Six days a week, Canadian educator Mark Bell rides a scooter to District 3’s Soul Music & Performing Arts Academy (SMPAA), determined to change the course of music lessons in HCMC.
His strategy is simple: teach children to play music by winning their hearts instead of rapping their knuckles.
Midway through his first year as principal of the revolutionary music school, the 56-year-old church organist, choral leader and passionate teacher is excited about his mission to shape a new generation of Vietnamese musicians by teaching them in a softer and friendlier fashion.
He calls his courtyard campus at 214-216 Pasteur an oasis for children where they can study music and dance in a way that will inspire them throughout their lives. There are no teacher tantrums here, and the only raised voices heard are those lifted in song.
“While we’re teaching music and the arts, we’re also developing a generation with a different outlook and way of being,” he says. “Yes, we’re informal but (also) formative. It’s about celebrating where you are and where you can be.”
Now in its fifth year, the Soul Academy is the brainchild of 33-year-old Thanh Bui, an Australian-born Vietnamese pop star who moved his musical career to HCMC in 2010. A natural teacher with no formal training, Thanh recruited Mark to strengthen the teaching credentials of his academy.
They met by chance at District 7’s Canadian International School, where Mark was the elementary principal. Having arrived early to speak at a rhinoceros conservation rally, Thanh was invited to wait in Mark’s office. It didn’t take long for Thanh to discover his host’s passion for music education. Meanwhile, Mark learned of his young visitor’s pop-star status when the students went ballistic as Thanh entered the school auditorium.
Months later, Mark agreed to run an educational training course for the musicians Thanh had recruited as SMPAA teachers, and later signed on as full-time principal of the academy.
Today, SMPAA has about 600 students from age four to adult, studying voice, instrumental music and dance in the evenings and weekends. While much of the curriculum is contemporary, classical training is also offered. Students wanting a taste of public performance can audition for a number of enrichment programs, including a popular dance troupe known as The Young Lyricist, whose members serve as inspirational ambassadors of the arts for young Vietnamese.
The HCMC campus now consists of three elegant heritage houses crammed with studios, classrooms and performance spaces, and there are two more buildings in the planning stage. Mark’s office is located between two drum studios whose walls do not quite shut out the sound of nine-year-old drum-kit phenomenon Trong Nhan.
Mark understands the rewards of musical success as well as the sacrifices parents make for their families. The youngest of six children whose father worked three jobs, Mark was allowed to take piano lessons after a neighbour realised he was teaching himself music by replicating her young daughter’s weekly lessons.
During a summer job cutting grass at a famous Catholic institution near his village home, he met a Jesuit brother who taught him to play the church’s classic pipe organ. A few years later, at age 16, he became the organist at Canada’s famous National Martyrs’ Shrine in Huronia – and its director of music, a position he held through high school and university. At 24, Mark was made executive coordinator of music for Pope John Paul II’s visit to bless the shrine. Part of his job was to amass a 700-voice choir for the visit that attracted a congregation of 70,000.
Later, Mark filled his spare time as a church organist and directing community and church choirs in Toronto, and studied to become a teacher before becoming a principal. Today his passion is teaching children to sing and SMPAA is giving him the chance to work directly with young singers again.
He and Thanh are influencing a new style of popular music by moving students away from the popular Korean sound that has saturated the country.
“We’re training people who want to be professional musical performers in this country,” Mark says. “And maybe do it in a different way... we are definitely rooted in Vietnam and Vietnamese culture.”
Taking a visitor on a tour of the Soul Academy, Mark points out the encouraging slogans and quotes that adorn the walls. He pauses at a neon sign that spells out “Soul Live Project”.
“That’s what it’s about,” he muses. “It’s all about soul.”