Victims of Globalization? Reactions to Learning the Recorder in Indonesian Music Classes

Many Americans have potent memories of their early years in music classrooms, squeaking out the melodies to patriotic tunes or outdated popular music hits on a plastic recorder. Even as a musician who studies music education as the subject of my Ph.D., most of the particulars of elementary school general music class have faded from my memory. However, I do vividly recall learning how to play “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic in sixth grade—an activity that was intended as a treat for us after studying the recorder for at least a year, but which most of us found painfully embarrassing. Even though my classmates and I loved music (many of us were involved in orchestra, band, or studying other instruments on our own), playing recorder was not a cool musical activity, and we, or at least I, resented every time we were asked to pull out our plastic whistles.


As it turns out, it’s not only American schoolchildren who are mandated to study the recorder; the instrument has been used in schools throughout the world since at least the 1960s (Brehaut 2017, Gordenker 2001). In some countries, the recorder appeared in schools as early as the 1930s, soon after composer Carl Orff published his Orff Schulwerk, which emphasized the importance of music teaching that relied on rhythm and creative thinking above memorization and encouraged the use of instruments that mimic children’s vocal ranges (Nosowitz 2015, Lasocki 2001). This year, upon beginning my fieldwork in Central and West Java, Indonesia, I was surprised to find a plastic recorder displayed in the home of my advisor, a professor of dance education at the Indonesian University of Education (UPI). After inquiring about it, I learned that many Indonesian schoolchildren throughout the last few decades have learned recorder in their elementary music classes.


A plastic recorder compared with a Sundanese suling. Photo by Rendila Restu Utami.


Most people I talked to played the recorder for two or three years, usually in late elementary school or middle school. Most had grown up on Java, the most populated Indonesian island. However, the recorder also reaches other Indonesian islands when schools have enough resources to teach the required skills. Although I couldn’t find a precise time for when recorder instruction began in Indonesia, it’s been happening at least since the mid-80s, according to one of my informants. Other informants guessed that while perhaps not directly brought over during the Dutch colonization period (from the early 1800s to 1942) or the three years of Japanese colonization (1942 to 1945), the ubiquity of the recorder may have had something to do with lasting influence from the Dutch and the Japanese.


This book of regional songs may be used to teach singing or simple melodic instruments like recorder. The book includes Western notation and number notation. Photo by the author.


It makes as much sense to use the recorder in Indonesia as it does in Western countries: the instrument is affordable, difficult to damage, and easy to store and carry. Students can purchase their own instruments for one to ten dollars, depending on quality, and carry the instruments with them, negating the need for the school to purchase large or expensive musical equipment that takes up schools’ limited space. The recorder has also been praised for its accessibility and use as a tool for child development and the democratization of music education (Chazanoff 1970, Rubinoff 2011). Another musical instrument often used in Indonesian schools, the melodica or mouth organ—often referred to by the most common brand name, pianika—also meets all of these requirements, and is even easier to play than the recorder. Several of my informants told me that although they learned the recorder, they much preferred playing the pianika because the recorder exasperated them. One of my informants, Azis, didn’t have fond memories of learning the recorder: “We needed to grab the recorder with two hands, then play with our fingers to close and open the holes properly…it was frustrating!”


But why choose the recorder (or the pianika) and not another instrument that meets the same criteria? Many regional cultures of Indonesia, including the populous Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese ethnic groups, have their own traditional flutes made of bamboo, all variants of a similar instrument that can produce the different traditional scales of the region. These flutes are also affordable, sturdy, lightweight, and easy to procure, and it can be argued that using recorders instead of traditional instruments abstracts the cultural context of music learning, even if students are taught traditional songs (Pieridou-Skoutella 2007). So why not use traditional flutes instead of foreign imports?


Most of my informants didn’t seem to have strong opinions on this issue and felt that the recorder offered good opportunities for music learning. Although recorders used in Indonesia are tuned to the Western scale, they can still be used to play many different types of music. My informants recalled learning Western tunes, Indonesian one-hit wonders, traditional tunes from Java and elsewhere in Indonesia, and patriotic and national tunes.


“Kepompong,” a one-hit wonder from the early 2000s, was the song of choice for one of my informants’ music class in Surabaya.


