ISKL Alumni hosts Future Ready: Alumni Black Box Conversations - The Arts

For students or alumni hoping to pursue a career in the Arts, how interesting would it be to sit down with not just one but four incredibly talented creatives from the Arts industry?

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That is exactly what happened at the second episode of ‘Future Ready: Alumni Black Box Conversations - The Arts’ organized by the International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) on April 6, 2021 when an all-ISKL alumni ensemble encompassing opera diva, Kirstin Chavez (Class of 1987), filmmaker Tony Pietra Arjuna (Class of 1996), artist Haffendi Anuar (Class of 2004), and film composer Varqa Buehrer (Class of 2003) discussed their career paths with (ISKL) Alumni host, Hezril Asyraaf, (Class of 2013).
Lynette Macdonald, ISKL’s Director of Development and Alumni Engagement and organizer for the Black Box series, says, “So many ISKL alumni have forged amazingly successful careers in The Arts, so it was a natural choice for our panel this time. We knew it would be an entertaining discussion with lots of interesting perspectives.”Varqa has had a phenomenal year in which the film he scored music for, 'Better Days,' has won numerous awards at the Hong Kong Film and Golden Rooster Awards. The film is now nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 Academy Awards. Additionally, some of Varqa's compositions are found on the streaming series 'How to Get Away with Murder' and various advertisements.Host Hezril, a Presenter/Producer of 'The Bigger Picture' at Malaysia's business radio station, BFM89.9, started off the program by asking Varqa whether his time at ISKL was influential in sparking his creative interests.
Varqa shared, "When I first went to ISKL, I was immediately exposed to a professional setting. The school had a great stage, fantastic lighting, professional equipment, and the faculty knew what to do with it." Varqa says that it was an eye-opening experience, and it encouraged him to want to continue with the Arts."I do music composing for the film industry now, but when I was at ISKL, I was exposed to the orchestra. It was nice to see people interested in the same field as I was and interact with them and learn from them.," he says.Varqa shares that he got his jobs as a matter of luck and advised students to work hard and be humble. "Luck is a good component in the Arts - moving every two years to a new country has helped me to adapt and connect with people."
Haffendi, currently based in Oxford, in the United Kingdom, is an artist whose work encompasses many media types, drawing on his Malaysian cultural heritage. Having studied at the Rhode Island School of Design USA, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, and most recently at the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford, he recently won the prestigious Vivien Leigh Prize from the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford, England last year.Haffendi says, "I remember an incident at ISKL’s High School Art studio. At that time, for an Asian family, it was very respectable to be an architect. When I told my art teacher I was considering becoming one, she told me to instead contemplate the idea of studying Fine Art, telling me that I could be a great artist one day."Haffendi says that when he was an ISKL student, it had never occurred to him that he could do Art professionally. "ISKL was great - it was like an introduction to an art school with many excellent art facilities, like ceramics, photography, a dark room, technical drawing classes, painting, and computer printers. I was dabbling with lots of different materials and art forms."Tony Pietra Arjuna, a filmmaker whose most recent film, Shadowplay, won Best Film, Best Director, and three other categories in the Neo-South Independent Film Festival, attended ISKL from Grade 5 until his sophomore year.
In the episode, Tony shares his experiences about how he has remained closer to home than the other fellow alumni guest panel and how his connection to Malaysia is a driver in the stories he tells in his films.He says, "A lot of it has to do with identity. The 'third culture kid' is something I have grown up with. I am now Malaysian by nationality but went to Boston for several years after that. I never grew up in Malaysia apart from vacations." Tony graduated from Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts, with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication and worked as an editor before moving into the field of direction.
Joining via Zoom from Utah in the USA, Kirstin is a Mezzo-Soprano, renowned for her rendition of Carmen in the opera Carmen. Kirstin has graced some of the world's greatest stages, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Sydney Opera House. Kirstin is a graduate from New Mexico State University and Eastman School of Music and is currently Associate Professor and Artist in Residence in the School of Music at the University of Utah in the USA.She shares how she feels that the Arts are a very high-pressure environment and how her experience as a student and now a teacher is essential for creatives to develop more than just their artistic skills. “Entering into a professional singing career today looks very different compared to when I joined back in 1999. I like to impress the idea on my students that we must be entrepreneurs and behave like small business owners to manage a whole host of skills that have nothing to do with the Art we create, " says Kirstin.She has even instigated a new course at the university that applies entrepreneurship skills for musicians, a direct result of the changed circumstances during the pandemic. In this course, they learn to be proactive and take full responsibility for their Art, skillset, and sense of responsibility, which are duly critical in becoming an artist. Agreeing with Kistin, Varqa says, “As a musician, you can’t just be a musician, you also have to be a business kind of have to understand how to sell yourself almost.”
The discussion continued with many other questions that delved into the arts industry, such as valuable lessons they learned at university and their application processes. There was even a chance to catch a glimpse of Tony and Varqa's films and music scores and a unique recording of Kirstin's operatic performance 'Habanera' from Carmen performed on her rooftop terrace last year.To wrap up the end of the program, ISKL Alumni host Hezril asked the panelists to give one piece of advice for an ISKL student or alumni with a passion for the Arts.Kirstin Chavez shares, "It is so important to not be afraid to question yourself and others. This is something that has helped me a lot when I went through some of my lowest moments. I could find a place where I could be quiet and alone and to be able to ask myself whether I was doing what I was meant to be doing. That was the only answer I ever needed," says Kirstin.
Haffendi's piece of advice is to enjoy the journey and the process of reaching your goal. "One day, you will look back and remember that journey - even the complex parts and those experiences will shape you, " says Haffendi.Varqa adds, "You have to be able to build a mentality of being positive. When you are constantly learning and trying to better yourself and doing something as a human, that is how we can continue to move forward."Finally, Tony talks about how things right now look scary and uncertain for those just finishing High School or college. "This will make you more resilient in the long run. In an ever-changing world, what is essential is being able to adapt to change. Students are now at the forefront of their careers and lives, so it should be easier for them to adapt and start afresh," says Tony.When asked about the chosen topic for the subsequent Alumni Black Box sessions, Lynette shares that this will be announced early in the new 2021/2022 academic year. “We have a wealth of talented and experienced alumni individuals, all eager to help the next generation of ISKL students and alumni.”Lynette added that the beauty of recording the event and live streaming the Black Box sessions means that people, wherever they are in the world and in whatever time zones, are now able to watch the panel discussion at their leisure!To watch the full conversations, head on over to the ISKL Alumni website at or go to
About ISKL Established in 1965, The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) has become known as a center of excellence in the world of international education. ISKL is a co-educational, private, not-for-profit school responsible for the learning journey of over 1,700 students aged 3-18 years representing more than 65 nationalities at its campus in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.ISKL offers a robust international curriculum which combines leading North American educational frameworks with global best practice.  The curriculum recognizes that students are on a lifelong learning journey and is driven by ISKL’s mission to challenge each student to “Be All You Are” and develop the attitudes, skills, knowledge, and understanding to become a highly successful, spirited, socially responsible global citizen.ISKL is accredited internationally through the Council of International Schools (CIS), and in the United States through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). There is a strong focus on service and sustainability across its divisions and is a member of the Eco-Schools organization and the Green Schools Alliance.

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