For the longest time, formal tertiary music education has been overly focused on practicing the art of playing mostly Western musical instruments, such as the piano and the violin. However, with the great determination of professor Aga Butocan, the art of playing the kulintang in the formal tertiary music education setting was made possible.
Butocan was born to copra farmers in Simuay, Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao. She was the youngest in a brood of six, with a sister serving as her first teacher in playing the kulintang. When she was eight years old, her older sister would make Butocan sit on her lap and guide her hands on the saronay (a smaller version of the kulintang) while playing. The kulintang music was familiar to her since it was the music often heard in the village. She would later develop her proficiency in the instrument as she “jammed” with her cousins living in the community.
Her Simuay hometown is quite far from the poblacion (center) that it took her more than a fifteen minute-walk along the unpaved roads to attend elementary classes. Her high school life was quite tough for it took her three hours via motorboat to arrive at the campus so she had to stop her high school education for a year.
However, she was able to finish her high school education and later pursued her certificate in Elementary Education for two years. She later obtained a scholarship from the Commission on National Integration which allowed her to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Education at the Arellano University.
In 1969, Dr. Jose Maceda, then-chair of the Asian Music Department, invited Butocan to play kulintang at the University of the Philippines College of Music. Little did she know that she would be invited to formally teach kulintang in the college.
Her first two years of teaching were quite tough for her because it was not a common practice in Maguindanao to teach the instrument using written notation. Until one time, she noticed that while the gongs were arranged similarly to a xylophone, she thought that numbers may be used in notating the instrument. It became one of the most effective ways which made her students learn the instrument more efficiently.
“Ginawa ko ito parang kombinasyon lang ng parang quarter at tsaka eighth notes (laughs). Yung simpleng idea ko sa music,” Butocan said. Through the years, Butocan has been learning a lot from her students in developing her kulintang teaching methods. She was later able to incorporate the Western principles in her pedagogy, such as dynamics (control of loudness/softness).
Through her innovations in teaching kulintang, as well as in preserving the tradition, Butocan was recognized by the Ateneo de Manila University with the Gawad Tanglaw ng Lahi award in 2016. She was likewise able to perform and conduct lectures in other countries like Japan, the United States, Germany, and many more.
However, for the case of the kulintang majors, Butocan still tries to reapply the oral transmission to the students. Unlike in the other majors wherein the number of pieces determines the student’s playing ability, it was not the same case for kulintang playing.
“Nung napunta ako sa kanya nung third year ako, una niya sa’king pinagawa is kabisaduhin yung piyesa na hindi lang nakatingin. Parang binabalik niya sa’kin yung oral tradition talaga na hindi lang sa utak yung piyesa dapat, sabi niya,” narrated Jun Legson who is taking his major in kulintang and is preparing for his upcoming recital.
Butocan is like a mother to her students, some of whom are now teaching in the Musicology Department and have adapted some of her principles in teaching and communicating with students.
“Maging considerate, adjust ka sa iba’t ibang klase ng estudyante,” said Froilan Canlas, an instructor in the Musicology Department and a recent winner in Tawag ng Tanghalan. Canlas said he always remembers what Butocan taught about the approach being always suitable to every type of student.
“Yung composure in teaching, sabi niya pag nagku-kulintang ka, dapat relaxed,” instructor Lilymae Montano said. Butocan is more of an encouraging professor who always reminded her students to be less tense when playing the instrument.
“She’s not the type of teacher who just criticizes you because she wants to criticize,” said Janine Liao, another instructor in the Musicology Department, who is now teaching kulintang and Philippine Music Literature. Liao added that Butocan always addresses her students’ kulintang playing concerns in a rather calm manner.
However, despite the fact that they are now colleagues in the department, they still run to Butocan for pedagogical advice. “Naextend na yung becoming a teacher to a confidante, parang, very close friend and we would share stories,” Montano said.
Through several decades, Butocan has also inspired students in the formation and innovation of UP TUGMA (Tugtugang Musika Asyatika), a performing organization established in 2007, based in the College of Music that specializes in playing Asian musical instruments.
“As a cultural bearer ng Kulintangan, ine-encourage niya to push yung boundaries ng Philippine traditional music na kung gusto naming mag-collaboration, gusto naming mag-fusion, gawin namin,” said Julia Yabes, current president of UP TUGMA and a former kulintang major. Nowadays, it is evident in the group that they look for possible ways in exploring the instrument.
“Yes, traditional instrumentalist siya,
traditional musician siya, pero sa kanya mismo nanggagaling na huwag magpakulong sa traditional,” added Elizabeth Arce, one of the Executive Committee members of UP TUGMA.
One should not be afraid to improvise, Butocan would always remind her students.
“Ang importante talaga, kahit isa o dalawang piyesa lang, basta alam na alam mo siya. Kasi, pag traditional musician ka, marami kang pwedeng gawin,” Butocan said.
I originally wrote this for my Feature Writing class.