For many people, the music exam is the defining memory of their entire musical education. People remember the sweaty palms before the exam proper, the trotting out of the three prepared pieces, the fumbling through the sight-reading section, and the guesswork for the listening test. All of this adds up to reinforce just how solitary the experience of music-making can sometimes be: practising alone, and then being tested, alone.
It is a shame that the isolation of the exam situation is such a pervasive and powerful association with music education. After all, in so many other settings, music is closely linked with socialising.
Granted, there is a real sense of individual accomplishment to be gained from climbing the rungs of the music grades. However, this kind of satisfaction pales in comparison with the joy of playing music together with others.
When the harmonies blend and the rhythms click, children get caught up in the rush of feeling that they are part of a unit larger than themselves. They get lifted by teamwork. This exhilaration can probably only be matched by a triumph in a team sport.
In Malaysia, there are plenty of opportunities for children to get involved in such musical ensembles. They are a great way to motivate children to work at their musical craft. Once children have experienced the joy of shared music-making, they will do more practice in order to access that joy again and again.
There is an element of peer pressure to this as well. For a music ensemble to work well, everybody has to contribute to the team’s success. It is a form of intrinsic motivation – children will take it upon themselves to practise because they will not want to let their friends down. They learn to take pride in their own contributions.
While the social setting motivates music learners to practise, music ensembles can in turn help children develop social skills.
For one thing, playing music in groups can be a good stepping stone in developing self-esteem. Young performers who suffer from stage fright will feel much more comfortable if they go up on stage together with their peers. This increase in confidence can only help them in other aspects of their lives.
Besides that, social familiarity is built up by the shared experience of learning the same pieces and by helping each other with practicalities like applying rosin to violin bows, or oiling trumpet valves or changing clarinet reeds. Playing in an ensemble encourages a sense of camaraderie, and deeper friendships can develop from this foundation of commonality. Furthermore, empathy is invariably strengthened when children work together. They learn how to understand and to be patient, and to support others when they are struggling musically.
The social dividends associated with playing in a music ensemble can be quite significant. Orchestras and bands are spaces that are separate from the normal classroom environment, and so they provide children with a supplementary context in which to engage with others.
Music ensembles can also help international students to transition to new countries. By having similar experiences and a shared skill like playing an instrument, the child automatically has a group of people they can connect with.
There is, of course, a whole range of other benefits to playing in a music ensemble. Children need to become adept at organising and managing their time: they have to balance their music activities with their academic commitments and their other extracurricular pursuits. The nature of music learning also requires that children become detail-oriented, and that they learn to persevere.
Another excellent advantage of getting children involved in an activity like playing in an orchestra is that they gain a special perspective of history and culture. The powder and wigs of the 18th century may be easier to imagine after having played through a Mozart symphony; or the sizzle of the 1920s might come to life when children get to grips with a Gershwin piece. The music played might even spark a child’s interest in a new era or cultural setting.
Music ensembles are also often the first chance that children get to travel independently of their families. Many youth orchestras make it a point to organise performances in different venues. The most ambitious young musicians might even aim for ensembles like the Asian Youth Orchestra, which has performed in the best concert halls in the world, from New York to Beijing to Sydney.
Opportunities in Malaysia
Where might children in Malaysia take part in music ensembles, then? Music schools offer great opportunities. These establishments normally organise various levels of group playing to cater to different abilities. They have the structure to organise larger ensembles, and the flexibility to pull together available talent for smaller groupings.
Ann Perreau’s Music School offers everything from orchestral groups, to trios and quartets, to stomp ensembles. Bentley Music Academy (BMA) has its very own BMA Youth Orchestra and a children’s string orchestra; while the Allegro Music and Arts school has string ensembles and chamber music groups.
International schools almost always have dedicated music departments. This option might make more sense for children who would prefer to integrate their musical activities within the context of their day-to-day schooling. It is worthwhile to ask schools about recent performances; this can give a sense of the school’s approach to music ensembles.
And then there are the more high-profile ensembles. The competitive Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (MPYO) conducts music camps three times a year, which lead up to major performances in Kuala Lumpur and beyond. Community orchestras like the Selangor Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) and the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) provide a more relaxed setting: in these ensembles, less-experienced musicians can play side-by-side with more seasoned musicians. There is, without a doubt, a healthy and varied ecosystem of music ensembles to be found in Malaysia.