This article is part 1 of the series: ‘Cultures Across Countries’.
In my early days, I was involved in the high school band in Malaysia (Chong Hwa High School, Jln Gombak) and eventually in a community group (PJ Youth Symphonic Band). Similar to other school bands in Malaysia, my high school band was originally set up as a co-curriculum marching band (pancaragam), to serve the school and its surrounding community, as well as to participate in national services, such as sports day, and state and national day celebrations.
Back in those days, marching under the hot sun was hard, so it was ideal that we eventually spent a lot more time doing indoor concert band practices. I was also lucky that my parents had me sent to the Yamaha Junior Course before I picked up the saxophone in high school, so I already had some music background before joining the band.
As of current, I do not live in Malaysia anymore, but I will still revisit from time to time. Despite moving on from my native country to Thailand, and finally to Canada where I am now based, I have noted similarities and differences in cultures across the first two countries which I hope to be able to share in the few points below.
The trend in Malaysia seems to be moving back and forth between marching band and concert band. A lot of bands are transforming the music that they practice and perform, and also the instrumentation; from a brass and drum band to a full instrumentation concert band. This is partly due to the active involvement with different competitions that are going on in Malaysia, such as the Festival Wind Orchestra SBP, Malaysia National Band Competition (NATCOMP) and the KL World Marching Band Competition (KLWMBC).
Thailand on the other hand offers more opportunities for Thai bands to have better exposure. In terms of marching band, most bands follow the concept of the Drum Corps International (DCI), where its players often audition and participate in DCI as well as the Japan Aimachi Marching Band. With the experience and knowledge gained, the level of the marching band in Thailand becomes incredibly high. At the national level, Thai bands also have the opportunity to compete in the Thailand International Marching Band Festival and Thailand World Music Championships, which are organized by the government and music stores.
As for concert band, one of the biggest motivations is to participate in the annual Thailand International Wind Ensemble Competition, where awards include the ‘His Majesty the King’ trophy and a 2 million baht cash prize. In recent years, Thai Bands have also made appearances in the international level at the World Music Contest (WMC) and the Singapore International Band Festival (SIBF).
The cultures in Malaysia and Thailand are very similar in some way, with band activities run as a co-curriculum activity. The activities often take influence from music stores, as they often bring in their own performing artist or music educator from foreign countries to provide band teaching instruction and methods, and also to guide practicing habits and repertoire selection. Since band is an activity that runs after school hours, there is a higher tendency of getting the very enthusiastic students to join, even for long hours of practice.
In my observation, both Malaysian and Thai bands practice for long hours, but some Thai bands do go the extra mile of staying overnight for weeks at the school before they head for a national or international competition. While most of the Malaysia schools run under the two-session system, we only get to rehearse a lot during the weekend, with the possibility of any cancellation by the school administrator.
During my time in Malaysia, I taught some woodwind sectionals and directed two bands. We always faced the issue of not having sufficient instruments, or have low student recruitment for the band. It was like a chicken and egg situation; where you needed more band members to convince the school board to buy more instruments, and the students will only continue in the band if there were more playable instruments.
While at Thailand, I helped some of my classmates to teach bands, and also assisted as a relief band teacher with the international schools. Most of the local schools that I went to were huge, with tons of instruments and high student involvement. Having a high band membership is definitely an advantage, especially if one wants to do a marching formation (drumline!), or even train up a large section of clarinets or lower brass.
When it comes to music, both Malaysia and Thailand had been through a development of the same sort – from Sousa’s marches to music by James Swearingen, as well as works of Johan de Meij and Robert W. Smith. There is also a lot of focus on the compositions by Japanese composers, such as the late Naohiro Iwai, Toshio Mashima and Satoshi Yagisawa. Thai bands usually have the upper hand as they are capable of working on repertoire that call for a larger instrumentation due to higher band membership, such as those Michael Daugherty and Nigel Clarke.
Facilities and Access to Resources
The standard of band facilities is dependent on the school boards and the parent-teacher associations. I have seen some great rehearsal facility in both countries, and also some that still struggle with getting enough instruments, music stands, or even basic access music sheets and resources. While it is inevitable that music can be purchased from the internet at this age, the cost of each piece of music may sometimes be over the band’s budget.
Despite having many composers out there who are writing for the band medium, from small chamber styles and flex style arrangements to full size instrumentation, I feel that there has to be some improvements, especially in educating the school administrators on the importance of accessing quality music.
It is supposedly right to say that there is no point picking a piece that calls for a huge low brass sound, where you only have a limited number of low brass students or instruments. This is where some Japanese compositions may come into place, where they are catered specifically to a smaller ensemble or a certain instrumentation. By studying a score carefully, a band director is also able to choose what is best for his or her group.
Producing Local Talents
In Thailand, there are already many established composers such Narong Prangcharoen and Kitti Kuremanee, where they write music based on influences from traditional folk tunes. There are also more upcoming young composers who are pursuing music degrees abroad, and have started writing more quality music in contemporary styles that are usually found in North American or European works.
Malaysia also has the same movement going on, but I believe it will take a few more years to gain a more fruitful result. Perhaps this would be the way forward in producing local talents, a situation that is following in the footsteps of Japan decades ago, where they now have the “Kyo-En”, an annual concert presenting unpublished and premiere works by outstanding Japanese composers.
Apart from the rise in composers, the setting up of music programs at numerous private colleges and public universities in both countries had also seen a new generation of young music graduates eager to perform. Despite having no full-time professional wind groups around, several high-level amateur and semi-professional groups continue to provide a platform to fulfill the needs of the young musicians. Groups such as Nontri Orchestra Wind (alumni of the Thailand Kasetsart University) and the Symphonic Winds of NSO Malaysia (full time musicians of the Malaysia National Symphony) would be vital to pushing the development of wind band in the region.
An active performer and educator, Chee Meng Low is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Lethbridge Canada, where he conducts the University of Lethbridge Wind Orchestra, teaches saxophone performance, conducting and musicianship skills. He is also involved with the Edmonton Saxophone Quartet, U of L Faculty Wind Sextet, Symphonic Winds of NSO Malaysia, and has performed as a soloist, chamber musician and guest conduct in North America, Europe and Asia.
During 2007-2010, Chee Meng served as the Assistant Communications and Planning Manager for the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, developing the education & outreach programs, as well as implementing the daily operations of the orchestra. In addition to that, he also served as one of the saxophone instructors for the College of Music, Mahidol University, coaching private lessons, saxophone quartet and saxophone ensemble and serving the College as assistant to the Deputy Director for Academic and Research Affairs.
A recipient of the University of Alberta FS Chia Doctoral Scholarship, Chee Meng holds a Doctor of Music degree from the University of Alberta Canada, under the guidance of William H. Street (saxophone) and Dennis Prime (conducting). While working on his degree, Chee Meng taught Band Technique and Aural Skills courses at the University of Alberta and served as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the saxophone ensemble, symphonic wind ensemble, and concert band.
Chee Meng was a member of the International Committee, World Saxophone Congress (2006-2009), regional representative of the Asia Pacific Band Directors’ Association (2007-2010), and current member of the North American Saxophone Alliance and Alberta Band Association.