by Daren Robbins
My migration story began rather unintentionally. At the time I first came to Thailand I had recently finished my doctorate had a series of adjunct and interim teaching jobs under my belt. I was looking and applying for anything that would allow me to stay put for a while. When I saw the ad for the job at Mahidol University 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 had heard of Mahidol through acquaintances and because they had hosted an International Trumpet Guild Conference, but I knew almost nothing about Thailand, in fact I am sure I could not have pointed to it on an unlabeled map.
After I applied, one thing led to another and eventually they offered me the job. My first thought was “Oh &%*$, what am I gonna do now?!” I had never imagined myself living outside the U.S. After a few weeks of handwringing I decided to accept the job. It was a leap of faith, leaving most 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.
The differences I have found between Thailand and the U.S. are both subtle and striking. Some differences are superficial; for example, students are required to wear uniforms and the academic year begins in June and finishes in February. Our curriculum is modeled after music degrees in the United States so there was not much to adjust to there. One unique thing about our College is that we have a Young Artists Program which is a music-intensive high school program where, starting in tenth grade, students live on campus in dedicated music dormitories and study with university-level music teachers.
One key difference between teaching in the U.S. and in Thailand is demeanor of the students. In Thai culture students are taught to respect teachers almost unconditionally. This was a refreshing change for me, and is one of the biggest reasons that it is such a pleasure to teach in Thailand. A high-level college education is still considered a privilege in Thailand, as opposed the the required commodity it has become in the the U.S. As a result I find that university students in Thailand are hungrier to learn than some of their American counterparts.
The flip side of the deep-rooted respect that is instilled in Thai students is that, in some situations, students are not encouraged to develop their own critical thinking skills. Rather, they are expected to sit quietly and absorb the information they are taught with little opportunity for discussion or self expression. At Mahidol we work hard to encourage students to respectfully engage with teachers as well as each other. In my experience it takes some students a while to feel brave enough to offer their own musical interpretation, or even to choose what solo piece they would like to play. However, I am really proud of how the horn students I have taught for the past eight years have developed. Their vision and drive has been remarkable and many of their successes were entirely of their own initiative, in some cases beyond what I could have prescribed for them.
One of Thailand’s most important and endearing cultural traits is also one of the most difficult for Western expats like myself to adjust to. Possibly the most-used phrase Thai language is “Mai pen rai”. It does not have a direct English translation because it has different meanings in different contexts, but the essence of its meaning is “Don’t worry”, or “No problem”, or “It’s okay”. That single phrase goes a long way in defining Thai culture. Thais value a laid-back, low-stress lifestyle, and there are few problems that are worth becoming upset about. When Westerners see a problem our first response is usually to fix it as quickly and efficiently as possible, and if the problem persists without a solution our reaction is to become upset, angry, or stressed. The Thai reaction, on the other hand, is “Mai pen rai”. All too often Western expats mistakenly interpret the “Mai pen rai” attitude as unconcerned or uncaring which only heightens our own stressful reaction. Even after eight years in Thailand I still have to remind myself to take a deep breath and let issues work themselves out in their own time.
The opportunities and benefits I have had here have been incredible. It is satisfying to be in a place where classical music is still in its infancy and growing. For example, I play in the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra which is only in its twelfth season but performs nearly a full-time schedule in a brand-new 2000-seat concert hall. Mahidol’s College of Music recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary and has already become largest music program in Southeast Asia, encompassing five buildings. Most impressively, both the orchestra and the College were built from the ground up by one man, my dean, Dr. Sugree Charoensook, who had the vision to build a world-class musical community in Thailand. The students I teach are exceptionally motivated and eager to put Thailand on the international map of classical music, and they have done so; the horn ensembles Horn Pure and, more recently, Horn Corner have traveled, competed, and performed world-wide. The number of top-tier guest horn players and musicians that I have had the honor of meeting and working with here has been unbelievable (I would drop names but I don’t even know where to start!).
Life as a migrant to Thailand has its challenges, and I will say that it is certainly not for everyone. For me, however, it was a fortuitous twist of fate that I ended up here and I feel quite lucky and grateful for the opportunity to be here.
Here’s a taste of Horn Pure (present and former students of Daren Robbins) performing with the American Horn Quartet at the Thailand Brass and Percussion Conference, 2014
Daren Robbins has been Instructor of Horn at Mahidol University and a member of the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra since 2008. His student horn ensembles have won several international competitions, been featured at numerous IHS Symposiums, and have performed on four continents. He serves the IHS as Editor of Online Music Sales and the Country Representative for Thailand. He is the creator of the hornexcerpts.org website which is hosted by the IHS as well as the Orchestra Horn Excerpts book. This is available through the IHS Online Music Sales.