Thailand Tour: Day 8 and Going Home

The greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.

— Bill Bryson

It’s hard to believe that just a few days ago we were in Thailand. Our trip home was long, but uneventful. Still feeling a bit jet lagged, but rested enough to write this final post. As I mentioned in my previous update, Friday was our last day in Thailand, but also one of the busiest. In the morning we performed and taught at Sarasas Ektra, a bilingual school in Bangkok. As we had come to expect at schools in Thailand, the students at Sarasas Ektra were incredibly polite, and eager to learn. I worked with some young but very talented students. Horn playing in Thailand is in good hands, and is continually improving.


Our final stop of the day, and of our trip, was the Royal Thai Navy Music School. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but from the moment we arrived we were made to feel welcome. A special banner had even been created for our residency there.

The students at the school were actually high school aged – the school is sponsored by the Thai Navy, and I suppose the closest thing to it in the U.S. would be R.O.T.C. We performed, and then did some individual teaching and a group master class with a student brass quintet (a special thank you goes out to our translator shown below, who had studied in the U.S.)

From there we had one last meal in Thailand, which as usual was amazing and very inexpensive. I can’t thank our host Dr. Daren Robbins enough for organizing our stay and setting up all of the performances and school visits. I only hope that at some point in the future we can return the favor to Daren and his colleagues at Mahidol. It is truly a world class music program with some incredible faculty and students. I’d also like to thank the other members of Black Bayou Brass for making this trip a success: I couldn’t ask for better colleagues and traveling companions! If you’d like to read more about our stay in Thailand, be sure to check out this article by our trumpet player Alex Noppe. That’s all for now – this week will be a light one for me, but we will be giving an encore performance of our Thailand program in Monroe on June 19th.

Thailand Tour: Day 3

We spent most of today sightseeing around Bangkok. By the way, we will be doing plenty of performing and teaching on this tour, but our concerts and master classes will take place later in the week. Although in some respects it would have been nice to perform first and sightsee later, for the most part I am extremely glad that we have had several days to acclimate to both the weather and the time zone here.

We began the day by taking a water taxi on the Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok. Here’s a view from the taxi.

20120603-210424.jpg From the taxi we took an elevated train to the Grand Palace, which is a massive complex occupying several acres in the city. I wish I could post all of the 150+ photos I took of the amazing architecture and Buddhist icons, but hopefully these few will give you at least an idea of the scope of what we saw. Many of the structures and artwork are several hundred years old, dating back to 1782. The panorama below is only a small part of a mural which surrounds the entire complex.

20120603-211011.jpg And here is one of the dozens (if not hundreds) of beautiful statues which adorn the exterior of most of the buildings.

20120603-211426.jpg And now for the buildings themselves. Our tour guide presented more information than I could possibly retain, but the general idea is that each of the main buildings serves a specific religious and/or cultural purpose, usually tied to the Royal family of Thailand. Entrance to some of the buildings is only permitted a few times a year, and in some cases not at all.

20120603-211726.jpg And another.

20120603-211911.jpg Being surrounded by these intricate and beautiful artifacts was definitely awe-inspiring, as was our next stop, the Reclining Buddha located at Wat Pho. Here’s a picture.

20120603-212336.jpg It’s difficult to get a sense of the massive scale just by looking at the picture, but the statue is approximately 140 feet long.

Our last stop of the day was the Jim Thompson House, a museum dedicated to James H.W. Thompson, an American businessman who is credited with building the silk industry in Thailand into an international enterprise. After serving in WWII, Thompson permanently moved to Bangkok and devoted much of his time and efforts to promoting and preserving Thai culture. He mysteriously disappeared in 1967 while on vacation in Malaysia, and what actually happened to him is still unknown. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable about Thompson’s life as well as the numerous pieces of art and furniture located in the museum. It was a great way to end our sightseeing journey! Here’s a picture from the exterior of the house, which is modeled after a traditional Thai home but with many Western amenities such as indoor plumbing.

20120603-213823.jpg After concluding our tours for the day we spent a few minutes shopping for souvenirs at a nearby shopping mall. This six story building was packed with enough retailers to fill several American malls, and the variety of goods available was mind boggling.

Tomorrow will be a little slower because it is a national holiday in Thailand, and many businesses will be closed. Our trio will be rehearsing and resting up for our series of performances here, which kicks off on Tuesday. More to come!

