Ever since I took SE1101E (Introduction of Southeast Asia Studies) in my freshman year, my interest was piqued and I wanted to learn more about Southeast Asia (SEA). I ventured into SEA by taking up SE2214 (Arts of Southeast Asia), where we went to Ubud, Bali to learn Balinese Dance from the locals. We had to dance in the biennial Taksu 2013 event, which was ultimately 40% of our overall assessment. It was undoubtedly an experience and opportunity that only happened once in a lifetime where we got to wear authentic dance costumes and learn from professional dancers.
It was during my stay in Bali, after watching so many performances, which made me fall in love with Gamelan. The sounds that the metallophones, drums and gongs produced led me to constantly want to hear more of its music. My friends who majored in SEA Studies told me that NUS offered the module, Music in SEA, and one could learn how to play the Gamelan during tutorials. Without much hesitation, I bided for SE2221 (Old and New Music In Southeast Asia).
The module attracted students across all faculties, consisting of a class of around sixty-plus students. Some of these students were Southeast Asian majors, while others were interested students who played the gamelan when they were younger, or they were interested in music in general. The module aimed to give us an overview of traditional and popular music in different regions in SEA and focused on selected music – Javanese Gamelan and Thai music (both instruments are available at the SEA department).
During lectures, Pak Jan (Dr Jan Mrazek) explained the musical structures and processes for the different instruments and the forms that a composition can have. Tutorials for this module consisted of 45-minute long practices of different instruments – the Peking, Saron, Demung, Slenthem, and Bonang (as each instrument played a different role). Like what Pak Jan said, it is impossible to understand how to play the Gamelan without conducting hands-on sessions. In fact, just like the Javanese community, which emphasizes on collectivity and harmony within the group, students practiced in groups with the different instruments each time. Even though it looked easy playing the instruments individually (just hitting it with mallets for example), the challenging part came when everyone played together, as we had to listen to each other, and coordinating on when to speed up or slow down.
The fun came after I decided to join Singa Nglaras, the NUS Gamelan Ensemble, comprising of varying individuals from different walks of life. It was Gamelan that brought everyone together at one place. I realized that it was much easier to understand what was going on after taking this module, and thus it made it even more enjoyable playing the Gamelan, as compared to when I joined for one practice with them before taking SE2221. I was fortunate that there was an upcoming performance at Malay Heritage Center one month after I joined, and was welcome to join them even though I had limited playing experience. Javanese Gamelan is indeed very different from Balinese Gamelan. Its rhythm and melody is slower, gentler, and smoother. With the guidance of experienced players and learning with other newbies like me, I enjoyed the process a lot.
Playing the Gamelan allowed me to enter another world; to take a rest from my hectic schedule and just enjoy the music.
The only pre-requisite for these modules was passion in learning. Hence, my only advice is – Just Do It. There are so many what ifs; they are never-ending. However, life in NUS is not just about studying mundanely, but also a time for you to explore what you want and discover what you like.