Teaching Music

Teaching Music in the Peace Corps

I was a Librarian at the University of Colorado from 1957 to 1963.  In 1963 I was accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer and, after training, was assigned to Malaya (later Malaysia).  My assignment was to be a librarian at the University of Malaya.  It should be noted that in addition to having a Masters in Library Science, my bachelor’s degree was in music education and had taught high school music for a couple of years.

Upon arrival at the Kuala Lumpur airport, one of the Peace Corps staff greeted me by saying “Oh, you are the one who is to teach music at the Maktab Perguruan Bahasa (Malayan Teachers’ College).   After the initial shock, I found that indeed I was going to a half time general music teacher. 

Culture shock was immediate.  Our volunteer group was initially placed at the Technology Institute.  The spartan room in the dormitory was shared with three others.  The toilet was a hole in the floor over which one squatted.  In training we had not been warned of this difference in life style.  The shower consisted of a large container filled with water.  There was also a dipper that one dipped into the water and poured it over the body before soaping up.  Once you were deemed clean, you filled the dipper again and rinsed off.  By the way, there was no hot water.  One might expect that in the tropics the water would be warm.  No such luck. 

The hundreds of orchids that we saw on the way to breakfast lifted spirits but only for a moment — breakfast was another culture shock.  Each table for eight contained 16 soft boiled eggs, an enormous basin filled with rice and eight bowls of clear broth with things of unknown origin that floated.  Most volunteers lost complete interest in food and wondered if they would have to starve for the next 21 months. 

Two things saved us that first day.  One of volunteers found a banana vendor outside the college gate.  About 40 volunteers swarmed the cart and, in about 5 minutes, a happy vendor had no more bananas.  He hardly knew what hit him.  The other wonderful happening that first day was a reception that they attended given by the American Ambassador.  We volunteers soon found out which was the door to the kitchen.  As the waiters came out, the food on the trays disappeared – as clean as a vacuum sweeper could have done.  How wonderful it was to find that some of the best food in the world can be found in Malaya/Malaysia, representing the food culture of its three major races – Malay (45%), and Chinese (45%).  The remaining 10% were Indians – mostly Tamils and Sikhs.

Concerning my music teaching, I found that I was to teach for 6 months while Mr. Ashcroft, a British expatriate, went back to England on home leave.  The students needed to pass the standard tests that were given to music students in England.  I observed several of Mr. Ashcroft’s classes and was appalled that these college-aged students were being taught such songs as Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall (to different words) and Old Black Joe (words changed to Good Old Joe).  Outrageous! 

I had been learning several Malay and Indonesian folk songs and decided to write them down, and, as an extra curricular activity, start a choir.  I also arranged some of them for multiple voices. Since there were no photocopy machines anywhere, I spent many hours making multiple copies by hand.

After the first choir rehearsal, we sang and I played for them the Miriam Mkeba recording of Suliram.  At the end of the rehearsal, I indicated that the rehearsal was over.  However, no one moved.  Thinking that the students didn’t understand my English, I repeated the dismissal in Malay.  Still nobody moved.  Soon, a quiet voice said “Mr. Howard, can we sing that song again?”  The song was Suliram.  Perhaps all of my work had been worth while. The recording be found on U Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCHfPYjAkz0 Another version is by Pete Seeger. 

Then there was the time that the choir sang for the King and Queen, but that is another story.