Upcoming Thailand Tour

One big upcoming trip for Black Bayou Brass is a recital and residency at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand (image of Bangkok at left linked from this Wikipedia article). We’ll be spending several days there this coming June, performing a recital and giving master classes at Mahidol, and performing at several local schools in Bangkok. I’ve mentioned this trip in passing in previous blog posts, but now that we’ve purchased our plane tickets and are finalizing our schedule, I thought it would be nice to make an “official” announcement on my blog. The College of Music at Mahidol is one of the largest in Southeast Asia, with world class facilities and an international faculty.  This is truly a unique opportunity for our trio, and we are really looking forward to it! At this point you might be wondering how this trip came about, and what sorts of planning went (and continues to go) into it.

In short, we’ve spent the better part of a year planning this tour, working together with our own university and our gracious hosts at Mahidol. My colleagues and I became interested in international travel for a couple of reasons, namely greater exposure for our university and music program, and the possibilities for recruiting. The primary person we have to thank for extending the invitation and otherwise making our trip possible is Dr. Daren Robbins, Chair of the Brass and Percussion Division at Mahidol, as well as a fellow UW-Madison graduate and a very fine teacher and player.  Daren is quickly building an international reputation as a performer and pedagogue, and I’m honored to have him as a friend and colleague. Once our initial invitation was approved, Daren began taking care of logistics on his end – securing housing, performing venues, setting master class schedules, etc. – and he has been doing a fabulous job. On our end, we have been busy securing funding for our roundtrip airfare to Bangkok – a sizeable expense. Mahidol University very generously agreed to provide housing during our stay, but it was our job to pay our way there. Paying for a trip like this – literally to the other side of the w0rld – was not easy given the current economic situation, but thankfully we were able to put together various sources of funding, including grants and additional funding from our university. We have not yet decided on our recital program, but there will be a good bit of music by American composers, including some jazz arrangements.  If you or an ensemble you perform with is interested in international touring, be persistent and plan way ahead.  Funding is available for these kinds of projects, but you may have to dig a little to find it.

As we get closer to the trip I’ll be posting some more updates, as well as several posts during our visit.

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

Here is the conclusion to my interview with Daren Robbins, creator of, 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!

An Interview with Daren Robbins, Creator of (Part 1)

Over the last few years, Daren Robbins has built a name for himself in the horn playing world.  His website has provided a much-needed resource for students and professionals alike, and he is rapidly acquiring an international reputation as a teacher and performer through his position as Head of the Brass and Percussion Division in the College of Music at Mahidol University in Thailand (the above-left image is linked from his faculty bio page).  Daren is a fellow alum of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I recently contacted him to see if he would be willing to do an interview for this blog.  Daren generously agreed, and provided some great material!  Part 1 of his interview is included below, and I’ll follow up with Part 2 in my next post.

James Boldin: Could you talk about your background and education, and how you arrived in your current position at Mahidol University?

Daren Robbins: Well, like you, I did my DMA at University of Wisconsin-Madison with Doug Hill. I did my Masters at University of North Texas with Bill Scharnberg and Bachelors at University of Iowa with Kristin Thelander. There was certainly no lack of excellent teachers in my musical upbringing. For a few years after I finished my DMA I had a series of adjunct and interim teaching jobs. I was looking and applying for anything that would allow me to stay put for a while. When I saw the ad for this job in Thailand I applied for it, not too seriously at first but I figured it couldn’t hurt to throw my hat in the ring. I’d heard of Mahidol through acquaintances and because they had hosted an ITG (trumpet) Conference, but I knew almost nothing about Thailand–I probably couldn’t have pointed to it on a map.

After I applied, one thing led to another and eventually they offered me the job. My first thought was “Yikes, what do I do now??” I’d never pictured myself living outside the U.S. After a few weeks of emails and handwringing I decided to take the job. It was a leap of faith, putting 95 percent of my possessions in my parent’s basement and taking only what I could fit in two suitcases, and it took a good six or seven months of being here before I became convinced that it was the right move. I’ve been here three years now though, and I can definitely say it’s been a good thing.

JB: Most serious horn players are familiar with your website,  How did this project get started?

DR: The website grew out of my doctoral dissertation, although it’s not part of the dissertation. The actual dissertation had two parts: an excerpt book where the excerpts are taken from the actual parts, and an accompanying set of CDs which had three to five performances of each except by various orchestras.

The ideas for this came from several different places. I think the idea for the book came sometime during my masters degree. I had always used the Mel Bay and Labar books but of course they look nothing like the actual parts. I remember taking an audition where I had practiced from a book but in the audition was required to read from a part. The visual discrepancies threw me. Of course, I should have practiced from the part, but I thought “Why doesn’t someone compile a book of excerpts and, instead of re-engraving them, use the actual parts?” That’s when I began collecting photocopies of parts which were largely replaced by David Thompson’s collection when it came out a few years later.

