Alumna Works to Establish Music BA Amidst Conflict in Myanmar

Ten Yeen accompanies her colleague Aung at a concert they organized for Dr. Joanna Biermann.

Ten Yeen accompanies her colleague Aung at a concert they organized for Dr. Joanna Biermann.

From the April 2017 Desktop News According to UA alumna Ten Yeen Chong, the Kachin State of Myanmar is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis and civil war. Just months ago, in Nawng Nang, a village 30 minutes from Kachin’s capital Myitkyina, she said fighter jets with bombing missions flew overhead and government soldiers began appearing around the local college campus.

“People flee their homes with no food, no shelter, no warm clothing, no access to medical attention, and nowhere safe to stay,” Chong said. “Even though there is no fighting in our area, many Kachins are concerned about the safety of friends and relatives living in the conflict areas.”

However, through the chaos, the tinkling sound of a piano can be heard spilling from the Kachin Theological College and Seminary, or KTCS, where Chong is an instructor.

Before earning her master’s degree in music composition at UA in 2014, Chong, a native of Singapore, knew she wanted to teach in Myanmar, a country with almost no formal music education.

Ten Yeen Chong and Dr. Joanna Biermann

“The first full-time job I had was working with ethnic minority people from Myanmar who were displaced by the civil war,” Chong said. “Then, when I was at UA, I asked a Kachin friend if there were areas in Kachin where my musical skills could be put to good use and space to continue honing what I had learned at UA. The Bachelor of Arts in Theological Studies at KTCS was just starting at that time, and I could see that the community was committed to making the program succeed.”

The Kachin Theological College and Seminary is only the second collegiate music-teaching program in Myanmar, and because its bachelors’ degree in music has only been in place for four years, Chong said the first graduates of the program received their diplomas in March.

Such young programs come with troubles for those who decide to take on the project of building them. Chong said her students simply were not prepared for the level of commitment that comes with earning a degree because they were not exposed to that rigor in their prior education. Few students had prior music training, and there was a culture gap that was hard to bridge because Myanmar has been largely cut off from the rest of the world since a military coup in 1962.

“Most Myanmar adults I talked to have never heard of the Beatles, though a few may have seen an occasional Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston video,” Chong said. “Many associate orchestral music with the Tom and Jerry cartoon soundtracks—the only time they got to hear this kind of music. This is the background our students came from.

Dr. Joanna Biermann meeting with administrators and some faculty of the Kachin Theological College and Seminary, including the president, the former president, the academic dean, the heads of the music and English departments, and other music faculty.

Dr. Joanna Biermann meeting with administrators and some faculty of the Kachin Theological College and Seminary, including the president, the former president, the academic dean, the heads of the music and English departments, and other music faculty.

“The good thing with having no forerunners is that people do not hold preconceived ideas of where the limits of learning are. To date, we have had several college-aged beginning piano students perform sonatinas and Bach inventions from memory after five months of study—something young people in developed countries typically achieve after two to three years of regular lessons.”

Part of the education Chong’s students receive is through a music workbook Chong created herself. The workbook contains music by Kachin composers as well as hymns performed in Kachin churches in order to keep the education the students receive relevant to their lives in Myanmar.

Using a UA grant, associate professor of musicology Dr. Joanna Biermann recently visited Chong, her former student, in Myanmar for three days to see the college, meet with the administration, teach, and experience the way Chong interacted with students and colleagues.

“Ten Yeen is herself so intelligent and so broadly experienced,” Biermann said. “She has an excellent idea of where she wants to go, and I know she really, really appreciated her education at UA. With both hands and both arms she just grasped every opportunity.

“She’ll do exactly what she wants to do, and she will do it very well. She’s just an unusual, wonderful person.”