This helpful video instructs the viewer how to play “Edelweiss,” a song which still haunts one of my informants from his recorder-playing days in elementary school.


Astrid, who learned the recorder in the early 1990s and is now coaching her young son on the instrument as he studies in school, mentioned that she actually thought it was an Indonesian instrument because she was studying Indonesian music on the recorder. She told me the recorder was often referred to as suling, the same word for any flute, traditional or otherwise, in Indonesian. Astrid also said that for her, “music is universal—it can use traditional or Western instruments and we can play Indonesian and Western music with them. [Playing the recorder] broadened my horizons.” A similar sentiment was expressed by a teacher at an Indonesian language school in Yogyakarta, who said that for her, playing the recorder was an intimate way to connect with her regional identity. By using her breath, mediated through recorder, to play the traditional songs of her region, she embodied her identity as a Javanese person in a way she said she hadn’t ever experienced before.


Another informant, Berlin, suggested that it was more popular to use Western instruments because they appealed to students and teachers, whereas traditional instruments were not as “cool.” Berlin suggested that one reason for this is that “some traditional instruments need to be played with others to make the music sound complete. You can’t play angklung on your own.” Angklung, a set of pitched bamboo rattles tuned to the Western scale, is used in many schools throughout Indonesia for kindergarten and young elementary school students, but for upper-level music learning, schools still turn to instruments that students can practice and perform with on their own.


Because of their necessarily communal nature, traditional instruments like the angklung are described as useful for teaching good character more often than Western instruments. This focus on character education is particularly evident in the new curriculum, introduced in 2013, which stresses moral behavior and allows more time for classes devoted to local knowledge (Schoenhardt 2013, Wang 2015, Widarsa 2013, Masunah 2008). In angklung ensembles comprised of beginners or young children, each player is responsible for one (or perhaps two) pitches and must interlock to create a flowing melodic line or complete harmony. It is difficult and unsatisfying to play angklung alone, and so its study promotes cooperation, listening skills, and teamwork, according to music teachers. Although the angklung is from West Java (and associated with the Sundanese ethnic group), it has now spread all over Indonesia and is widely used for education, entertainment, and representation of Indonesian culture at embassies, ceremonies, and other celebrations.


This video demonstrates the interlocking nature of angklung in a performance of Indonesia’s national anthem.


Mita, who learned recorder in Yogyakarta in the 1980s, suggested that the reason for studying Western instruments such as recorder and pianika was because of the relative universality of the Western scale. In order to play Indonesian national songs (or Western songs, or popular songs, or songs from other regions in Indonesia), one needs an instrument tuned to the Western scale. In this light, the Western-imported recorder is a tool of diversity. Some of the people I spoke to, however, took issue with the wide use of Western instruments such as the recorder and the pianika in Indonesian schools. My most interesting conversations took place with two professors at UPI who teach Western music. Henry, who teaches guitar lessons, described himself as a korban globalisasi—a victim of globalization—because when he was younger, he didn’t respect his local Sundanese traditions and only cared about learning more popular Western instruments. As a result, he is an expert on the guitar but knows very little about Sundanese music. I pointed out to him that it’s never too late to learn, and that he’s in a good place for it, since UPI employs several experts on Sundanese music and Henry shares an office with some of them, but he told me that his schedule doesn’t allow for the time it would take to really learn the traditions in the way he’d like to.


A few days later, I had a similar conversation with Dodi, who teaches composition at UPI. He too identified with the phrase korban globalisasi and bemoaned the lack of knowledge both he and his students had about the local culture. He thinks it’s a shame that students are learning the recorder and the pianika when they could just as easily learn the Sundanese suling, and he’s developing a project with a Sundanese gamelan teacher, Pak Engkur, to build a gamelan out of bamboo. Dodi stressed that Pak Engkur was the brains behind this operation, since he was just a beginner, but he was proud of his effort to resist remaining a victim of globalization.