The idea for the CDs came from a set of cassette tapes that had been compiled by a former UW-Madison horn student (Kendall Grey, I think). The idea behind the cassette tapes was to be able to quickly listen to three or four performances of an excerpt without the hassle of finding that many different LPs–this was before YouTube and iTunes and CDs. The problem with cassette tapes was that it was difficult to find the excerpt you wanted to hear because there were no track markers or anything that allowed you to jump to the beginning of a certain excerpt. It was inconvenient and the sound quality was sub-par. Early in my days at Madison Doug and I talked about transferring the cassettes to CDs, but rather than do that I decided it better to start from scratch. So I started plugging away at that project, which took several years. The music library had an audio preservation lab that I was allowed to use for just two hours a week. It was a tedious process of finding the CD or LP recordings, taking them into the lab and transferring the excerpts to DAT and then finally transferring the DATs to CD, all the while keeping careful track of which excerpt came from which CD performed by which orchestra. In the end it was nine CDs worth of excerpts.

About the time I was finishing that project it was time for me to be thinking seriously about starting my dissertation project. I hadn’t decided on a topic, but I knew that I wanted to do something practical, something that would be of some regular use. Spending so much time researching and writing something that would only sit on a shelf didn’t appeal much to me. I sifted through several ideas before I came upon the idea of combining the CD project with the excerpt book project that had now been in the back of my mind for several years.

So, that was the dissertation. The idea for the website wasn’t conceived until the summer following its completion. I had some time on my hands that summer and I got to thinking about how some of my colleagues had successfully turned their research into websites. Not to be outdone, I started thinking about how I might put my dissertation on the web. The more I thought about it the more I could picture the potential and the more excited I got. I’d never done any website design before but I got a copy of Dreamweaver and a how-to book and dove in.

After I put the site up I was a little startled by how fast it caught on. Within a week it was getting 75-100 visits a day and it just kept on growing. For the past few years it’s leveled out at about 800 unique visits a day. The website instantly made the CDs obsolete but the book still exists. I sold it through the website for a few years but when I moved to Thailand Dave Weiner at Brass Arts Unlimited agreed to take it over and apparently it’s still doing pretty well.

The feedback I’ve gotten from the site has been fun. I won’t drop any names here, but I’ve been emailed by principal players in several of the “Top Five” orchestras suggesting that I include their recording of this-or-that excerpt. Of course I’ve happily obliged! Another thing that’s been fun to watch is the other excerpt websites that have come along. Seth Vatt at Arizona State has really outdone me with his I have three to five recordings of each excerpt whereas he as ten to twenty! There’s a and my bassoon colleague at Mahidol, Chris Schaub, is working on a similar bassoon excerpts site. There’s a doctoral student at University of Illinois working on a trumpet excerpts site, and of course there’s your Guide to the Brass Quintet which has excerpts and much more.

JB: Do you currently have any projects, web-based or otherwise, in the works?

DR: Sure, I have several. I’ve been working for a while now on the Horn Society’s new Online Music Library. The Advisory Council made a decision a few years ago to create this as a replacement and expansion of the IHS Manuscript Press. I was fortunate to be appointed the editor. With lots of help from my students I’ve digitized all of the compositions that had been sold through the Manuscript Press so those are still available, but online now. The next step has been to solicit new compositions that will appeal to a broader swath of horn players. Most of the pieces that were published under the Manuscript Press are IHS Composition Contest winners and as such are quite difficult. We’ve already had lots of great submissions that are slowly making their way through the approval process. Hopefully they’ll be on the site soon. I should point out that Dan Phillips did a great job creating the actual web pages that the store exists on. The store is on the IHS website, a little hard to find right now because it’s several levels deep (I think this will change in the near future), but it’s worth taking a look at.

Another project that’s keeping me busy right now is preparing for our next Thailand Brass and Percussion Conference that’s coming up in June.This is something we do every two years. It’s a four-day event with concerts, master classes and clinics, and includes all of the brass and percussion instruments. This year will include some concerto performances with the Thailand Philharmonic and we’ve even commissioned a new marimba concerto by the Japanese composer Kazunori Miyake. Our big-name artists this year are Ronald Barron who was principal trombone in the Boston Symphony for 33 years, Momoko Kamiya, who is an international marimba soloist and recording artist, and the composer Eric Ewazen.

One final project that I’ve just begun to undertake with one of my grad students is writing a new horn method book in the Thai language. We were fortunate to get a generous research grant from my university to do this. There are no method books for horn written in Thai. That’s a problem in the more rural parts of Thailand where qualified music teachers are sparse and English isn’t widely understood. We’re going to model the new book on existing horn methods but the text will be in Thai and we’ll incorporate traditional Thai melodies that kids in Thailand will have more of a connection with.

Check back soon for Part 2 of Daren’s interview!

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