We are floored. But first things first. We get off the bus about a five-minute walk away from the school. The road leading to the school is fairly narrow and lined on both sides with little businesses, mostly improvisatory shacks with individuals selling food made on the spot. This road goes only one way, Momo's brother tells us, "only in, no out – just like Burmese hospital" (except, he adds, for the private hospitals for rich people, mostly the Chinese and Indians). It is fascinating to walk through these narrow streets, and white people are clearly a rare sighting here. Momo asks if I don't like umbrellas – she had already seen me walk around the pagoda without one. I tell her I like the rain. She laughs and gives me a beautiful smile, her genuine and graceful response to most things in life, it seems.
We arrive at the school. Not surprisingly given the surroundings, it doesn't look like much at first. A covered outdoor area, across from which we are led into a shack which turns out to be a rehearsal/recital space, with a slightly raised, black wooden stage and a grand piano. "Where the impossible becomes possible," a colorful sign says in the corner. While the choir starts unstacking some of the plastic chairs, I unpack my cello. Suddenly it is raining hard. Just like I remember from Panama, they aren't joking when they say rainy season. In habitual fashion, I stand my case up, open the home-made industrial strength velcro contraptions, grab the cello by the back of the neck. It's wet. No, not damp. I feel the thin layer of water on my fingers. I start wiping carefully with the Michigan T-shirt which I've been dressing the cello in since Singapore, but Masaaki says we'd better start with an cappella rehearsal with the humidity so high.
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Maybe a bit too slow. I go outside, I like the rain. I shyly make my way into the front area of the back building. The entrance is lined with pairs of shoes, so I take mine off, too. One of the main teachers of the school sees me looking around and offers a tour of the building. A few practice rooms on the ground floor, most with upright pianos, one with percussion, at least from the sound of it. Upstairs, we stand in on a piano lesson. Traditional Burmese music on Western piano. No sheet music, the rhythms seem really complicated, but I hear improvement within just a minute or two. There is one more floor: when the cyclone in 2008 ripped off the roof, they decided not just to repair it, but to add a floor for a library. A dormitory is in progress, too, so people can come from the country-side. Thus far it's one room with two bare wooden bunk beds. (Both the library and the dorm room could easily compete with their Juilliard counterparts, at least in size...) From up here, you can see the surrounding sea of tin roofs. I find it beautiful, but I may have too romantic a notion of tin roofs given the likely living conditions below most of them.
Back in the recital room, many Gitameit students have trickled in and are listening to the Voxtet rehearse their spirituals. Joshua fit the battle of Jericho. No more weepin' and a-whalin'! It's time for some Mozart. We unpack our soggy instruments and put our limp music on the stands. I sit on the edge of the stage, facing a roomful of singers. Maestro Suzuki introduces himself. 'Suzuki like the motorbike, but I understand you're not allowed to ride any in Yangon.' In 4, Masaaki starts conducting. Still, we have no idea what to expect. Oh, it sounds good. Oh, it sounds really good! Perhaps the Voxtet is overpowering the intimidated Gitameit students? Masaaki has the locals sing by themselves once. It is beautiful. No, I don't mean beautiful for a dinky high school in some underprivileged provincial town in a third world country. Maybe that is what I was arrogantly expecting, but no: this is beautiful, enthusiastic and extremely well-rehearsed singing by any standards. I think we are all floored.
The director of the school asks if we would be willing to spend some time coaching the students. In unanimous excitement, we spontaneously split up into different rooms with our respective vocal types, the instrumentalists stay to listen to a few violinists. Again, I am expecting dedicated playing at a mediocre level, but boy am I wrong! These guys are really good. Lwinmoe Thu plays, followed by a duet of Mozart variations with Pan Kar, who apologizes that he's only been playing for one year. (We would never have known.) Finally, a Dvorak Romance played by their teacher. It takes five of us to explain how to play artificial harmonics, and in general our collective teaching style is somewhat disjunct given the ad-hoc setting. (Who is really teaching whom?, I start to ask myself.) Meanwhile, Ben is on stage in a capacity we seldom witness, coaching the pianist on voicing and dynamic nuances.
Lunch is served in the covered outside area. Another unexpected and generous gesture. Just before I set out to pile some food onto my paper plate, a spritely guy with a cello bounces into the room. The plate can wait, and I go say hi. I can tell immediately what a passionate, gentle and caring person he is. Thet Paing started playing six years ago at age 20. For over three years he didn't have his own instrument. In 2009, his trio won second prize at a chamber music competition in Singapore ("the America of Asia," he calls it) playing J.C. Bach (!), and somebody there decided to give him a cello (!). He gets out music he wants to work on with me, Schumann's Fantasiestücke, and two movements of the G major Bach Suite.
After lunch, a movement of Clara Schumann's piano trio, opus 17. I had never heard it before, and am filled with joy to be introduced to it in this way. Thet Paing's Singapore-sponsored cello sounds great, and he plays it beautifully. Too bad we have to leave so soon, but I tell him to come early to the concert tomorrow, so we can work on some cello stuff. He worries about my free time, about me being tired. But in that moment I can't imagine ever being tired.
Perhaps you can tell I am inspired. I am inspired by the power of music, by the power of will and determination of individuals which ultimately brings joy, dedication, gratification and new personal connections into so many people's lives. I am suddenly ultra-aware of the power (and responsibility!) of teaching. Something we easily forget back home, where we are inundated by learning opportunities. If I don't study with one fantastic cellist, there are still hundreds to choose from, so So What?! It seems inconsequential. But without Gitameit Music School, most of these singers, violinists, pianists, cellists, would have nowhere to turn for any desires of this nature. Perhaps in the scheme of things many people would still say "So What?!" They would find some other way to spend their time. But now that music-making is part of their lives, it will never again feel inconsequential – to those who are making the music, and to those who are privileged enough to hear them make it.
Back at the hotel, a two-hour rehearsal in the air-conditioned business center with Masaaki at the electronic harpsichord, followed by an inconsequential dinner. An intense and joyful exhaustion fills my body, and I give in early to the 1.5-hour-time-difference-induced jet lag.
For more insights into the history and politics behind Gitameit Music Center, check out this article from the LA Times in 2008. (Thanks to Jude for finding this!)