Scaling the Heights

    Otak saya lumpuh (my brain was paralysed), moaned 18-year- old tuba player Semro Sirait when he emerged from the examination room at the Marriott Hotel in Medan in August 2010.

    This article was published in the Singapore Straits Times on August 27, 2010.

    OTAK saya lumpuh (my brain was paralysed), moaned 18-year- old tuba player Semro Sirait when he emerged from the examination room at the Marriott Hotel in Medan late last week.

    At my urging earlier this year, eight Indonesian young men from poor families had agreed to register for music examinations held in Medan by the London-based Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). And they faced the music on Aug 20 – both literally and metaphorically.

    Indonesians are often criticised by foreigners for their lax work ethic and apparent disregard of notions of time management. But what is often overlooked is that there are many, among Indonesia’s struggling poorer class, who are willing to work hard to improve themselves.

    Unlike those middle-class youngsters who usually sit ABRSM examinations in Indonesia, Semro and his friends had spent most of their lives at the Salvation Army Boys’ Home in Medan.

    None spoke English. Nor did they have the benefit of a locally based teacher. Few had had the opportunity to hear music well played by a live band or orchestra. And all were terrified by the prospect of meeting the Westerner who had come from London to examine them.

    But these young Indonesians were also very determined. It was a characteristic that could clearly be seen in the long hours they had spent in the previous weeks preparing for the exam.

    For the older ones especially, who had already left the Boys’ Home, juggling work, part-time studies at a local tertiary institution and music practice was particularly difficult. During the week before the examination, for example, euphonium player Erjoin Marbun would arrive at the Home each night for lessons with me at the only time he was free – 11pm.

    Five entered the Grade 4 examinations, the other three Grade 5. ABRSM’s international system of graded music examinations stretches from 1 to 8, with 8 being the highest pre-diploma level.

    The morning of the exams was filled with nervous laughter as the group gathered at the Home for a quick breakfast. The group’s only piano player, Imanta Karosekali, worried about his major weakness – the sight reading test. Cornet players Yunus Marbun, Ganda Sinaga and Jastis Bago were confident they had that beat. What worried them was the need to memorise the scales. What would happen if they played one wrongly? Would the examiner let them try again?

    Arriving at the Marriott Hotel, the group met ABRSM official representative in Indonesia Denis Umar, a strong supporter of the endeavour. It was the first time in the history of ABRSM in Indonesia, he told me, that his organisation was to examine candidates in brass instruments. Almost all ABRSM candidates in Indonesia are piano players.

    Earlier efforts to find someone whom ABRSM would accept as a translator proved difficult. Help eventually came from an unexpected source, when a Muslim colleague of one of the band members agreed to do the job. It was the middle of the Muslim fasting month, but the tudung-wearing young woman turned up on time at the examination centre apparently unconcerned that she was helping members of a Christian organisation.

    At a time when so many Christians and Muslims in Indonesia seem to regard each other as potential enemies, it was the sort of gesture that gave hope to those of us preferring to see a positive future for the country.

    The examinations began at 8.30am, with candidates taking turns to enter the examination room. Among them was talented 24-year-old tuba player Lasnointer Marbun, who – despite his inability to speak English – has long dreamed of being accepted into Singapore’s National Academy of Fine Arts. One day he just might make it, in which case we will need to find a sponsor willing to cover his fees.

    ABRSM examiners do not discuss their assessments with candidates or teachers. But there was a moment when it seemed that things were not going well.

    “They are all very mixed up today,” commented examiner Christopher Foster after Semro rushed out of the room to fetch a forgotten score.

    I was in the room at the time preparing to accompany the boy on the piano and could not resist flying to the defence of my students. “They are village kids,” I said, referring to the social and economic backgrounds of their impoverished families. “They are terrified of foreigners.”

    “I am smiling,” he replied calmly.

    Yes, he was trying to help. But was it enough? We will know the answer sometime late next month, when the results are expected to be out.

    But these young men have already decided that if they fail the exam they will try again next year. Their spirits will not be so easily broken.

    (Results were released by ABRSM at the end of September. Everyone passed. Three passed with merit, and one - Lasnointer Marbun - got a distinction)

     

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