The day began very early, when I arrived at school at 6:30am, to find Rinchen, our school's administrator already there. She had been there since 6:00 she said, she couldn’t sleep. Shortly after I arrived Saito arrived and Rinchen helped myself and Saito put on our Gho. By help, I mean she dressed us as neither one of us knows how to put it on. The students were to arrive at 7:00 and by 6:45 we were both ready to go wearing our ghos, and we moved to the DYS auditorium right near by the school and got prepared.
Students started to arrive, slowly, with only about 10 arriving on time. By 7:05, a whole crew of His Majesty’s bodyguards and staff arrived to inspect the area and guard the auditorium’s entrances and entire area. Their early arrival prompted me to worry that his visit would be happening earlier than planned, and yet on the other hand it was a sure sign that it was actually happening!
By 7:15 most of the children arrived, we practiced going on and off stage, did a sound check (overcame a big mic problem), warmed up the kids with songs and arranged all the last minute matters, such as were the individual performers were to sit, and what the announcers (two teenage students) were to do. We spent extra time making sure the kids bowed properly, went all the way down, with the heads down, and took their time getting up. A few of the young ones were less than gracious!
Around 8:30am we received word that we should have the children line up outside the auditorium, towards the parking lot to welcome His Majesty. The students all stood in a row, we instructed them on how to bow in three different groups as he walks past us. Since I was wearing the traditional gho, in this particular circumstance, as in any formal occasion, I had to accompany it with the kind of white shawl, called the kabne, and I had to learn how to bow properly with this kabne when we greet His Majesty. I got a quick lesson from his bodyguards, and thankfully they allowed me and Saito to only have to do it when he arrives and then take it off when we perform, otherwise, we would have had to bow with it and put it back around our shoulder, and bow again every time we went on stage which would have been a train wreck waiting to happen.
We saw the royal vehicles come through our center’s gates, and we all got prepared, one of our teenage students stood first with a ceremonial scarf to offer him and then the board members, teachers and choling (sound man) at the front and then all of the students lined up to welcome His Majesty. It was so exciting to see him step out of the car, I had only seen him in photos previously. He looked elegant and very awake (in the deeper meaning of the word), his hair combed backwards with gel…at that point I bowed, following the proceeding to my right, and stayed down as he walked past us and towards the students. He walked quickly past our students all the way to the end and then took a long look at the group, and then announced “let’s take a group photo before we begin”. So he called the children to come sit on the stairs, all around him, he sat with them, on the stairs and our students all sat and stood on the stairs around him with us the teachers and board member joining. The royal photographer and videoman snapped their cameras, and after a few moments, he said “ok…big smiles…”.
Then he moved into the auditorium and suggested that we start the program. He remained standing as the children first sang the national anthem, with one of our students accompanying on piano. Our two announcer students, extended a very brief thank you to His Majesty for coming to attend our concert and then the program began.
I was watching how His Majesty listened to the students. How he sat. He has such intense focus and discipline about him. He was listening very intently to every piece, there was no flinching, there was no restlessness of any kind. His every movement was graceful and majestic indeed! For the most part he kept his head lowered and listened, without looking at the performers. But when each finished performing he said something briefly to each one and clapped, such as “well done” or “thank you”. The students all did exceptionally well, and the program went without a hitch.
Towards the end of the program came the teachers’ turn to perform. With my performance, I elected to play an excerpt from the composition ("The People's King") I had written especially for his 30th birthday back in February. I watched him listening (from time to time) as I performed. His eyes were closed, head down and he was listening very intently, I felt that he was enjoying it and really following along, appreciating it. I could sense his appreciation from the moment I started. His hand tightening up a bit, half way through my performance almost as though he is feeling the deep emotional content in the music. When I finished performing and after taking my bow, I walked gingerly towards where he was sitting, and with my head mostly lowered handed him the score of the piece which I had prepared in advance, and said that it’s the “original score of the composition” he said, “thank you, it’s beautiful”.
Then Saito, my colleague, performed a movement from Brahms wonderfully and all of our students came on stage to sing the final two songs together. An arrangement I made of a Bhutanese song by Jigme Drukpa called Gamay Ga and Michael Jackson’s optimistic and hopeful “Heal the World”.
His Majesty stood up for the final song, and stood very close to our children, smiling at them as they sang “Heal the World”. When we finished the song, and took our group bow, he spoke. He thanked us for the “wonderful concert" and congratulated everyone on a job really well done. And asked us if we wanted to hear what he thought about music and why it's so important. He said he wanted to share with us a few thoughts. I'll summarize by way of paraphrasing.
