Between pop music and opera

A coming-of-age story of classical music about mdw graduate Organ Prawang and her home country Thailand

I arrived in Vienna in 2012 with a scholarship of the Österreichischer Austauschdienst ÖAD (Austrian Student Exchange Office). Initially I was prepared to study in Vienna for nine months as an exchange student. Well, I have been living here for four years by now, so you could say that I really love this city but let’s start at the very beginning.

The first I ever listened to was Mozart

My mother played the drums and the guitar and being a teacher she also taught music. One day she learned in a prenatal class about the Mozart effect – listening to Mozart’s music while being pregnant is said to raise the musical skills of your unborn baby. I don’t know if that’s true or not but maybe that’s the reason I started to sing before I was able to speak.

As a little child I loved to sing the Thai anthem though I didn’t know the lyrics. But I sensed that people started to clap their hands when I sang the melody of the anthem, which was a beautiful experience back then. At the age of three or four I started to take keyboard classes (Junior Music Course for children) at Yamaha Music School.

Thai dress
Organ in a traditional Thai dress

Also my nickname – Organ – has musical roots. My parents always loved music so they chose the name of the biggest instrument in the world for my nickname. Also it’s much more pronounceable to Western audiences than my original first name, Fueanglada.

My first musical steps

I was born in a very small village called Chiang-Kham in the countryside in northern Thailand. My mother wanted to offer me the best education available in the area. Since she was working during the week, she drove me to a music school in the city every weekend while she was studying for her own master degree at the university. There, I learned to play the piano, drawing, ballet dancing and also English for kids – just anything I had the chance to.

At that time I was also very interested in astronomy, which became my first choice of profession, since nobody thought there was a future for a musical career in Thailand. Everybody advised me to study for a steady job like doctor, teacher or generally anything in the government.

While I was pondering which direction to go, I always participated in local music competitions, especially singing. Most of them, I won. In one of those competitions I was discovered by a scout and offered a scholarship for the music high school. The first thing he said was “You sing really good but to study at the university you have to switch to opera and classic.” I had never heard of opera or classic before and was curious to get to know those singing techniques. And I had to do it fast, because the admission exam was only one month away at that point in time!

Countryside in Thailand
Countryside in Thailand

The first big milestone

Despite the very narrow time frame I decided to study for this exam as hard as I could. Astronomy was interesting, but I always felt I learned for it, because I had to. This was not the case with music, which I really loved to work for. So I prepared three songs for the exam. It really helped, that I had studied piano before: at least I could read notes and had already gained a certain feeling for rhythm.

I moved to Chiang Rai, the next big town close to my home village, and from there I traveled to Chiang Mai two times a week, where the only university was located which offered opera courses in the area. After a month of studying I went to Bangkok to participate in the competition and won. The reward included a scholarship for studying at the music high school in Bangkok.

This was a huge success for a sixteen-year-old girl, confirming my conclusion to study voice as a profession!

Graduating
Graduating from Mahidol University

After my education at the College of Music at Mahidol University, I went to Lyon in France due to a one-month scholarship. Unfortunately, this turned out to be not very successful, because I couldn’t speak French well enough to follow the courses and the teachers didn’t speak English very well.

Also, when singing in French one has to pronounce French lyrics very closely to the written formula but I preferred to have a certain flexibility at performing lyrics. So, I quit my studies in Lyon and moved back to Bangkok, where I did my Bachelor in Voice Performance.

A short sidestep: The situation of “classical music” in Thailand in more recent years

At this point, I’d like to describe what it was like to start studying for a professional music career in Thailand back then. About twenty years ago, there was just no broad public awareness for Western classical music in Thailand. “Classical music” was performed on traditional Thai instruments such as pi nai (oboe), ranat ek (wood xylophone), khong wong yai (circle of gongs) or ching (cymbal).

Starting around 1930, Western instruments and music found their way into the Thai music scene and with it came Western classical music. Nowadays it’s considered to be the mainstream kind of classical music, but at the time of my studies it was rather uncommon to concentrate on a professional classical music career.

Graduating
The joy of graduation

Another personal key moment was the Thai film Seasons Change (2006), which takes place at the College of Music, Mahidol University. The story is about a boy who tries to attend the music school (keeping it a secret from his parents) to be close to a girl who is studying violin performance, which he has had a crush on for three years. The film was very well received by its target audience of young Thai adolescents, resulting in an increase of applications for the Mahidol University and generally a larger interest in (classical) music education.

I am also very proud of having been part of the very first Thai opera production to feature Thai singing, called “The Story of the Long Gone Animal”. All opera productions in Thailand up until that time had had English or other foreign-language lyrics.

aufspiel
Organ performing at mdw’s aufspiel in 2014 ©Nathalie Sonnbichler

It was a phenomenon for the Thai audience to hear their own language sung in a classical way! This has to do with the Thai language, which is very hard to compose for and perform. We have five tones e.g. for the word mai – depending on the pronounciation the meaning varies greatly. So both the composer and the performer have to pay serious attention – so as to not make the audience laugh. It is doable, but very difficult.

In my master’s thesis I’m also describing how this development came to be.

Back to Mahidol University

Following my short trip to Lyon, I continued my Bachelor studies at Mahidol University. In 2007 I succeeded in my first really big classical competition, winning the 2nd prize (1st prize not awarded) at the 7th Osaka International Music Competition in Japan.

