Arts Education in Cambodia

A month ago, I stumbled upon Laura Dean and Sothy Eng’s Article “What Arts Education could offer to Cambodia 42 years after the Khmer Rouge Regime” while walking back to my apartment after midnight, on Twitter. I found it a coincidence that I was reading it at a point where I was seriously considering how to implement arts education in Cambodia I wrote back to the authors that night. Arts education is an issue I hold dear, as I feel guilty for having the chance to study music when others back home do not have this opportunity. I recommend reading the article here before considering my answer to it, as it concludes my reflection on my trip back home last summer.

Here is the link to the article:

Arts Education is essential is rebuilding the "family cell" in Cambodia, which is fragile. I live in a constant reminder of the ravages of the Genocide on Cambodians and how it influences family dynamics, especially with older family members (uncles, aunts etc...). I agree that the government needs to focus on something innovative towards its own education system instead of adapting 21st century methods, and that Arts Ed should be taught in schools. So here comes the big questions. How exactly do you implement an arts education when:

a full time art teacher does not pay the bills (unless government passes a bill and wages go up... by a lot)

- there isn't enough teachers to cover the whole region (traveling schools programs could resolve that issue but then classes wouldn't be regular)

- there are no standards (no methods, no up to date resources in Khmer, limited access to resources)

I was in Cambodia last summer as part of the Nirmita Composers Institute. I noticed two very contrasting attitudes towards music education. The young Cambodian musicians that were invited were extremely sharp, very interested in what the western faculty had to offer, but what they lacked was the basics of music education which constitutes of notation, music reading (solfege), analysis. I assumed it was due to the poor standards of the Royal University of Fine Arts. I don't blame them, they do not get a lot of support. Some of these students had graduated from RUFA, some were strictly traditional musicians. Cambodian traditional music isn't notated because it is transmitted orally.

Some of the methods of study of early Western music and Indian music could be adapted establish a solid system for the documentation of Cambodian music, and establish an education system. Some aspect of it such as theory, solfège, music history would have to stay as it is instrumental (no pun intended) in the making of a musician for understanding different perspectives and music genres. It makes you a finer music, and brings you up to the caliber to which the rest of the world speaks like in music terms. I can speak personally of it, having moved to the US to study the “western” way. In studying outside of Cambodia, I have come to a greater understanding of music, my purpose in life, but also a greater understanding of the world we live in. Music education in Cambodia will only improve if we give it a frame of reference and a standard. I don't mean performance standards as in how good a piece of music is played, but rather how do you make Cambodian music universal in relation to the Western system of notation that is accredited and used around the world? By offering a point of comparison, a bridge between both cultures, you create a method of sharing and a method of teaching to share it.

Art is symbiotic and cultures learn from each other and adapt their learning methods to those that facilitate it best - Thailand, Laos and Cambodia will have very similar songs, costumes, and stories with a few tweaks here and there but they belong to the same culture, and religion. The propagation of that culture, broadly speaking, comes from the fact that there was a market for it and teaching it was essential in providing the jobs to satisfy the demand in arts. It's safe to say the market for arts education is pretty small, but for arts in general is big. I say this because I see the use of art in many jobs. The example I like to use is the iPhone. Why is the iPhone popular? It's the design. Who designs the IPhone? Artists. Are there enough arts teachers in cambodia ? Not really.

Cambodian music should be studied as attentively as western students study their music - but what if being too critical of Cambodian art, in comparing it to the West for referring, would in turn deny Cambodian art the special attention it deserves as a struggling and unique art form (in contrast to classical western music which is very well instated) ? But then, isn't all art unique and impermanent ? If we teach western methods, musicians will have a much broader, much more mature way of approaching music and notating it - which is good ! It makes music accessible, because you can teach it in a way that is consistent and by notating it, you preserve it. But doesn't notating oral tradition contribute to its disappearance? In the same way for theatre, dance, puppet shadows - writing it down and taking footage preserves the art, and incites artists to generate new creations but the living art becomes amovible. It's a conundrum.

In the years coming, I am considering writing a book on music theory, solfege, analysis - three of the main constituents of music education in the West and translate it to Khmer. I am also looking at the possibility to compare Cambodian music to the western notation system, and how this would affect it, both in its survival and whether this is an effective way of implementing it in the Khmer education system. Additionally, looking at maybe having a platform or an app that teaches music and brings Cambodian music to all (modeled either on the Khan Academy or the London Symphony Orchestra app). Anyways, I'm just 20 and only half through my undergraduate studies.