Fun season is a lot noisier this year. All around school you can hear children singing, practicing clapping games, drums banging, recorders trilling, and the constant I-V-vi-IV chords being strummed on guitars making up the famous Champa Battambang song that everyone knows and loves.

My name is Sopheak Sao, the music teacher at the Children’s Future learning center. What? Childrens Future has a music program? Well it didn’t always but that is what Sarah Ruebsamen and I saw missing at the learning center. I am a Khmer-American, born and raised in California and had been living in Colorado prior to coming here, to beautiful rural Battambang.  I studied Music Education with a minor in Psychology at Northern Arizona University. Sarah studied international affairs and peace and conflict studies at CU Boulder. We decided to team up and combine our unique skillsets to start a music program at the Children’s Future learning center. We spent 4 months fundraising and with the help of friends, family, and many caring individuals, we were able to make this dream a reality.

Music is such a huge part of life, culture, and how we relate to the world. This is why we believe in music education. We believe that music is a vital part of life. Music is culture. Music is history. As a Cambodian saying goes, “Music is the soul of a nation.”

During the Khmer Rouge genocide 90% of musicians and artists were killed. This devastating loss of musicians and music meant a loss of culture, history, community, and self-expression. We want to restore these aspects of Cambodian society by empowering Cambodia’s youth, bringing music back into Cambodian communities, and healing the wounds of war that are still being mended today.

Being here at the learning center is such a surreal experience and I can’t help but think about how mine and Sarah’s lives collided with each other. Ever since I’ve met Sarah I knew she had a big heart, and one of her main goals in life is to travel and help those that are less fortunate. Another inspiration has been my mother. My mother was born and raised in Battambang and fled out of the concentration camps during the Khmer Rouge Regime. She understands the trauma that stemmed out of the Khmer Rouge, suffering from PTSD herself, and seeing her once prosperous and growing country suddenly turn into a poverty stricken nation. She fled to the US, hoping for a better future for her children. Being in a different country without speaking the language, without an education, and without a job with 4 kids, she was still able to provide for her family as well as her relatives back home in Battambang: she is a symbol of strength in my life. Even with how little she has, she is still a huge activist who helps those in Cambodia that are less fortunate than her by fundraising, building schools, wells, temples, and reservoirs in small Khmer communities.

My mom and Sarah are two of the most selfless people I know in my life who just want to help people and make a difference. Sarah was the first to be involved with Children’s Future as an intern since it was her field and she was looking at a job in that direction. I learned so much about Children’s Futurethrough her about what Children’s Futuredoes for children in Cambodia and I immediately wanted to be involved. Now being here, I can’t believe how small this world really is and how amazing it is that Sarah and I made this opportunity to come out here.

My family is from Battambang–not just in Battambang, but right next to Children’s Future. My mother’s house is just down the street from the learning center, my uncle’s fish farm is right across the river from Children’s Future– he even knew Jenny back when she was still working at the center. The Children’s Futurelearning center is surrounded by my relatives. If you have ever been to the learning center, you know that you have to cross this little wooden bridge across the river either on your tuk-tuk or moto, praying for dear life that the bridge does not collapse – my uncle built that bridge!

It has been an overwhelming experience meeting so many family members all at once when all I really grew up with was my immediate family. The greatest experience was meeting my grandparents for the first time. I never grew up with grandparents and meeting them for the first time, they were everything I’ve ever wanted in grandparents. My grandpa is outspoken and loud, yelling grandparenty advice about life and legacy at me; my grandma: a sweet caring grandma who sent me, her grandchild, off back to my hotel with bags of fruit from her farm, her homemade mango fruit leather, and a carefully wrapped kitchen knife because she knew I didn’t have a knife back in my hotel room.

The original plan was for me to be here for only a month working with the new music teacher we hire about teaching methods and pedagogy. I ended up being the new music teacher instead and instantly fell in love with working with the students. It has been two months now and I am planning to stay for another 2… but it is very likely I could be changing my departure date again. There is a Khmer saying in Battambang: “Battambang mean dey sauut” – meaning “The dirt is very sticky in Battambang” and it is impossible to leave here.

DSC_8378I have never seen a group of students so eager and enthusiastic to learn! All around school during fun season, you can hear the songs I taught the students being practiced and sung from every corner of the school. The songs are so repetitive and catchy that I’m sure it has caused some of the staff here to go insane. You can hear them practicing the rhythm games I taught them. I was so happy walking around school hearing all my students eagerly practicing and working so hard. One of my philosophies about teaching music at Children’s Future, especially with me not being here long-term, is teaching them how to practice. They have been very good at practicing and I want to leave Children’s Futurefeeling confident that the students will continue to practice without having me to be there to help them out.

One of my proudest teaching moments was when I was teaching my guitar class made of older students about accidentals so they can figure out chords on a guitar without me around. Here is how the quizzing part went:

Me: Where is f# minor?

Students: here?

Me: Yes! Me: Where is C# Major?

Students: here?

Me: Yes!!

Me: Now, where is B# Major?

Students: ……wait… Isn’t that just C Major?

Me: YEEESSSS!!!!!!!!!!

Having the students learn and discover enharmonic on their own is a major breakthrough. Besides just making lots of music and noise, we have been learning a lot about music theory. My youngest students grades 1-2 learned rhythmic dictation. They are able to hear me clap combinations of quarter notes, quarter rests, and eighth note and write it down on staff paper.  Grades 3-4 also learned rhythmic notations as well as melodic dictation. We have been working a lot on ear-training so I can turn around and play a melody on the recorder, they spend time in groups figuring out the melody, teach each other, and then write down the melody on staff paper. My older students are learning guitar, learning about song structures, chords, chord qualities, and chord sequences. They are all working so hard and we all have so much fun making music together.

I try to make my classroom a safe and open space for students to come in whenever they have free time to come ask me any questions they have, come practice and explore instruments, and just have an opportunity to play music with each other. First it started with just one student coming in asking about guitar chords, then five, and by the end of the week my classroom had 20 students, all eager for supplemental material, a chance to practice their instrument for class, and to play music together. My classroom also, have big giant open windows so I have a music drive-through for students who want to come by to grab a guitar to play in the garden or if they have a quick question.  I have an ensemble of 6 guitar students formed during my afterschool sessions who I call “The Battamboys”. They are 6 students who continuously dedicate all their extra time to come and practice guitar with me. When asked to perform at the learning center’s graduation, of course I had to call on “The Battamboys” to perform. We have been working on a song called “Champa Battambang” – a song everyone in Battambang knows as made famous by Sin Sisamouth. I asked them what other song they would like to perform and they were all eager to play another Khmer favorite: “”Why Not Me” by Enrique Iglesias. It was a blast playing alongside my students during graduation and seeing how excited and nervous they were to perform in front of a big audience for the first time.

Teaching music at Children’s Futurehas been such a rewarding experience and it is hard to imagine myself ever leaving here. I worked really hard to lay down a solid foundation for music here at the learning and hope to come back next year to continue furthering this music program. My goal is to build enough leadership in the older students so that everyone will continue to practice and make music together even when I am gone. With the foundation laid and with the students with a good understanding of basic music theory, I hope to come back next year even bigger. With even more instrument selections for the students to choose from like wind and band instruments. This can only be done through helps from donors so please visit our website at cfimusic.org to learn more about the program, to be updated on donation events in the US and to donate!

-Sopheak Sao