Nonetheless I applied at The Star, Thailand’s version of your usual reality TV singing competition show. After reaching the finalist group I was confronted with a tough decision: In case I won the show I had to agree to the rules of the reality show, meaning that a camera team would accompany me in the following months.

Fivera
Organ with the other members of Viva! (now Fivera)

In other words, I wouldn’t have been able to continue my studies at university for the sake of becoming a (most likely short-time) pop star. So I declined and left the show to continue my studies – a decision I never regretted 🙂

As I was still interested in singing pop music I became part of the band Viva! (now called Fivera). As far as I know, we were the very first Thai band to blend both pop and opera styles into a new fresh sound 🙂 We sang pop songs in a classical way and performed classical art songs in the style of popular music, spanning nearly all voice ranges from soprano to bass (two girls, three boys).

This turned out to be a very successful project, and we had lots of performances even outside of Thailand such as South Africa and China. However, another hard decision was rising at the horizon, ultimately resulting in my departure from the band.

Fivera
Viva! performing on stage

The second big milestone

At the end of my Bachelor studies at Mahidol University, I participated in a scholarship competition by the Österreichischer Austauschdienst (Austrian Student Exchange Office), after I had studied singing and German very hard for several months. I’m sure it was a very close call, but together with two other students I made it indeed!

This was our chance to study abroad in Austria at affordable costs, at least for nine months. Way to go! One fellow student went to Graz, the other student colleague went to the Mozarteum in Salzburg, while I went to the mdw in Vienna.

Unfortunately this also meant I had to leave Viva!, since studying abroad required my full focus. But after my arrival in Vienna, I was sure to do the right thing: Since I loved the mdw from the very first moment, after four months, I applied and auditioned for the master studies at the mdw and passed it! The only problem was the scholarship of the ÖAD, which would only support me for nine months – so I went back to Thailand and applied for a scholarship at Mahidol University. Luckily, I also got this scholarship, enabling me to return to the mdw as a regular master student.

My first weeks in Vienna

I arrived on a Sunday in Vienna and found all the shops closed and the streets rather empty. Why is everything so quiet? Is that really Vienna? First, I was unsure whether I was at the wrong destination, but as it turned out nearly all shops are closed on Sundays in Austria and people tend to stay at home, minding their own business. This was rather strange to me – I came directly from a city that literally never sleeps, 7-Eleven is open 24 hours a day and you can get food and do shopping almost around the clock.

Then I came to say: I love Vienna! It’s got everything a student wants from a lively modern city. This applies to many cities world-wide, but on top of that, for a foreign student, Vienna is, for the most part, incredibly inexpensive. For example, the costs for one semester at Mahidol University as a regular student are around 2,000 Euros while it’s only about 730 Euros per semester at the mdw.

Also the costs for housing and food (especially if you cook your own food) are easily affordable, nonetheless, if you are lucky enough to benefit from a scholarship. Even without financial aid, I dare say studying in Vienna is very affordable, compared to other international destinations.

Fluss

A prerequisite at the mdw is speaking German – which of course I had to learn from scratch. At first it was very hard for me: To have masculine, feminine and neuter words was completely new to me and you have to remember the right gender for every single noun!

Additionally, Austrian people tend to speak in various dialects, making the whole process of learning German even harder. But after a while I remembered the most important phrases and right now I’m fine with speaking German.

Regarding forms and Visa, I can say it really helps being supported by a scholarship, because this means that most of the paperwork is prepared by your home and guest institutions. Without a scholarship there are also additional forms you have to bring along, such as a confirmation of your bank account verifying that you can afford the costs for the semester.

My very first snow

Since I arrived in Vienna in October it didn’t take too long before I saw snow for the first time ever. Maybe that’s nothing special for most of you people but I was very excited! I woke up in the morning, opened the curtains and everything was plain white. There were countless white flakes falling and it just took me by storm.

Schnee
“Everything was plain white!”

I remember sitting there for an hour and taking several pictures, until my Facebook friends told me to stop spamming their timelines with pictures of snow 🙂 In a few weeks I’m going to have my final Master examination and my parents are to come over for a few weeks – I have to show them what snow is like. Unfortunately, the current winter is very mild, so I guess we will spend a few days in Tyrol.

What’s to come

Following my final examination I really want to do a PhD in DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts), but in performance studies there are only postgraduate university courses at the mdw, no doctoral programmes. All regular PhD studies here are research programmes.

Since my scholarship is for music performance only, I’m currently applying to universities in England, Finland and Ireland. Actually, there is also a DMA programme in Graz (which is also in Austria), but the qualifications are very high: For example you have to have a ten-year experience of singing at an opera house, which I can’t offer so far.

So for now I’m not sure wherever I may go in the future, but as long as I can keep performing and working with music on a regular basis I guess I’ll be fine 🙂

2 thoughts on “Between pop music and opera”

    1. Hello,

      this blog is primarily in German – we try to offer as many stories as possible in English as well, but since our authors are writing freely about their experiences we don’t want to tell them which language they use. Please also consider that this blog has started in the end of December 2015, so we don’t have as much content available yet as you would expect. We hope you follow us online nonetheless 🙂

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