An Interview with Daren Robbins, Creator of hornexcerpts.org (Part 2)

Here is the conclusion to my interview with Daren Robbins, creator of hornexcerpts.org, and Head of the Brass and Percussion Division in the College of Music at Thailand’s Mahidol University.  You can read Part 1 here.

JB: What similarities/differences have you noticed between the higher education systems in the U.S. and Thailand?

DR: Really, there are probably more similarities than differences. There are some superficial differences, for example, the undergraduate students are required to wear uniforms, and the school year begins in June and finishes in February. As for the curriculum, our undergrad and masters music degrees are modeled after music degrees in the U.S. We’re in the process of creating a D.M.A. program and our college has a partnership with the College of Music at that University of North Texas. They’re helping us iron out the details, so that degree will be very similar too. One unique thing about our College is that we have a Young Artists Program where high school students, starting in tenth grade, live on campus and study alongside the college students–essentially a music-intensive high school program. It’s great for kids that want to focus on music starting in high school, and of course it makes a nice feeder program for our undergraduate degree.

If I had to choose one key difference it would be the demeanor of the students. In Thai culture, kids are taught to respect teachers almost unconditionally. This is a refreshing change at times but, to be honest, it’s a double-edged sword. The respect for teachers runs so deep that it’s considered disrespectful for students to question what is said or even offer an opinion. This can lead to a lot of “spoon feeding”–a one-way flow of information where the teacher delivers the material and the student absorbs and regurgitates it without giving it much thought. For example, I begin the first lesson of each semester with the question “What would you like to work on this semester?” Most of the time the response is a deer-in-the-headlights stare. They can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact that I’m asking them for information–it should be the other way around, I should be the one imparting my ideas to them. It takes a while for them to become comfortable with the dialog going both ways.

JB: What is the most appealing part about teaching music at the college level in Southeast Asia?  Would you encourage others to seek out college teaching jobs overseas?

DR: Well, I can only speak for my situation at Mahidol, but there’s a lot to like. Mahidol has one of the largest, maybe even the largest, music departments in Southeast Asia. Just the fact that I’m here makes me more professionally visible than I would be in the U.S. In the three years that I’ve been here a number of important horn players have visited. Jeff Nelsen did a master class a few years ago while he was on his honeymoon. David Thompson dropped in for a few days while his orchestra was on an Asian tour. Christoph Ess, principal of the Bamburg Symphony, was here for a week while he soloed with the TPO. Horn players from the Malaysia and Taiwan Symphonies have stopped by.

The opportunities I’ve had here have been great. The Dean of the College of Music, Dr. Sugree Charoensook, does an amazing job of finding money to make things happen. I’ve already mentioned our Brass and Percussion Conference–for that I was given a budget that I think I could only dream of at most schools in the U.S. The students here are great. I would say that, on the whole, they are hungrier than the students I taught in the U.S. in that they are willing to work hard and are eager to learn.

I also play in the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra which operates under the purview of the College of Music. It’s a half-time orchestra so we play twenty programs every season (basically every-other week) and do two performances of each program. We play lots of great repertoire, we have great soloists every week, a new 2000-seat concert hall is being built to house the orchestra–it’s exciting to be a part of all that. Orchestras in the U.S. are really struggling right now. A lot of regional orchestras that used to play seven or eight concerts a season have cut back to four or five, and even some of the biggies like Detroit and Philadelphia are teetering on the brink. I feel really fortunate to be in a place where classical music is in an upswing.

Now, having said all of that I should also say that living and teaching in Thailand is not for everyone. It’s a developing country with a different culture and a different way of life, and those differences are not always easy to live with. I’ve seen a number of people come and go in less than a year because the changes were too much for them.

JB: The horn ensemble you coach, Horn Pure, has gained international recognition lately, winning competitions at the national and international level.  Could you talk a little bit about the history and membership of the ensemble?

DR: This group exemplifies what I mean when I say students here are hungry. Horn Pure is an octet of my students currently ranging in age from high school seniors to a junior in college. They got started about two years ago when they approached me about creating a horn ensemble to compete in the Thailand International Wind Ensemble Competition. I have to admit that, inwardly, I rolled my eyes a little at the thought of a horn ensemble competing against brass quintets and sax quartets but I told them to go for it. They put together an octet, we chose some repertoire, and they proceeded to work harder than I’ve ever seen any horn ensemble work. They surprised everyone including myself when they won the First Prize. That really set them on fire and they began setting their sights on other competitions.

Their next big event was the IHS Symposium in Brisbane. When they found out that there would be a horn ensemble competition they decided that they had to do it and they set to work raising money, finding sponsors, even going on local TV. The fund raising was only half the work. In the weeks leading up to our departure to Brisbane they rehearsed nearly every night, starting at 7:00pm when all their other obligations were finished and usually ending at 10:00pm. They usually rehearsed outside because the classrooms are locked at 6:00pm. Sometimes I was there to listen but if wasn’t able they would ask other horn players to listen or they would simply rehearse on their own.

They had a great week at the Symposium which culminated in their winning the competition. Their coup de grâce was performing Kerry Turner’s “Farewell to Red Castle” from memory. That was their idea, not mine–another instance where I’m glad I kept my reservations to myself. One thing I’ve learned from them is never tell students what you think they can’t do. One of the highlights for me came earlier that week when they performed “Red Castle” in a master class for the American Horn Quartet. I don’t imagine that group is easily impressed but there were lots of smiles, handshakes and hearty congratulations. It was a proud moment for me as a teacher.

Since then they’ve traveled to Japan where they were finalists in the Osaka Chamber Music Competition. Earlier this year we were awarded a travel grant that we used to tour to three universities outside of Bangkok, giving clinics and concerts at each one. It’s been a fun ride with that group.

JB: How does working with a larger horn ensemble differ from coaching a smaller group, such as a horn quartet?

DR: I don’t approach Horn Pure much differently than I would a smaller group because I’m not the conductor or director. When a group has a conductor it becomes more about what that person wants rather than the group. The beauty of chamber music is the ability of the group to come to a consensus on its own. With Horn Pure, I see myself as the advisor and coach. I suggest repertoire, I help with the preparation, give lots of musical suggestions, and encourage them to go in certain directions, but I don’t conduct and when I leave rehearsal they are free to do what they want. They’ve proven they can do what it takes I’m happy to stand back and watch them do their thing.

JB:  Anything else you would like to share?

DR: Thanks so much for the opportunity to share. It’s a real privilege and it’s been fun!

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