The incredible growth of Western classical music students in Yogyakarta

Western classical music is not from Indonesia. The access to Western classical music today in this archipelago is thanks to the wide options offered by the algorithm of the internet. The experience of hearing live sounds produced by trained classical musicians on stage has already embarked since decades ago. The quality? Not bad at all considering playing an instrument in a tropical climate and trainings that is still developing. Some privileged parents sent their kids to private piano lessons since early age. Some of them hoping that they will be become a “child prodigy”. While many of them are simply placing their kids on the piano tuts for a hobby. For most of parents in Indonesia music is not considered as a profession. They wish their kids to be able to master their math thanks to music according to doctrines of classical music myths. While major parents considering this, several governmental institutions in Yogyakarta has been standing for more than 50 years to offer a Western classical music trainings with an official educational certification. 

In the district of Kasihan, Bantul, Yogyakarta, there is Sekolah Menengah Musik Yogyakarta (Yogyakarta High School of Music). Under the department of KEMENDIKBUD (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology) students of SMM Yogyakarta wear the same “uniform” as other high schools throughout Indonesia. Many fresh recruitments of SMM students have no Western classical music trainings before. When they apply for an audition, they are 15 years old. For most of them they will apply for a guitar, drums and vocal audition while the school itself offers a wide range of Western orchestral instrumentation major. They don’t choose to study double bass or oboe, their future teachers do. For most of them, ending up 20 years later in an orchestra seat is a “beautiful fate” designed during their audition time in SMM Yogyakarta. 

During their 3 years study in SMM Yogyakarta, they were taught about instrumental/vocal techniques, music theory, harmony, history of Western classical music and forms. 5 out of 10 students every year graduated and continue their path in bachelor studies. The popular choice for an undergraduate studies in Yogyakarta are Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of the Arts) or Universitas Negeri Yogyakarta (Yogyakarta State University). 1 out of 10 students are truly special and made their way extremely far in this field. Some of them continued their bachelor and master studies outside of Indonesia. With high levels of competitions they succeed to earn a place (and graduated) in conservatories in Asia and Europe.

The first question is, how did they learn and sky-rocketed their skills and knowledge in only 3 years? The first answer is learning platforms from external institutions. Since 2007, there was a positive trend for Western classical music, specifically orchestra in South East Asia. The project was called SAYOWE (Southeast Asian Youth Orchestra and Wind Ensemble) based in Salaya, Thailand. In SAYOWE, young orchestral and wind ensemble musicians had the chance to stay for a week receiving masterclass, rehearsals and concerts. This was a golden opportunity for Indonesian young musicians to learn, improve their skills and establish a friendly network among South East Asia. There were several other opportunity similar as this around Asia. This projects kept their path until the 2020 pandemic paused it all.

The second answer is the unlimited internet access to e-books, masterclass videos and educational content. Internet and social media is a primary needs for the 270 millions souls of Indonesia. Some students took the initiative further by going to an internet cafe (warnet) to download all materials that their curious minds needed, store it in a USB stick and bring it home to study it further. This learning method is still widely used today. Furthermore, today they don’t need to go to internet cafe anymore since every person are possessing a smartphone. YouTube, Instagram and TikTok offered way more knowledge than school. It’s a dilemma for schools today and advantage for students on the other hand. 

The third answer is musical intuition. Although they were taught in school about theory and techniques, but musical intuition is something that no single school in the world able to teach. Musical intuition grew by itself in each person. Singing and rhythm is what most Indonesian musicians are strong at. Collective pitches and vertical harmony are things that are still developing. This musical intuition, if protected from external disturbance, will be the major force to lead student to become a very good Western classical musician that is on the similar level as Europeans. It still mind blowing to witness a group of 17 years old Western classical music students after learning only 3 years are standing on the same level as most 17 years old European young musicians who started their trainings since the age of 4. 

Indonesian young musicians doesn’t need to aim Europe anymore. What the Indonesian young musicians need is a reformed curriculum design and way of thinking in absorbing knowledge. They need to stop idolising the West and start to think about absorbing every knowledge (international) and improving their inner values. They need to start to learn past archipelago’s brilliant thoughts, system and ideas. This is not about being nationalist in the post-independence time. The era has changed. This is about living with our own values, protecting it and interacting with neighbours from around the globe. Indonesian young musicians doesn’t need to be forced to sound like Jascha Heifetz and start to be encouraged to find their own voice like how the late Idris Sardi or Irsyad Adam did.

We have everything needed to live a colourful musical ecosystem on this land. We have the young students, we have the teachers, composers, curious audience, audio-visual technicians, luthiers, promoters, media, venues and many more. What we need is a collaboration and aiming the same goal towards a beautiful big musical garden. If government doesn’t realize this, formal music education institution have to take action. If institution don’t, parents do. If parents don’t, we as individual have to take this responsibility on our shoulder and spread the way of thinking. And most important thing is not about solution and answer, but about asking a precise question. 

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