Building Intercultural Understanding Through Music

Special Focus : Culture and Identity: What Makes Us Human
Access and Inclusion May 16, 2019

This post was originally published on UWCSEA | International school in Singapore.

Uniting Nations Day at East Campus

Each December, over 1000 Primary School students on East Campus come together to showcase the amazing and diverse learning that happens in our Primary School Music program. Uniting Nations Day at East is a celebration of our community’s diversity and our commitment to connecting people through culture. In our curricular Music program, students learn about the many ways that people and cultures express themselves through music, from folk songs to traditional instruments to modern fusion. It is a day of community building, as students gather together for a common purpose, share their learning with an audience of peers and parents, and collaborate across grade levels.

Each of the 45 Primary School classes takes part in one of four musical performances throughout the day, all with a focus on community: our school community, our local community, and a growing understanding of musical communities around the world. Each performance comprises a range of grade levels from Infants to Grade 5. The students love seeing what other classes can do: The younger students look forward to learning gamelan or marimba, and the older students fondly remember their first performances from their Infant School years. The excitement of being together on stage is contagious, but what the audience sees on that day is only the tip of a very large iceberg.

From the beginning of the school year, students engage with musical experiences that are new to them. For some students, this takes the form of playing the West African djembe or the Indonesian angklung. Before playing these instruments, the students view formal and informal performances, using their observations and wonderings as catalysts for discussion. Musical learning and cultural context go hand in hand. For example, students learn about chords and progressions by studying the Zimbabwean marimba, a relatively new tradition that blends influences from Africa and Europe. Using this context, they also inquire into musical concepts such as texture, call-and-response, and improvisation.

For other students, their musical learning involves a detailed exploration of a folk song, delving into the origins, style, and meaning. As an example, the Grade 3 curriculum focuses on vocal technique and expressive singing. As they develop their singing using folk songs from all over the world, the students discover cross-cultural similarities in melodic structure as well as subject matter. Once they are comfortable singing in their head voice, they begin to add the nuances of dynamics and phrasing to create expression. Phrasing and expression come naturally through the hope and longing within African-American spirituals. An intentionally broad and contextualized repertoire moves them from “knowing songs” to “understanding music”.

The Infant School students learn songs from Japan, China, Malaysia, India, and the Philippines. Singing in new languages inevitably elicits a broader discussion about our similarities and differences. What begins as giggles (upon hearing a song in Tagalog for the first time), slowly grows into open-mindedness and appreciation for the many cultural backgrounds that converge at our school every day. Their learning through music goes beyond rhythm and melody, and into a discussion about why people make music, what people sing about, and how powerful it can be to share our music with one another. The students in K1 are delighted when they discover their class teaching assistant used to sing “Tepok Amai-Amai” in her childhood. Several students in K2 take their songs home and practice with their aunties, who know “Sitsiritsit” from childhood as well. The connections the children make through song add a new lens to the way they view and understand the people around them.

Although most of the community only see the performance, the students understand that it is just one aspect of the process of musical learning, which inherently cultivates the Qualities and Skills that are central to our UWCSEA learner profile and education. Before even beginning to learn their piece, the students must build foundational musical skills. As they adapt their repertoire (Creative) and practice it (Resilient), they expand their understanding of the music (Critical thinker). More practicing, rehearsing (Collaborative), and memorizing (Self-manager) follow, with new knowledge, skills, and understanding along the way. Only after weeks or months are they ready for dress rehearsals and performances on the stage. But still, the process is not complete. Following the performance, the students engage in reflection (Self-aware) on both their learning process and their experience as a performer. Through collaborative and individual reflection, the students are able to synthesize their new knowledge and understanding and add to their working theories of what it means to be a musician.

Of course, another key element of this learning cycle is the pure joy that comes from making music as part of a mass choir. A collective sense of excitement and anticipation fills the air as hundreds of students line up backstage. Regardless of how nervous or confident the students are, the smiles abound as the stage lights shine on them and they feel the power of singing and playing together. Performing for an audience, especially at such a young age, is exhilarating on so many levels. The students walk away from their performances overflowing with spontaneous reflections, sharing in the communal exhaustion that every performer knows. They walk away with a sense of pride in both their individual learning and their role in the collaborative performance. They walk away inspired by the power of music.

Considering the world’s current political climate, our students–and our greater community–need opportunities like this, which bring us closer to one another through a greater understanding of how people express who they are, where they come from, and what they value. The children begin to think about music in a different way. Rather than something that exists only for entertainment or pure aesthetic value, it becomes something that represents real people. The students gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for common aspects of humanity through varied cultural contexts. They begin to see that music is a universal action, but the rich diversity in musical sounds, techniques, and styles encourages us to value the many different perspectives of the world’s people.

The East Primary School Uniting Nations Day performances give our school community a very small taste of the many languages of music. It is a day brimming with excitement for students sharing their learning, for parents watching their children, for children listening to their peers, and for our whole community basking in the joy of music. It is an opportunity to open the minds of students, staff, and parents to the diverse ways of conceptualizing and performing music. And through this, we continue to develop our appreciation for the incredible diversity of people and societies. We learn to value all kinds of music and music-makers, using our music education to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.