Burger inspired by Malaysian music students

Teaching piano to college students in Malaysia this summer gave Dr. Cole Burger a deep appreciation for their dedication to music in the face of difficult circumstances.

Burger, an instructor in the College of Musical Arts, spent four weeks at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur as a Fulbright Specialist. In addition to teaching and giving master classes, he presented recitals at the University of Malaya and another nearby university where a current BGSU doctoral student received his undergraduate degree.

This was his third trip to Malaysia, but “my first chance to unpack,” he said. The longer stay allowed for greater engagement with students as well as travel.

“The best part of my time there was to work with the students and see the odds they have to overcome,” Burger said. “I saw keenly how difficult it is for them. The Malaysian students I taught did not have the pre-college musical training that many BGSU students do, and since they’re under the British educational system, they don’t enter college until they’re 19, so they have a lot to catch up on in only three years of undergraduate study.

“Practicing is difficult. Many work very hard and spend long hours in the practice room, in the 90 degree heat and 90 percent humidity, using less-than-ideal pianos.”

As it happened, his last days of teaching coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month of Islam during which believers fast from dawn to dusk. For the Muslim students, who were not even taking water during school hours, it was even more strenuous, Burger said.

Another challenge to aspiring musicians is that, although they are learning Western classical music, they often have not been exposed to it enough to really know how it should sound, he said.

“They love it but it’s not totally native to them. So they practice long hours but aren’t sure if they’re performing it correctly. They want to do their best, especially for their juries (the final class of the semester in which a student plays for a panel of music faculty).”

That is where Burger could provide much-needed teaching and performance assistance. An award-winning pianist, he has an academic background in piano performance and pedagogy, and in his current BGSU role teaches group piano to music students who are not piano performance majors but who plan to work as choir or band directors or in other capacities. He also supervises and mentors graduate students, both as graduate assistants in class piano and in piano pedagogy courses, where some teach in BGSU’s Music Plus outreach program that brings Toledo high school students to the Bowling Green campus for music lessons.

In Malaysia he was able to teach students while also serving as a role model for the other faculty. “Interacting with the faculty, I understood the unique challenges they face to be a good teacher as well,” he said.

Malaysia has a fusion of cultures, from the 60 percent Muslim population to the 25 percent ethnic Chinese and the smaller Indian minority, mostly Tamils from South India.

“I wanted to encourage a sharing of cultures,” he said. “There are many wonderful Malaysians composing remarkable music that fuses their history and culture with Western classical ideas. I look forward to learning more about this music and sharing it with audiences in the U.S.”

Along with European classical compositions, he introduced audiences to works by American composers. In his recitals he performed pieces in a variety of styles, including ragtime, minimalism, Cole Porter and Charles Ives.

“We have an embarrassment of riches here — good teachers, good facilities, lots of opportunities to hear classical music,” Burger said. “I’m grateful to the Fulbright program for the chance to share my expertise with others halfway across the world, and it was inspiring to work with such dedicated, hard-working and talented students who love to play the piano.”