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Strings and jazz in Yala, Thailand

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 18, 2012 - Sawadee Kap (hello) from Thailand, where the Association of American Voices has just finished our annual Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy in Bangkok.

I will have an article on our huge performing arts academy in Bangkok, but my first post from the road relates to a new performing arts program we conducted this year in the restive Yala Province in southern Thailand.

The Association of American Voices is a St. Louis-based nonprofit that conducts cultural diplomacy programs, mostly in countries emerging from conflict or isolation. Our flagship cultural diplomacy program is the YES Academy, which provides music, dance and theater arts classes for students that don’t always have access to experienced arts educators. The YES Academy program provides lessons in classical music, jazz, hip hop, dance and Broadway theater, among other disciplines.

While I have worked with American Voices in Bangkok in the past, a new highlight for me was the opportunity to start our program with a five-day mini-YES Academy in Yala, a small city in the southernmost part of Thailand close to the Thai-Malaysian border. The town takes its name from the encompassing Yala Province, which is an underserved rural area with a lot of Buddhist-Muslim tension. There has been fighting in the region between Buddhist Thais and the majority ethnic Muslim Malays, who would prefer not to be part of Thailand.

As part of the program, which began April 28, I visited Yala to teach violin and viola, and was joined by three other American Voices faculty: Andrew Rammon to teach cello; Mariano Abello offering jazz, percussion and sax lessons; and brass and jazz teacher Gene Aitken.

While in Yala, we were told not to leave our hotel to roam around the town for security reasons, but the seafood restaurants were too much to resist. Yala boasts easily the best Thai cooking and most beautiful fish and seafood I've ever had: whole fish in tangy sauces, sea snails, huge prawns, spicy seafood soups, large crabs in curry and in fried rice combinations. And if it's too spicy to eat, I've learned to enjoy local Thai beer with ice cubes to keep cool amid the humid heat that’s akin to August in St. Louis.

Yala has a large youth orchestra program developed by a teacher from the nearby city of Hat Yai. The Yala orchestra boasts 150 string, brass and percussion students. Its members meet every Saturday at a large athletic complex to practice on donated instruments and to receive lessons with young student teachers from Songkhla University near Hat Yai. The level of playing is surprisingly high for these students, given that they do not take their instruments home to practice and most have no private teachers. Their dedication is evident, and their parents are very involved to make sure the program continues.

We may have been the first Americans many of the students got to meet; they could not have been more welcoming, excited to play for us and happy to learn some new music. After the first day, I realized that they could sight-read new music quickly, and we would be able to play much more than I had planned for four days of rehearsals and coaching. On the fifth day, we invited families to come at 1 p.m. for an informal concert showing what we had worked on, including the beginners strings class, which plays with a percussion group and electric piano accompaniment. Mariano had two small jazz ensembles ready to perform and Andrew organized a cello and bass ensemble that performed a fun piece called “Abra Cadaver.”

An amazing 14-year-old violinist named Anda performed a Haydn Trio piece with Andrew on cello and me on viola. Anda is essentially self-taught, yet possesses the poise and technique of an advanced, older student. She had come to our YES Academy in Bangkok for the past two years to receive further training. She is a terrific leader, can sight-read just about any piece of music, and will make a fantastic violin teacher someday. 

In Yala, the parents organization took good care of us, providing beautiful breakfasts and lunches every day at the athletic center. Even though we could not talk much with each other, the feelings of appreciation were evident and mutual. Lots of words are not necessary to express kindness, generosity and good will, traits often expressed better in concert than in spoken words.

We very much hope to return to Yala next year, and we look forward to staying in touch with the Yala students via Facebook and Skype. 

Marc Thayer, who had been working part time with American Voices and full time with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, left the symphony about a year ago to work full time with American Voices.