My name is Conner Singh VanderBeek, and I am a composer, pianist, media artist, and 5th year PhD candidate in ethnomusicology.  This academic year, I will be working with CSEAS to promote and develop outreach materials on the U-M Gamelan for the CSEAS community. My research as a doctoral candidate focuses on Punjabi communities in Canada and how artists navigate the complicated, varying pressures of performing for their own communities but also for the Canadian multicultural mainstream. My art ranges from engaging with Punjabi-specific cultural expressions to sampling ceiling fans and AM radios for noise and ambient music.

I served as the graduate student instructor for the gamelan during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, during which time I studied with Professor Susan Walton and visiting instructors Steve Laronga and Pak Raharja. I also served as the composer in residence for the gamelan, and my piece “There’s also fog where I come from” was performed at the Spring 2018 concert. 

My main interest in Javanese gamelan is pedagogy, particularly the difficult task instructors face of balancing Indonesian styles of instruction with the teaching constraints of the Western academy. The most immediate issue is that Indonesian gamelan is taught by rote, while Western ensembles rely on written scores for each part in ways that deemphasize memorization. Beyond that, gamelans are spaces of communal gathering and music-making that are difficult to replicate in the classrooms and rehearsal halls of Western academies and conservatories. It is simply not possible to teach someone an entire embodied culture through a few tightly scheduled hours a week, especially when those hours are carved out of a rehearsal space that is often booked solid for over twelve hours a day. 

The U-M gamelan varies between memorization-based teaching and relying on notation. In my first semester, we learned all our repertoire by rote because we were not under the pressure of putting on a performance. Under Steve Laronga’s instruction in winter of 2018, however, we had to account for both Indonesian Cultural Night and the annual gamelan concert, so we used notation the entire semester and did not depart from it. Even when guest instructors Sumaryono (drums) and Sumandiyo Hadi (dance) came in advance of the spring 2018 concert, they understood that our musicians were reliant on notation. Pak Raharja in the fall of 2018 quite effectively frontloaded notation and used a whiteboard to teach in the hopes that students would quickly memorize pieces and the kinds of elaborations more difficult instruments required of skeletal melodies. However, when he taught me drumming, he did not let me use any notation. 

My own solo instruction of the winter 2019 beginner section fell somewhere between the more native learning-by-rote and the reliance of notation, understanding that my course objective is to teach my students how to (1) listen to gamelan music and ascertain its structure, (2) be able to parse out the interrelationships of instruments, and (3) serve as substitutes for the advanced section students should we have performances. My main objective was thus to teach students how to take a basic melody (balungan) and be able to determine its gong cycle, what elaborating patterns go with it, and how each person’s part meshed with everyone else’s.  

I was assigned to teach the gamelan in this current academic year, but then the pandemic struck. Instead, I have been living in Vancouver, where I have been planning on making a series of instructional videos with Gamelan Madu Sari (The Venerable Essence of Honey) at Simon Fraser University. My goal as the CSEAS program assistant is to raise awareness of the beauty of the gamelan and make the learning curve for first-time gamelan players (like me in Fall 2017) a bit gentler, but also to provide a comprehensive collection of lessons that can be shareable across universities, other institutions of learning, as well as the public – especially while it remains uncertain when we will be able to make music in person again due to the ongoing pandemic.