school trains students in both traditional Cambodian and Western instruments, but Songva says students seem to prefer Western instruments to traditional ones.
Guitar is the top preference, followed by piano. The third-favourite musical instrument is the violin, he says.
Although the school’s mission is to make music education accessible, the price of nurturing a nascent talent may seem high to the average Cambodian.
Guitar lessons are US$40 a month for four classes, while piano is $30 and violin $40. Traditional Cambodian instrument classes are slightly cheaper: $24 for a month of kem, Khmer drum or tro.
“Most parents who send their children to music school are upper-class. For lower-class people, this fee will be high for them,” Keth Songva says. “Music schools have just begun to boom in the past few years, so we really lack music teachers. That’s why the fee is still high.”
For this reason, the school offers scholarships to about 20 per cent of its students who are in financial need.
Men Sonita, 16, spends her time outside of her high school, Phanhasastra International School, learning to play the guitar.
She chose the guitar because it’s more popular than other instruments. She can also carry it easily and play it with or without electricity.
“The guitar fits very well with my favourite Cambodian songs from the 1960s such as Arab Piya, Monkey Dance Monkey and Oh Annie,” Sonita says, referring to the so-called golden age of Cambodian rock and roll.
Sonita’s mother, Nhim Pheakdey, says her daughter had insisted on attending music classes since she was very young.
When Sonita was a bit older, Pheakdey bought her an electronic keyboard and hired a music tutor to teach her at home.
For a short period, Sonita could also play the piano.
“It was her idea to attend music school. It wasn’t our idea. We got her piano lessons, and saw she improved. Once I heard from my foreign friends that children who study music are smarter, we got her the guitar class,” Pheakdey says.
She notes that high schools in Cambodia don’t really have any extra-curricular activities such as sports, so she hopes the music lessons will fill her daughter’s free time and help her do something productive rather than getting into trouble.
To celebrate its first anniversary, the Music Arts School will host a student performance night on July 11.
Everybody is welcome, and entrance is free. The Arts Music School is located at #9A, Street 370, near the Beoung Keng Kang mMarket, and the school’s website is www.music-arts-school.org
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]