Teaching Artistry: As the Embodiment of Democracy (in Myanmar)

March 2017

I have never seen the like of it in the global field of teaching artistry.

An experiment is unfolding at the Gitameit School in Yangon, Myanmar. The school thrives in a three story house in the hard poverty neighborhood of Yankin, with its open gutters of garbage and sewage, tiny homes, and stalls that sell tea and handmade food items amid the homeless dogs who all look identical, and the gorgeous children. The school has been around for some 15 years, in this location for nine years; it has carefully managed its public identity to avoid shutdown by the military dictatorship (and its network of local informants) for becoming too visible, too influential, for having too many white people enter its gates, for having its musicians talk too much with poets in local tea stalls (poets were of particular concern to the military government), for being too popular.

In its current home, there is music happening in every room, made by their roughly one hundred regular students, more adults than children. After exchanging hellos with a student greeter who is in place all the time, you find a chorus rehearsing Bach in what might have been an entry parlor, a pianist running scales in a side room, a violin sectional in one of the bigger rooms, a Burmese harp ensemble learning from an aged master in a once-bedroom; and on the top floor, a doo-wop quartet having fun on a balcony, outside the library and the only air conditioned room which is a small office where the business of the school is managed. The chorus is the spine of the learning, the way key musical concepts are taught, the way the playful breadth of musical expressions are introduced, the way the palpable solidarity of common mission grows. Gitameit has a new branch in the city of Mandalay (an 8 hour drive, which students and chorus regularly make), and the connection of the choruses makes them feel like one.

I happened to arrive on a landmark day, the official opening of their new performance hall, adjacent to the house—a big open space (with air conditioning!) packed with newly purchased plastic chairs, funded mostly by the Norwegian Hedda Foundation, which along with George Soros’ Open Society, have been funders for many years. (Soros is ending the funding this year to focus on new priorities, creating a big challenge, just at this time of opportunity.) The celebratory concert culminated a second residency by a suberb and generous Norwegian string trio, TrondheimSolistene, who performed exuberantly with different configurations of Gitameit students in an eclectic program that included string jazz, a Burmese harp ensemble, classical, new music inspired by John Cage, improvisations of various kinds (a distinctive feature of Burmese music) and chorus. The packed house included Burmese and foreign dignitaries, families of musicians, longtime friends of Gitameit, a Norwegian contingent, and this one American who had been invited to contribute to the big experiment.

There were speeches of thanks and recognition—the man who had contributed the windows, the Norwegians who had been patient throughout delays, the Burmese individuals who had shown leadership. There was a speech about democracy, defining it as “participation”; Gitameit was described as an embodiment of the fragile democratic ideal which Myanmar is recently embarking upon after generations of suffocating military control.

Amid the acknowledgements was only a brief nod to Kit Young, the indefatigable American woman who is the founder and driving force in Gitameit’s history. After years of visiting, she lived in Yangon with her diplomat husband and son, played the piano (at a very high level) and became a passionate learner, creative musical explorer, and advocate for Burmese music, and started the school. She has been its fundraiser, determined champion, guide in navigating government threats, its chief piano teacher, professional developer of young talent, and visionary, even after she moved back to the U.S. and is in Yangon only a few months a year. I got re-connected to Kit through the internet; I say “re” connected because we had gone to high school together, and I had cast her in a play which was my senior project. We hadn’t been in touch in nearly 50 years. She was studying teaching artistry and stumbled into my work.

Here is the unprecedented vision. Kit and her Burmese colleagues looked at the social and political landscape and saw a struggling economy without much of a music industry, and certainly only narrow interests in classical music, Western or Burmese. (She is especially troubled that the distinctive genius of Burmese music is fading in widespread disinterest, and that even guest teachers who come to Gitameit from around the world to contribute skills to the students, have shown little curiosity or respect for what Kit sees as the remarkable musical brilliance developed over centuries.) In balance with the economic and cultural challenges, they saw the quiet power of democracy burgeoning, as Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party won an overwhelming electoral victory in 2015. Democracy is growing cautiously, so as not to alarm the still-powerful and omnipresent military that could declare a state of emergency and shut down the government at any time.

Kit has seen leadership slowly emerging within Gitameit, but after generations of repressive government, entrepreneurial instincts are absent, self-confidence that they themselves could build organizational partnerships, find new funders, cultivate new audiences, are timid. Kit realized that the skills necessary for Gitameit to make it in the long run lived in the term “teaching artist.” If they were ever to become the vibrant national center for music and democracy that their renewed country needs, Gitameit needed the mindset and skillset of teaching artists throughout their musical community, leaders through student body. Kit launched a Teaching Artist Program, with a small initial leadership group, that will bloom into a full certificate program in the next couple of years. The eventual dream is of Gitameit as a degree-conferring accredited academic institution. Never before has so much hope and so much faith been invested in “teaching artistry,” in the skills of an artist who expands his/her musical skills and understandings to include advocacy, new kinds of pedagogy, entrepreneurialism, and community-building. Never have I been prouder to be called a teaching artist.

I sat with different groups of students, who struggled heroically with my English and with Western concepts that were unfamiliar to them, we took time to translate key ideas with some groups. The core group of eight are the emerging teaching artist leaders of Myanmar. Their courage was palpable, as they overcame their natural shyness to ask direct questions of an older white man, whose book on teaching artistry they were struggling to read, at about an hour a page. They talked about other teachers who had visited or who had taught them when they studied in other countries; a few of these teachers were inspiring (and they now thought of them as teaching artists); many were not teaching artists, they realized. They remained grateful for what they had learned from this group, but these nascent teaching artists admitted that they didn’t want to be like them: self-important, arrogant, incurious, competitive and harsh in criticism. We spoke of how one could teach effectively with non-punitive, exploratory, joyful pedagogy. I heard from them by email after I left: “‘Teaching with relentless positivity’ is such a foreign concept to us, given the pedagogical traditions here that we struggle to translate it into Burmese. We are working on what this means for us."

We spoke of entrepreneurialism as a natural expansion of artistry, as the wish to take their passion beyond excellent performance skills into creating new opportunities to connect with audiences and to find new ways contribute to life in Myanmar. We spoke of engaging with audiences in new ways, adjusting concert formats and devising new ways to activate audience participation. We spoke of engaging with the community that surrounds Gitameit in new ways, maybe even beginning an inventory of musical assets that reside within walking distance and connecting those activities to raise the profile of music. We spoke of service. The way teaching artists serve music—yes in playing it as well as possible—but also in expanding its availability to all and to the chance for all people to learn to make music well, as a birthright.

Teaching artistry is a worldwide phenomenon, as the three International Teaching Artist Conferences have clearly demonstrated. It is known by many other names in different countries, but the practices, values and goals are similar worldwide. Yet never before has the term been introduced with such ambition and reverence for that set of skills (whatever they are called) as the solution to a history of cultural challenges, as the embodiment of democracy through musical exchange.

The Gitameit experiment is fragile, and they know it. They need financial support, not least for stipends for the core students so their families don’t require that they drop out to earn income to keep the family fed. They need increased organizational leadership so they can grow steadily, even when Kit is in the U.S. They need a university connection to provide an authorizing certificate for their program so the government and the Myanmar community and businesses will take “teaching artistry” seriously. Daunting challenges. But the realization is no more unlikely than the sounds of a string ensemble playing Handel, a harp ensemble playing a Burmese traditional song, and a chorus singing “What a Wonderful World” in a brand new hall on a hard-poverty lane that has Buddhist monks with begging bowls and barefoot boys with a woven-reed soccer ball listening in at the Gitameit gate.

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