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Indonesian charm

A guide to revitalising piano practice by Melanie Spanswick, a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott), a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.

Melanie Spanswick – pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer – reports on a recent working tour of South East Asia.

Over the past nine days I have been touring in Asia. It’s always a pleasure to work with students and teachers in different parts of the world, and fascinating to note the various similarities in teaching styles, despite the cultural differences. I began my trip in Indonesia, a country I visited briefly last year as part of a larger book tour.

Indonesia consists of thousands of volcanic islands and is home to hundreds of ethnic groups speaking a variety of different languages (apparently over 700), from Javanese, Malay, Chinese, Arab to Indian and European. The capital city, Jakarta, is situated on the northwest coast of the island of Java: over 10 million residents inhabit this sprawling place. It’s noisy, bustling, humid, vibrant, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. A government health warning should perhaps be issued when sampling some of the food; if hot and spicy isn’t your ‘thing’, you may struggle here. Public transport is limited to say the least, which results in serious daily traffic jams, and a substantial health hazard in the form of pollution. But none of this affected my stay, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my hosts and all those with whom I came into contact.

I had been invited to work as one of this year’s ‘Grand Mentors’ for the Cantata for Youth Scheme at the Sekolah Musik Cantata (Cantata Music School) in Kelapa Gading Square, North Jakarta. This school has several large premises across the city, of which the Kelapa Gading branch hosts over 600 weekly students. A range of instruments can be studied alongside music theory, and there are even options to study subjects like classical ballet dancing. Such learning establishments in Indonesia are generally arts-based as opposed to solely music.

My task for the week was to work alongside the school’s piano teachers, helping to prepare students for the Sunday concert, and generally suggesting alternative practice ideas as well as offering methods for honing teaching concepts within the school. The Cantata Music School is a Trinity College Examination Centre and a growing number of pupils take these examinations every year. Whilst traditional instruments, such as the gamelan, remain popular, there is increasing interest in Western music and Western culture, and, as in the case of other Asian countries, the instant achievement found in certification drives many.

The same elements frequently appear problematic

I spent three and a half days working with a complete cross section of diverse students; from elementary through to the associate diploma level. It matters little about where I go to teach in the world, the same elements frequently appear problematic. This may be due to lack of student interest or practice, but, more often than that not, it’s sadly due to poor teaching. Becoming a piano teacher in Indonesia is no easy feat. Teachers don’t always have the required opportunities; most haven’t studied to Bachelor degree level, and there seems to be little provision to study Western music at a higher level. Therefore, prospective piano teachers rely on acquiring ABRSM or Trinity College London Grade 8 or diploma exams. Perhaps this may be resolved in coming years, but until that time, it remains for visiting teachers to implement a different approach. And that was my intention.

Students had mostly learned their prepared pieces sufficiently well, but were not always fluent at note-reading or keeping time. These issues were particularly highlighted during the duet playing.

One of the clever concepts of this school is that they are keen to pair pupils together for duets and – unusually – for trios (6 hands at one keyboard). The Sunday concert featured mostly duet and trio ensembles, and it was heartening that my book of elementary duets and trios, Snapchats (80 days publishing), was used for this purpose.

Encouraging ensemble work is a marvellous vehicle for overall improvement

Snapchats are very short pieces, mostly between 8 and 16 bars in length, for two and three pianists at one piano; they take students from late beginner level to around Grade 4. And they are really beneficial for those just starting to play duets. Several more advanced students also played solo pieces from my new volume, No Words Necessary (Schott Music).

Encouraging ensemble work is a marvellous vehicle for overall improvement. I worked with each group (and their teacher), on such aspects as quick note learning, fingering and finger positions, general ensemble, and the importance of rhythm and pulse.

The pulse had been largely side-stepped by the majority of students, which rendered ensemble playing a real challenge. But after some stringent ‘pulse keeping’ in the form of counting out loud (where I found myself either conducting or stamping my foot!), pupils started to place beats more carefully, and were clearly happy to be playing in almost perfect unison alongside their fellow pianists. As a result, the Sunday concert was a resounding success, with some impressive playing (click on the videos below to hear some of the performances, and bear in mind that these children had never played a duet or trio before).

Fearless explorers would relish a trip to Indonesia

My final day in Jakarta was spent working with teachers. I usually offer a teachers’ workshop during my travels. It lasts most of the day and focusses on disparate technical facets. The workshop features a selection of piano exercises, allowing teachers to form a basis for flexible movement with their students, an issue which I perpetually work on with my own students. Teachers responded well to this session, and were asking for more detailed information about flexible, relaxed movement around the keyboard, and therefore a further trip probably beckons at a later date. Many of these exercises are also featured in my course, Play it again (Schott Music).

Fearless explorers would relish a trip to Indonesia. I learnt much about the traditional music, responses to Western Classical Music, and the constantly evolving opportunities for Western musicians to perform on the Indonesian stage. I hope music education continues to thrive and, if so, it will be due to the admirable work done by schools like the Sekolah Musik Cantata.

The following videos were recorded at the Tea for Two (or Three) Concert and feature students from the Sekolah Musik Cantata.

Header photo: The author with students and teachers after the concert in Jakarta

About the author

Melanie Spanswick
Melanie Spanswick

Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.