For this entry of ExpatDrummer I sat down with Kyle Acuncius, Principal Timpanist of the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra and Artist/Instructor of Percussion at Mahidol University, College of Music. We talked about his road to Thailand, what life is like in Thailand and his thoughts on playing in a different country.
Could you give us a little bit of your background?
I grew up just outside of St. Louis in a small town called Highland, which is in a suburb of Illinois. My parents are both musicians, my Mom is a pianist and bassoonist as well as a retired grade school music teacher, and my Dad is a trumpet player and a retired band director, also my brother is a band director in Colorado. Around the age of six I began playing the piano.
When I was in high school I started playing in the St. Louis Youth Orchestra and began studying with Tom Stubbs (Percussion/Assistant Timpani, St. Louis Symphony) and Rick Holmes (former Principal Timpani, St. Louis Symphony). For the first three years of high school I went to the public school, but for my final year I went to the Interlochen Arts Academy and studied with John Alfieri.
Which schools did you go to for college?
In 2004 I started my Bachelor’s at Eastman School of Music. That year was the last class that was going to have John H. Beck for all four years. I really appreciated all of the things that the school had to offer and what was available. There were a lot of great opportunities!
After that I decided to go to Indiana University. I primarily went there to study with John Tafoya and continue along the orchestral route, but when I got there I started to become interested in other types of playing. I started working more on marimba with Kevin Bobo and playing in the Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music with Michael Spiro. Also, while at Indiana I was playing in the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra, which is an organization that a lot of the students at Indiana University would get to play with and get some experience.
What did you do after you obtained your Masters?
During my last year at Indiana I took some auditions for Doctoral programs, as well as some Performance Certificate schools, but decided on getting a Specialist Degree from University of Michigan. I was becoming more interested in pedagogy and world music, and Michigan would allow me to continue to pursue those interests. While I was there I also got to run the Samba Band as well as continue working on Afro-Cuban music.
What kind of job were you looking to get after graduating?
I was looking for a teaching job at a university. I had been applying to all sorts of schools, and in June of 2012 I was set to move to Jordan to take the job that Brad Broomfield currently has at the National Conservatory of Music in Amman. Unfortunately, right before I was going to move to Jordan some of the funding of the orchestra fell through, so I decided not to go there. Megan Arns, who previously held that position, had met a Thai woman, Wannapha Yannavut, that was teaching at Mahidol University, College of Music. She was going to take a sabbatical and was looking for someone to replace her. Megan gave her my information, and I sent the school my résumé and information. I had an interview via Skype a few days later, and that evening I was offered the job. By August 12th I was in Thailand!
How did you get the job in the Thailand Philharmonic?
When I accepted the position at Mahidol University it was implied that I would be able to audition for the Principal Timpani position when I got there. So after about 5 months I began also playing full-time in the orchestra.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Thailand Philharmonic?
The orchestra has a fairly intense season. Generally, the first three weeks of the month we play out subscription concerts, and then the fourth week might consist of some kind of pops program as well as recording sessions.
Are there any other expats in the orchestra?
There are about 15-20 other expats right now, basically one or two per section. Luckily rehearsals are all in English! And, many of them are also teachers at the College of Music.
What kind of repertoire do you play?
We play the standard classical repertoire, symphonies and concertos. The biggest difference is how our concerts are structured. We start every concert with the “Kings Song” which everyone stands up for, including the musicians playing (if they can). Then every week we will play a traditional Thai song newly composed/arranged by our resident arranger/conductor. This was originally done to help draw the Thai people into classical music, as western classical music is still rather new here.
What is your job at Mahidol University like?
It is very much modeled after the western education that I had in America. I teach between 12-17 students, ranging from Pre-College through Masters. I only have to deal with the percussion aspects; Lessons, Percussion Ensemble, Literature and Pedagogy…so I don’t have to teach Music Appreciation! I put a strong focus on Chamber Music and an emphasis on being a well-rounded musician. You can clearly see the benefit of Chamber Music in the large ensemble playing!
There are currently three of us teaching the students and classes, Wannapha Yannavut, and Kraisit Suwanlao, a former student of mine who teaches the Pre-College Division students. Wannapha and I will see all of the Bachelors and Masters students two hours a week for private lessons, and will split the Pre-College students with Kraisit, so the students get plenty of lesson time.
What is life like in Thailand?
Bangkok is great! I love the culture and food and it’s a great place to live. What is great is that there are always musicians coming through Thailand for holidays. Every few months I get to see old friends, and meet new people when they are coming through.
What is the Expat scene like?
Whatever you are missing from back home you can find it. There are so many expats living here that if you want to find something like a Mexican restaurant you can find really authentic flavors.
Can you speak any Thai?
I can get by. My taxi Thai is great! And I am able to order at restaurants, but other than that there really isn’t a need to speak it fluently. My students know that I can understand them now though! Also, the city is so big and westernized that you can get by without speaking a lick of Thai if needed.
Do you have any advice to someone thinking about working and playing in another country?
There are lost of jobs in lots of different countries available. A lot of orchestras would be happy to have a qualified western educated musician as one of their players. So, as long as you are not bound to living in one place this might be an avenue worth looking at. Also, not every situation is going to be a hit, but for a young, uninhibited and eager musician it is definitely worth a look.
by Chris Tusa March 1, 2017