Music gem in the north

WHO says you can't get quality music education in a government university? 

While Berklee College of Music, Trinity College of Music, Royal Schools of Music or even Malaysia's International College of Music (ICOM) may be more well-known, Malaysia has its own jewel in the north in the form of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) Music Department. 

The School of Arts at USM has its own art gallery and performance hall.

Many of those who intend to pursue a career in music feel the need to go to private colleges or to study abroad. Music lecturers at USM, however, have a bone to pick with the notion that a local music education is second-class. 

“A lot of people don't even know USM has a music programme!” exclaims Johan Awang Othman, head of USM’s Music Department in the School of Arts. 

“Music lecturers in this school are qualified musicians and composers who have been trained abroad. Many of us were sent for postgraduate studies under the university's Academic Staff Training Programme. We returned to teach in the School of Arts.” 

Johan, 36, who has a Bachelor of Music from Oberlin College and a Masters of Music from Yale, points out his colleagues who have similarly impressive qualifications. 

“Razif here for instance, received a French Government scholarship to study arrangement, orchestration and composition at the CNR of Rueil Mal-Maison in Paris in 1986. 

Until 1997 when he returned to Malaysia, Razif Mohd, 43 led a jazz quintet and accompanied jazz singers in music clubs and hotels in Paris, apart from performing in classical ensembles, a chamber group and a gospel choir. His “Pantas Perkasa” composition was chosen as the Sukma VIII theme song in 1999. 


Holistic approach 

“You could say that music students here receive a western education through local eyes. We bring to our students the knowledge and experience we have gained from abroad,” continued Johan. 

He describes music studies at USM as holistic, saying that it is not detached from the other arts. 

Razif Mohd: USM lecturer and noted jazz musician.

“Here in the School of Arts, we have fine arts, graphics, theatre as well as music students all in the same place, unlike other purely music institutions. 

“Apart from that, music students have the opportunity to take other university courses unrelated to music like humanities. This enriches them far beyond merely being a good performer. 

“For instance, it is compulsory for music students to take an introduction course to drama and theatre.” 

Music students will testify that they are frequently called to perform at USM functions. The gamelan group and jazz band, for instance, which are also open to students from other schools, plays during opening ceremonies of various functions as well as during the five-day convocation.  

Lecturer Lena Lie adds that studying music at USM is both academic and practical. 

“Students who come in have very little background knowledge of music although they can play. In fact, they play too much piano,” said Lie, 45. 

“The problem has nothing to do with the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) syllabus because the board's emphasis is on playing. But students lack knowledge about music history and fundamentals.” 

Lie says the opportunity to explore traditional music and theatre forms like gamelan, mak yong, wayang kulit and dikir barat expands students' knowledge beyond merely classical music. 


Many disciplines 

USM was the first university to offer a music programme in 1993. It hopes to expand its degree programme for the 2006/07 academic year.  

The current Bachelor of Music (BMus) programme that focuses on Performance & Pedagogy will be expanded to include specialisations in Music Technology and Jazz & Contemporary Music. 

The school also hopes to introduce a Masters of Music in Performance & Pedagogy as well as in Music Technology. Currently, aMasters is only offered in Ethnomusicology. 

“Currently, music technology is only offered as a minor as we are testing the waters. Students study the technique of handling music through the computer by studying music notation, electronic medium in composition and the history of music technology,” explains Johan. 

“In future, we hope to introduce topics like jingle writing, film scoring and studio works. In fact, a recording studio complete with all the equipment is being planned under the school's expansion plans.” 

Lie added that though the department did not offer a specialisation in any instrument, a qualified instructor would be contracted for the student.  

The department would then work together with the instructor in assessing the student on that aspect of their studies. The fees would be borne by the student. 

As for introducing a jazz course, Razif, better known as 'Jeep', the school's authority on jazz, says a jazz musician doesn’t need books to play well. 

“Many of them are already fabulous and passionate at what they do.  

“Studying music has always been seen as more of a cultural exercise, not an academic one. 

“But musicians must be aware of their capacity to explore music in a knowledgeable manner.” 


Exciting projects 

The current performance and pedagogy course is set to be revamped in order to produce well-rounded musicians, says lecturer Dr Jason Tye who just obtained his Doctor of Philosophy from South Carolina. 

“We want students who intend to pursue a career in teaching to have hands-on experience. 

“Apart from teaching preschoolers at USM’s kindergarten, we hope to make the music department a research centre for child development through music,” adds Dr Tye. 

Among academic music works being undertaken by lecturers and students are music journals and a Malay dictionary of music terminology. 

Johan claims that USM is the only government university to offer such a specialised music programme for undergraduates and postgraduates. 

(From left) Victor Kam, Dr Jason Tye, Johan Awang Othman, and Lena Lie are just some of the dedicated USM lecturers at the Music Department.

“For example, Universiti Malaya (UM)'s music programme comes under a cultural centre, Universiti Putra Malaysia's (UPM) music department is lumped under the Faculty of Human Ecology whereas Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) is only open to bumiputras.” 

As for the local music scene and the opportunities available to musicians, Johan says although the music scene is focused in Kuala Lumpur, Penang is the second biggest hub for the arts in Malaysia. 

“A lot of students want to know what they can do with their degree after three years here,” he adds. 

“Students who were previously teachers are given totally unrelated subjects by headmasters who don't recognise them as musicians when they return to school.” 

He gave examples of the Penang State Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Pessoc) and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) that frequently depends on foreign talents. 

“Just because it isn't happening, it doesn't mean that it won't. We have to start somewhere and develop the music culture in society.” 


Local talent 

Lee: Graduated with a Bachelor’s degree inMusic last year.

Lee Chooi Earn, 25, graduated with a BMus from USM in 2004. Her batch, the first under the BMus degree programme, had six students.  

Lee, says she made up her mind to study music after sitting for her Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM). 

“At first, I wanted to be a performer but now, I'm thinking of continuing with my Masters here in order to go into composition. 

“I don't regret not going to a private college because the fees here are much cheaper. My lecturers are very professional and are interested in teaching. 

“It's a good choice to study music at USM as there is an arts atmosphere here,” she says in reference to the various art exhibitions as well as theatrical and musical performances staged here. 

“I have friends who return to school as music teachers, but it doesn't mean their degree is wasted. What we learn in university can be applied in many areas, like establishing a school choir or being able to help students appreciate music,” she added. 

The minimum entry requirements for the B Mus (Performance/Pedagogy) degree programme are two STPM principal passes and Grade 5 Practical/Theory (ABRSM or equivalent.)  

Applicants who hold a music diploma or SPM qualification will be considered after an audition. Applications can be made through Unit Pusat Universiti (UPU).  

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