Unlearning Musical Bias

Febuary 2020 String Ensemble Practice with MusAid Cellist Avery Waite. Photo: Gitameit Music Institute.

by Kit Young, Cofounder/Director, Gitameit Music Institute

During an interview with Creative Generation in March of this year, Sebastian Ruth reminded us that “the core work needs to be within each of us…we always need to be investigating our own assumptions, biases, and motivations to be sure that our work is truly in service of people and their needs.”

This raises the question: Can bias “hear” itself? What happens when we examine “whose” music we serve, while we serve? I would like to share with you the challenges of examining bias in a rather unusual setting: the Gitameit Music Institute, a music school I founded with Burmese colleagues U Tin Yee and U Moe Naing in 2003, during the darkest days of military dictatorship in Myanmar. We designed the school’s logo and name to signify inclusion: Gita means music; Meit means friendship.

A bit of background: In the 1990s, as a pianist/composer based in Thailand, I was making frequent short trips to Myanmar to study and perform sandaya, the Burmese adaptation of traditional instrumental music to the piano. Younger musicians would often approach me at concerts to ask for help learning “international” music skills, instruments, and repertoire, because Myanmar had no access to these resources. I understood their hunger for what they called “important music”—western pop, classical music, and jazz music—as a need to connect with the world. But as I immersed myself in the Burmese language and profoundly beautiful and complex musical culture, I wondered why they didn’t want to learn to play and understand Burmese traditional music.

Learning Burmese Patala. Photo: Gitameit Music Institute.

I learned that, in part, this avoidance evolved from valuing cosmopolitan aspirations of the global middle class over cultivating local cultures. For many, Burmese music was not perceived as “education”—in contrast to western music, which, with staff notation, represented “systematic learning.” Also involved was a smothered rage at a military government who appropriated Burmese arts as a national identity, ubiquitous on radio and television and unrepresentative of many minority peoples and their cultures in Myanmar. Leaning into western music provided both musical neutrality and escape from politically and socially suffocating realities.

When I moved to Myanmar in 2003, my Gitameit cofounders and I decided to take our disparate energies in music-making and stream them together—to try to integrate what were, until then, mutually oblivious musical worlds.

Our curriculum included Burmese traditional violin (tayaw), Burmese slide guitar, Burmese harp, sandaya, western violin, western choral sight-singing, western classical piano studies, music listening, analysis, and conducting. I knew that our first cohort of students wanted foundational studies in western music. But I also wanted to encourage an environment where different musics could happen simultaneously.

Within just a few years, we began to find that that creative endeavor—new compositions, collaborations, and programming ideas—was forming a path to acceptance of both new and old, local and foreign music, and creating habits of hearing inclusively. Musical bias was diminishing, and other tunings, timings, and singing styles—even those usually labelled archaic or boring—began to find new audiences as we presented them in new ways.

Learning Burmese Saung Gauk. Photo: Gitameit Music Institute.

In addition to asking Burmese music faculty to perform at weekly recitals, we started theatrical collaborations that included Burmese comedy (A Nyeint), new theater, and spoken word with improvisation. We invited Burmese hsaing waing musicians and zat pwe dancers in our circle to participate. My teacher, the genius sandaya player and composer Gita Lulin U Ko Ko, arranged a cappella SATB versions of his songs in Burmese for our choir, Gitameit Voices, inspiring younger musicians to compose new pieces in different Myanmar languages for the choir.

As Gitameit students observed more and more international performing artists become transfixed by Burmese art forms, they realized that in our 21st century, there is no quid pro quo in music-making. Students studying western pop songs found that they wouldn’t have to “give up” western singing in order to learn some Burmese classical songs.

Listening deeply to a remote musical art form takes courage. It is difficult to explore and dissolve barriers of non-understanding. Before we as players or singers can immerse ourselves in an unfamiliar art form, we first must acknowledge our ingrained listening habits and expectations from our own music culture, regarding all the elements of music: time, tone, breath, movement, direction, and expression. Learning to hear beyond our own listening bias cultivates humility and develops curiosity—prerequisites for our connected lives in the next quarter of the 21st century. Although this core work may be daunting, not to attempt it is to perpetuate our isolation from and dismissal of unique musical contributions to the intangible heritages of humanity. Happily, attempting to embrace the unfamiliar opens new paths of imagination: for our ears, our hearts, and our understanding.

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