Kent State Thai ensemble continues at Stark campus

Morgan Day

Junior psychology major Jodan Vesco plays a xylophone during Thai ensemble at the Kent State Stark Campus. AMANDA SOWARDS | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Steve Schirra

Though the country’s longest-running Thai music ensemble came to an end after the retirement of Terry Miller, professor of musicology and ethnomusicology at Kent State, the Stark campus was given the chance to carry on the tradition.

Under the direction of adjunct professor Priwan Nanongkham, Thai Ensemble students at the Stark campus perform with the largest known collection of Thai instruments in the nation, said Pat Grutzmacher, associate professor and director of instrumental music at the Stark campus.

The course, now in its third semester, is considerably different than the class that was offered at the main campus, said Nanongkham, a Thailand native. The Stark ensemble members are generally undergraduate students who are not necessarily music majors and are unable to commit a considerable amount of time to a class that is not required.

The course can be taken multiple times and still challenge returning students because different levels of skill exist in one musical piece, Nanongkham said.

“If you’re a beginner, you play the easy version. If you’ve been learning for some time, you play a more difficult version, but in the same piece,” he said.

Nanongkham said Thai music doesn’t fit into the stereotype that defines music as a universal language.

“If you listen to Thai music for the first time, you will not understand (it),” said Nanongkham, who compared the structure of an ensemble to family functions in a Thai society. “It sounds like noise.”

Grutzmacher, a member of the ensemble for both semesters last year, said performing in the ensemble requires intense amounts of concentration.

“It’s a real brain exercise,” Grutzmacher said. “It involves listening. It involves rhythm. It involves dexterity.”

She said playing in the ensemble is like an aerobic exercise because your mind must be void of all other thoughts and completely focused on the music in order to perform it correctly.

But the course goes beyond teaching students how to play instruments. Grutzmacher said students also learn about Thai culture and other customs associated with playing Thai music, such as bowing to instruments before they are played and never stepping over them while they rest.

Junior psychology major Jordan Vesco said that he became interested in Thai Ensemble when Grutzmacher addressed it in her Music as a World Phenomenon class.

“(The music) sounded really cool, so I decided to try it out and play it,” Vesco said.

Although this is Vesco’s second time taking the course, he said this semester will be more difficult than the last. He will lead the ensemble on the ranat, or xylophone, and set the tempo of the music.

Vesco plans to incorporate the experience into his guitar playing to give him a different musical perspective.

The ensemble performs Dec. 1 as part of the Stark campus’ student recital. The event is at 1:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts Theatre.

Contact regional south campus reporter Morgan Day at [email protected].