As director of the UCLA Music of Thailand Ensemble, Professor Supeena Adler continues to push for musical and cultural engagement through remote instruction.
By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)
Supeena Adler, Ph.D., was first hired by the department of ethnomusicology to refurbish the university’s collection of classical Thai instruments in 2014, after she finished her Ph.D. in music at UC Riverside. She currently teaches the Music of Thailand Ensemble course at UCLA, a hands-on class that offers students the opportunity to learn about and engage with the instruments. Students learn to play Thai instruments but also form an ensemble to perform at concerts as part of the class.
A gift from Thailand
When asked about the transition to remote instruction, Adler lets out a groan, followed by a warm laugh. She sighs, "How can I do it? I need musical instruments for students."
Yet, she has provided exactly that. Drawing on connections in Thailand, Adler ordered twenty PVC flutes in the key of B flat and had them sent to her house in San Diego. With the help of the department of ethnomusicology, she individually shipped nineteen flutes to her students in California and Hawaii. "The main goal is to let them know that they have something to hold onto during this uncertain and challenging time — a little gift," she smiles. "Hopefully they will keep it and practice later on."
Adler has gone to great lengths to prepare new course materials using available resources, even creating makeshift fabric xylophones (sent to students along with the flutes). Her students have been asked to play on the "xylophone" with chopsticks and record themselves singing musical notations. She records herself playing and singing with the metronome, so that students can repeat after her — hopefully in time, she adds.
With less practice time in the classroom due to remote instruction, Adler shifted to introducing new instruments from various parts of Thailand. She shares recordings and YouTube videos focused on the three types of Thai ensembles: piiphaat (mainly wind and percussion instruments), khrueang sai (mainly stringed instruments) and mahoorii (string and percussion with additional instruments).
Adler continues to ask her students for feedback on remote musical instruction and consults with colleagues on what does and does not work. "I covered more in terms of cultural context… [and] created really detailed PowerPoint presentations with pictures, audio and links," she says.
Bringing the ensemble back
In 2015, Adler revived the Music of Thailand Ensemble with a concert using the instruments she had restored. Since then, she has been teaching the ensemble course at UCLA, initially with support from the Royal Thai Embassy and Thai Community Arts and Culture Center of Los Angeles and later, with support from the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies. She has approximately 25 students each quarter, many who have no musical background.
For beginners, Adler teaches students how to properly pronounce names, hold instruments and read notes. The class is divided into string and percussion sections, which she instructs separately. They learn variations of three to four short songs each quarter and play these on multiple musical instruments and sing the lyrics in Thai.
At the end of the year, the ensemble performs together for a final concert as part of the Spring Festival of World Music and Jazz at UCLA, often featuring guest artists from Southern California and Thailand.
Her goal is to support students in learning about other cultures while having fun. Regardless of experience or skill, she says, "You have to be patient with this kind of music. It’s important to me that every student can play together."
The ensemble has also performed at academic conferences, the farmer's market in Westwood Village and for music workshops.
Connecting to the culture
Growing up in Thailand, Adler was familiar with classical Thai music, but first learned how to repair and even creatively invent instruments during her undergraduate studies at Mahasarakham University. She continued to perform and learn about instruments with the music divisions of the Thai air force and navy through a special program at her university.
Having these personal connections to the music, Adler works hard to ensure that her students understand the cultural context. She presents music from all over Thailand and discusses the languages, local belief systems and festivals that are dominant in the region.
"Music and dance are not only there to entertain; they’re also part of rituals and community celebrations," she elaborates. "When you go to community centers, you eat Thai food and meet new people. This could be a small way to encourage students to open their minds and learn about other cultures."
The ensemble has performed at Thai cultural nights organized by the Thai student association at UCLA and for the Songkran Festival in Los Angeles. Adler regularly give talks and perform for high school students with Southeast Asian heritage admitted to UCLA to encourage their participation in the arts.
She adds, "I hope the ensemble continues so that I can keep sharing the music and culture of my homeland."