The Colgate Scene
March 1999
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Teaching the world to sing

by Michele Comment Baron '81
Michele Comment Baron '81 demonstrates bel canto singing technique during a class at the Royal Academy for the Arts in Phnom Penh.
For me, music is a means of connection -- of awareness of culture, language, and singing styles, and, possibly, of understanding --beyond the borders of gender, economics, or nationality. Singing about the experiences of women and children, in classical and traditional songs, has always brought me joy, and I search for song literature that can provide a representation of the reality of womens' lives around the world.

     A Fulbright Grant provided me with perhaps the best (and only) avenue available to study indigenous Eastern music, to augment my performance and studies of traditional and classical vocal music.

     Through my Fulbright projects, I was able to learn and understand more about the lives and culture of women from Southeast Asia, and to incorporate some of the experiences, some of the songs into my evolving repertoire of "world" music -- an understanding which I will, in turn, be able to share with my concert audiences in the future.

     A short while ago, I returned from Thailand, where I had completed a Fulbright program in vocal performance/teaching/study projects throughout my host nation and in neighboring countries in southeast Asia.

     Thailand is hot. When it is not just hot, it is hot and raining. Alternatively, it is really, really, really hot, and dry. Last year, the affects of El Nino caused a great deal of rain to fall in the north, and almost none in the south. So it was even hotter, weather-wise, and financially, due to the region's economic crises. The size of my grant was, effectively, halved just as I was about to begin, and many of my initial contacts fell prey to the increasing financial crunch. I received additional requests to teach, to learn and share simultaneously with students and adults alike, and had all sorts of unexpected opportunities to travel, in Thailand, and in Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, solo, or, sometimes, with a mentor, seeing everything from flying lizards in trackless forests, to jumbo jets in urban airports; riding elephants, bicycle taxis and motorcycles; singing on stages of bamboo, and of teak with velvet curtains.

     I lived, for the most part, in Songkhla, originally an old Chinese settlement, now a southern Thai fishing village, located along the western coastline. Using Songkhla as a base, I traveled through southern Thailand, studying Minorah, Norah and Rong Ang song and dance forms, and learning what I could of the culture, arts and history surrounding the diverse groups of peoples -- Buddhist and Muslim, hill-people, islanders, fishers and farmers, weavers and traders -- in the area.

     In central Thailand, I studied, performed and taught everywhere from the National Center for Culture to university classrooms, private studios, auditoriums and open-air theaters. At the Patravadi Theatre Compound, I was able to combine all facets of my Fulbright activities, teaching, performing solo and in interactive productions and studying traditional arts. With the Royal Thai Navy Orchestra I performed a number of concerts featuring primarily western music, as they wished to present these selections with a native singer of the repertoire (which ranged from pop to Broadway, to opera). One of these concerts was broadcast on Thai National Television, which was quite a privilege.

     I also was able, due to the ad hoc nature of many of my projects, to fit in several sessions with shelters housing at-risk, abused and "rescued" women and children, learning their songs, sharing my own singing and teaching when asked, and listening a lot.

Michele studies her "crib sheet" in order to sing with two Morlam (Thai's northeast country music) performers while a student plays the Kaen.
     Besides my many trips and experiences within Thailand, I had opportunities to visit and work on Fulbright and related projects throughout other parts of Southeast Asia. In Penang, Malaysia, I worked with the Penang State Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, as soloist, vocal trainer and choirmistress, on a number of concerts and projects. Our work together culminated in a first-ever live-concert CD recording, A Heritage of Malaysian Song, arrangements of traditional Malaysian, Hokkien and Tamil songs, set to westernized instrumentation (for the orchestra) by the conductor and other scholars.

     Meeting a UNESCO volunteer (through the intermediary of a fellow Colgate alumna, via e-mail) working to preserve traditional dance forms in Cambodia, I was able to travel to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. There I offered demonstration concerts and singing workshops, and conducted some individual research on Cambodian song styles at the Royal Academy for Art and Music (where dedicated students and too-few teachers work and study, often without electricity, adequate books, learning tools and so on), and in Phnom Penh and the surrounding areas.

     Burma, or Myanmar, is another country fascinating in its depth and history. As in Cambodia, I was limited in time and access, able only to visit the principal city of Rangoon (Yangon) and the surrounding villages. Setting out, with a few recommendations of useful contacts, to explore and learn something of the arts and culture (the universities have been closed for a few years, and former professors, while accessible, work at other jobs to earn a living, as do students), I found much to learn about the music and other performing arts of Burma. Those that I was able to study are very interesting, rich in traditions which, by the time of my visit, I was growing able to recognize, in their similarities, and their differences, to the arts in other areas of Southeast Asia.

     Toward the end of my Fulbright, I stayed in Thailand, completing workshops and "train-the-trainer" programs requested by some of my host nation colleagues, and learning as much as possible about the music I had encountered and begun to study over the past months. Now that I am back in the United States, I am starting e-mail correspondence with some of my colleagues, students and teachers, and working to sort out all the music, pages of translations, material to be translated, art and other materials collected, and the myriad other tasks which can follow travel.

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