After hearing these educators describe their experience so regretfully, I wondered what others might make of this phrase, and if people who had studied the recorder but were not deeply entrenched in musical culture might also feel that they had been victimized by the influence of Western culture. I didn’t find any reactions as strong as those of Dodi and Henry, but several others expressed a certain level of identification as a korban globalisasi. My informants often linked Western culture—or just non-Indonesian culture—with a “coolness” that Indonesian culture couldn’t achieve, a common enough reaction for young people in any country. Berlin told me, “I feel a little bit like a korban globalisasi, because I thought that Western cultures were cooler than my culture. I felt like Indonesia sucks, other places are cooler. But now, I wish I knew more about traditional culture…maybe I just hated it because I was young. I really liked Japanese comics that were based on Japanese history, and I thought it was interesting, but later, I realized that it’s all the same. I realized this lately and tried to read some books about wayang [Javanese shadow puppetry], because I felt that as a Javanese person, I should know it.” Mita expressed a similar sentiment; she says that she feels sorry that many white foreigners can play gamelan better than Javanese people. For many Javanese people, though, there aren’t many chances to play traditional music unless they do it themselves—and not all people are able to study it themselves, Mita told me.


In a music classroom in Central Java, a set of angklung takes its place next to an electric guitar. Photo by the author.


Wes, a Surabaya native in his 20s now living in Yogyakarta, felt that the phrase korban globalisasi didn’t fully reflect the complex entanglements Indonesia has had with foreign powers throughout its history as a nation. “My parents had at some point in their education also learned pianika and recorder,” he told me. “At that point, the term was ‘colonization,’ not ‘globalization.’” Wes felt that although the methods of Dutch colonization weren’t ethical, Indonesia wouldn’t exist as a nation without colonization. For him, describing oneself as a victim of globalization ignores the possibilities for interconnection that are available in a modern Indonesia and that helped shape the nation in the late colonial period.


Foreign popular culture often influences street art in Yogyakarta, Central Java: here, the Incredible Hulk is reimagined as a pengamen, or street musician, with a Javanese face. Photo by the author.


Elvis and Marilyn Monroe enjoy traditional Indonesian foods in a mural at a martabak manis stand in Jakarta. Photo by the author.


As conversations about foreign influence—both from the West and the Middle East—grow louder in Indonesia, it’s possible that curriculum reform will lead to changes for recorder use in classrooms. I haven’t seen any evidence that the recorder is going away anytime soon, but the newest curriculum does allot significant resources for “local knowledge” classes, particularly in the arts. These classes stress flexibility, rather than standardization, across schools in different provinces. The measures allow schools to emphasize the types of lessons that are most relevant for their students and which draw on the resources that are easily available. It remains to be seen whether curricular reform of this nature will lead to traditional instruments replacing Western imports, but the possibilities are never far from educators’ minds.  


As a result of my brief investigation on the recorder in Indonesian music education, I found a range of complex perspectives on globalization, curricula reform, and identity. I will conclude with Wes’s summarizing statement: “We are the results of modernization, not the victims.”



Gillian Irwin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis. She is currently in Indonesia on a Fulbright Student Research Fellowship conducting fieldwork on character education and regional identity in music classrooms in Yogyakarta, Central Java. Gillian is a member of the Indian Ocean Worlds Mellon Research Cluster and enjoys performing with UC Davis’s Javanese karawitan and viola da gamba ensembles. 


Works Referenced

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Doddy Irawan. 2008. Kepompong – Sind3ntosca (music video). Accessed March 21.

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Pieridou-Skoutella, Avra. 2007. “The construction of national musical identities by Greek Cypriot primary school children—implications for the Cyprus music education system.” British Journal of Music Education 24 (3): 251-266.

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Schoenhardt, Sara. 6 January 2013. “Indonesia Envisions More Religion in Schools.” The New York Times. <>.

Temmerman, Nita. 2005. “Children’s participation in music: connecting the cultural contexts—an Australian perspective.” Social and Cultural Studies in Education 22 (2): 113-123.

Wang, Juiching. 2015. “Games Unplugged! Dolanan Anak, Traditional Javanese Children’s Singing Games in the 21st-Century General Music Classroom.” General Music Today 28 (2): 5-12.

Widarsa, Avina Nadhila. 29 July 2013. “New 2013 Curriculum for New School Year in Indonesia.” Global Indonesian Voices News. <>.

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