I have just returned from a volunteering trip to Soksan International school in Cambodia. My wife and I had the idea ever since having our first child to show them a bit of the world, and how other children did not enjoy the same privileges that they do. No idea if that worked or not, but I did get the chance to try out some musical and improv based exercises with some bemused looking Cambodian children and adults!
The first thing I noticed was that the children were far less familiar with the whole idea of group games and exercises. Simple clapping exercises often turned out to be just too confusing, not because the children were unintelligent, just that they were not used to playing in such a controlled environment. Why clap when pointed to, when you could just clap all the time?
Also there was a huge amount of shyness to being singled out of a class. So for example when doing some scales to different words, it was all but impossible to get a suggestion of a word from a single child. The best results came from inclusive activities that involved movement or group singing to a pre-existing song. As a result I wrote five songs that we could all learn together. This ended up with me leading the kids pied-piper style through the school (see pic).
As for improv games with the teachers, we did get all the way through to 3-line scenes. It is so ingrained in their culture to be complimentary that most of the scenes went something like this:
"You have a lovely face"
"Thank you, you have lovely feet"
"Thank you, your necklace is lovely" - and scene.
However, we broke down a few barriers with the more physical games such as passing a sound, or zombie walk or Samurai. The adults were certainly willing to chuck themselves in and laugh and were not afraid to make themselves look silly. I would have liked more time with them as they certainly seemed to be getting the point of being relaxed and confident and making stuff up on the spot. It was a great experience seeing how improvisation can help with speaking a language that is unfamiliar, and also great to see the teachers letting their hair down and just having fun. Listening to some of their life stories was harrowing and it showed me that play and fun is not always frivolous - it can be a massive release and an opportunity to vent frustration in a safe en
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel have over 15 years experience performing, teaching and writing about Musical Improv. Based in the UK they have facilitated workshops and graced stages around the world.