(But) This is Indonesia!!


When The Philippine Madrigal Singers made their visit to Indonesia recently, and held a touring concert called “Indonesia Goodwill Concert Tour 2010”, they gained praises and awe from the audiences everywhere where the performance took places. Discussions then also started, one of which is in Indonesia Choral Lovers mailing list. There are questions why are other nations (particularly Philippines) could sing and perform very amusingly, and why Indonesians can’t reach their quality. Opinions were thrown into this thread titled “Ada apa dengan Filipina” and just a few days ago, came a writing from Peter Ming responding this question very remarkably. 

In the spirit of sharing, I’ve asked his permission to re-share his writing, of which he gave his consent to. So, enjoy reading below writing of his, and feel free to respond it even directly to his email :)


After spending months of quiet reverie (I was on a break with Yahoo!), it only took an innocent click and it’s pow! and kaboom! again here at ICL. It’s been years before a topic becomes such hot commodity and was lovingly debated, defended, trampled over, quoted, commented, caressed and thrown over like a bag of potato chip.

It is interesting to read that on the many comments made about the original essay, most agreed that Indonesia has equal if not far more superior vocal resources. So what went wrong?

A lot.

Artistry is not fast food. You cannot just go to the trendiest mall and purchase artistry there. It has to be cultivated right from the very first time we breathe into this world, or even before, when we were a fetus, or so many scientists would led you to believe (take Mozart and your baby will be a genius – I wonder what will happen to those babies listening to Schoenberg).

Sadly, for most parents in Indonesia, artistry was often misjudged as unnecessary and time wasting as well as income repellent. How many of parents are so busy cramming hours and hours of extra studies to their children? And in those busy hours how many are dedicated to art and music?

School didn’t help either. It’s been years since I graduated from one, and so I am not well equipped to say what happens in the school world nowadays, but back in my days (and it wasn’t really that too long ago), art and music curriculum were reduced to the bare minimum. Our knowledge of music history was reduced to patches of local music, of yesteryear composers, most of them dated back to the time of occupation and marches from the war time. Not a hint of Western music history. We might have heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Beethoven, but who was Leopold Mozart? Richard Strauss? Dietrich Buxtehude? Di Lasso?

Reading music was made even troublesome by giving numbers instead of the real musical notes, a practice which continues up to this very minute. Woes betide the headstrong conductor who pushes the choir to only read real notes. The general conception is that if you can read the real thing then you are a snob. Well, hand out music in numbers to the Berlin Philharmonic, let’s see what noise will they produce.

And let’s not even talk about the mentality of most choir members (what can be said about people who think Bocelli is an opera singer, Brightman is superior than Callas, and that the buffed Il Divo are the miraculous answer to The Three Tenors). After only a couple of sessions of vocal training, suddenly they want to sound like Hayley Wenstera or Charlotte Church, because it is ‘hip and trendy and popular’.

Attending choir rehearsals is like going to a bus station, you are sure not to meet the same person but the conductor two weeks in a row.

Most choirs here are also seasonal choirs; which means that they will sound rather glorious only during competitive season. They relish in the temporal adulation of the audience and the grand jury. After it is over, you are very lucky indeed if you can get even a decent croaked harmony from them.

Which brings another blow.

Art in general, and especially music, cannot be judged by a team of grand jury, however esteemed they may be, since the experience will be purely subjective to the perception of the audience or the jurors at the time of the presentation. The competition should be treated only as a foundation of the capability of an artist. The outcome of a competition only represents but a small fraction of the artist’s development, their destination toward pure artistry lies ahead beyond the golden statue. Just ask Meryl Streep.

Yet, here the winners of a competition are treated like gods, medallions being paraded around in glass cases, even silver suddenly sounds more valuable than gold. What we have is an illusion of the art itself. Handel will surely be tossing and turning in his grave.

Lost and exhausted, many turn to the so called ‘music schools’, basically just an institution where you learn to play music instruments: piano and electone being the most populist. Some vocal classes are thrown into it and voila! You have an instant hit. Take some of the young students, label them prodigious and make sure whatever they do will be noted in Indonesian Museum of Record, and parents will come flocking on your doorstep, their innocent children tagging along, unbeknownst of their parent ambition. This pattern has become dangerously common that in my city one such music school has collected whatever records possible for their ‘young and talented’, each new one breaking the record of the previous.

Music has become such a hot commodity and learning them is even now reduced to mathematics that we forgot the art behind it.

Adding fuel to fire, the recent rise of so-called talent show has put promises of instant celebrity status and income to the spotlight. Warble something out and you are already ‘a genius musician’, ‘talented artist’, ‘cream of the crops’. Even lipsynching can throw you into the celebrity superstar status.

Now back to the choirs.

The combination between lack of music education and the ignorant choir members proved to be fatal. Instead of building the strength of the individuals by carefully selecting the repertoire, many choir directors must succumb to the general conception that nothing is more fun than contemporary music. Put Tallis, Byrd, Ockeghem, Palestrina or Victoria to your road map, and you will get a dozen or so murderous look which rivals Hannibal Lecter’s, not to mention the daily lobbying from the choir administration to at least put ‘one or two John Rutters’.

Conductors who should tackle the conception of artistry within the body of a classical work are treated as first grade teachers who must teach each individual what’s what in the scores. Rehearsals are not anymore about the music, but rather about reading the notes. Artistry and musicality are replaced with technicality of reading those notes.

Exposure to classical works is also very lacking. With this era of iPod and internet sharing, it should be easier now than ever to get as many recordings as it is possible about a specific works and then building your knowledge around it. Yet, whether from habitual residue or ignorance (or it’s just plain laziness), the numbers of individuals who do get to collect multiple version of classical music recording are not that encouraging.

And so, we wonder why we are no better than our neighbor.

‘We do not have the same resource as they do’

Total hubris. The biggest musical and literature library is just one click away.

‘We do not have music conservatories as they do’

Sounds convincing. But the real reason is that we do not have the basic music education. People don’t come to music conservatories unprepared. They have years of study right from the start. Schools abroad, especially our Western and European counterpart, have prepared children to learn music from the very beginning. It is part of their integral curriculum. Learning at least one musical instrument, or getting involved in one art endeavor is highly encouraged.

‘We do not have a strong music history or art’

So what are our folksongs? I listened to ludruk many times over when I was just a little boy, an innocent habit thanks to my mother. I’ve grown to love it. And here I am now listening and collecting Western and European ‘ludruk’.

‘The mentality of the choir members is totally lacking’

For most part the answer is a discouraging ‘yes’. But do remember that the recent generation of choir members is the product we inherited from end of last century education. There are still the future generations, those babies born in the new millennia. Now it is time for us the new mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties, brothers, sisters, teachers to take the next step and prepare them for the future ahead. 

Forget instant celebrity status, forget the allure of breaking any records, they won’t get you high enough to the echelon of the greats. Teach them that no glossy medallion is more superior to the art itself. Educate our children the importance of art. Prepare them to have mentality of an artist. Make sure that they are exposed to the right kind of art, not just to the byproduct of mass consumerism. And then maybe in 2025 somewhere in other region someone would pop the question ‘Ada Apa dengan Indonesia?’

Peter Ming

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