Firstly, that playing music is wonderful because it brings happiness to ourselves and to those who listen to us play, such as our friends and family.
Secondly, that it helps develop creativity in those who play and sing. And, that actually studies have shown that studying music also helps students with their academic work, sports and social skills.
And finally, that in his mind the most important thing about being a musician is that it helps us learn how to listen. We learn how to listen to music, to one another, to what others have to say, it helps us learn how to listen to the environment around us, to the streams, and the wind. Indeed, it helps us develop compassion for others and reminds us to take care of our environment.
After the concert he surprised us all, when he invited all of the students and staff for a private tour of his Palace and of his "office"...the Throne room, in fact. His Majesty has visited many schools in Thimphu this past year, but I hadn’t heard of such an invitation being extended! Maybe usually, because there are just too many students, it's not possible. We were in for a real treat! I later heard it was ordered spontaneously by His Majesty while the concert had been going on, so his staff had to frantically put all of this together!
So we loaded the buses, and made our way to the palace grounds, in we went through the gates, where a ways into the palace, we stepped out of the buses and organized into a group. It was just us and His Majesty (and his body guards, and secretary). A private tour through his palace (which is quite modest by the way, but very beautiful). We all walked quite closely to him, behind him, basically as though it was a field trip and he was our tour guide!!! He talked with some of the kids as he was walking and a few of them got to walk by his side, as he guided them, holding their hand and showing them various things around the garden. I exchanged looks of amazement with Rinchen (the school administrator) and the board members, and we all felt that we could have never expected such an opportunity to come. This was special not only for the kids, but also for all of us. This was extraordinary not only for those of us who are foreigners and would never again likely get the opportunity, but also for the locals, who have never had such an opportunity before.
After a tour of the garden, we looked at his house from the outside, and from there we walked up the steps that lead from his palace, to the entrance to the Thimphu Dzong. Dzongs are the government and monastic headquartes of each Dzongkhag (district) and the Thimphu Dzong is the nation’s center for both administrative and monastic work. As he walked up the stairs, his assistants, helped him put on a gloriously beautiful yellow kabne, (shawl) which I’ve always seen him wear in photos.
We then reached the main entrance path to the Dzong, which is living organism, not a museum, and there were passerby, people who were walking to and back from the Dzong, who stood to the side of the path and bowed as he walked past them, and we followed. We reached the stairs that lead to the entrance of the Dzong, and then he suggested we take another group photo. So again, he sat in he middle of the stairs, and all around him we gathered. More photos were snapped. Then our private royal tour guide (His Majesty) offered more explanations about the Dzong, which was built by his grandfather the 3rd King, when the nation’s capital moved from Bumthang (in Central Bhutan) to Thimpu. After all Thimphu is actually a relatively new town in Bhutan. But, in the center of the courtyard lies, the main temple, which is much older than the rest of the complex, and is the older part of the Dzong. He walked us in to the main courtyard, and explained what department is in each building we see, pointed to where his office is and where the monastic body works. Right above us, he said, is where all the cabinet meetings take place. He said there is something very special about the fact that in Bhutan the administrative and monastic centers reside in the same complex, and that often when important dignitaries from all over the world come to visit and have meetings, during the meetings they ask, “what are those sounds…?....those are the sounds of chants and ceremonies going on by the monks on the other side of the Dzong”.
From there we walked around the courtyard and towards his office complex, where we were guided quietly up the stairs and towards a long hallway, which had walls that were beautifully decorated with paintings that depict the entire story of Buddha Siddhartha. I looked out the window and I saw, a group of elderly, handicapped, and poor looking children walking towards the same building we were in. We were all guessing that the King was granting them audience and Kidu (Kidu is an on going living tradition of financial support that the King grants to people of need). This is basically an extensive and comprehensive system of state support of the poor, underprivileged, sick and handicapped. No doubt His Majesty was a busy man! After a short while, he indeed informed us he had to go upstairs and host these visitors, but asked that after we finish our refreshments we come to take a look at his "office" (throne room). When we got upstairs, he asked us to perform one of our songs for his Kidu receiving guests, and our performance of a Bhutanese song was much appreciated by the visitors.
There is no doubt in my mind, that he does in fact have a real presence about him. The presence of a leader, but also a kind of generosity of heart and compassion. I have been impressed previously by reading his speeches and hearing of the work that he does, the Kidu I have written about earlier, his long walking tours of the remotest parts of the nation, where he walks by foot for hours every day, sleeps in the fields, to grant Kidu in these areas, console those who have suffered because of the recent earthquakes and floods, and to help with reconstruction work.
For all of us involved, this was indeed a wonderful and unforgettable day!