Friday, 28 August 2009

Dead Type-Writers, the role of the voice

Over the next few days my blog files will emerge. This is the first time in a LONG time I have had a good internet connection.

Blog 1. The CAC school

CAC (Cochin Centre for Arts and Communication) is the school that I visited every Monday during my stay in Kerala. Having missed the first Monday due to a severe bout of Dehli belly (apologies if you have just eaten) I was warmly welcomed the following week by the Father who runs the centre and Jimmy Sir who teaches the piano students. The financial status of this school was immediately obvious due to the condition of their only real piano: half the keys didn't work, horrifically out of tune, and the thought of creating any kind of decent melodic line on it doesn't bear thinking about .... in short, a top-notch honkytonk! Apart from that little bad boy they did have 2 Yamaha clavinovas (minus a functioning sustain pedal on 1 and a very dodgy C on the other). To put this into perspective my main school (Amadeus Academy) has 2 working uprights (including 1 Yamaha upright), 1 good clavinova and 2 practice keyboards. The lack of AC and the charming swarms of mosquitoes actually made this shabby chic school a very welcome change.

Now, to my first CAC student... a middle-aged man playing his grade 1 piece shaking with fear. I really wish I was joking because as much as inducing terror in a full grown man is a nice shift in power, I did feel very uncomfortable. This man epitomised the style of playing that I had expected before arriving: completely dead type-writing. I was elated! These CAC students were on a different level to Amadeus, expression in their playing was non-existent. I was very excited about this oppurtunity for change. Back to The Dead Type-Writer, I realised that he was unable to grasp the very basic concepts of phrasing. I found myself telling him what I have had to tell to MANY other students out here - when the notes get higher you get louder and vice versa. Although a gross (in both senses of the word) over-generalisation this is of course the most natural way of producing sound when using your instrument to imitate the voice. I found myself singing a lot, Simi Koshy-styley, to demonstrate.

A quick word now on the importance of voice to both Western and Indian classical music. A new Dehli friend when chatting to us yesterday told us what he thought the main difference was between Indian and Western classical music: the fact that Indian musicians have to be able to vocalise the sounds they make. This, Neil and I have had first-hand experience of as Neil has been learning the tabla over the past 2 months and I have been learning the sitar. On the tabla, all the hand gestures needed to create the different timbres have an assigned plosive syllable (eg. Din, Da, Tin, Ta) and Neil has to learn the rhythms first by speaking them and then by saying them at the same time as playing. Learning the sitar through a solfege system of Sa Re Ga Ma Pas (the Indian equivalent to Do Re Mi). Our friend's theory is that it is due to this necessity to vocalise the music that has led to the purely linear textures of Indian classical music. I think this is a very good point for their traditional instruments are mostly used to create dialogue between melodic lines and the emphasis on horizontal harmonic change is close to non-existent for when a particular raga is decided they stay in it. The status of vocal music that shifted to empower instrumental music in the 17th century in Western classical music has been retained in the Indian classical tradition. The belief that the voice has the power to reach God has kept this importance due to the intrinsic role of religion in Indian music. So maybe the uber-Western Simi Koshy's emphasis on the singing style stems from very Indian principles.

Dead Type-Writer turned out to be tone deaf so I sent him home with the right hand of Brahm's Lullaby to try and phrase with every ascending increasing in volume and every descending, decreasing in volume. Next lesson...

To be continued...

The Concert (Neil)

Hi everyone,

Olivia and I have just left Kerala and are sitting in Delhi in an internet cafe catching up with the world. Time for a blog . . .

The concert we put on in Kerala was a tremendous success with around 300 people attending. Only 2 days before the concert did we change the venue from a capacity of 100 persons to 350 persons due to the sheer amount of interest from the general public.

Unfortunately this huge change occurred just as I came down with viral fever. The worst time EVER!!!!!!!!! The two days prior to the concert were absolutely unbearable for me but on the night all my tiredness fell away as it turned out to be a great success.

The first half consisted of duets from most of the students. The theme was dances from around the world. So we had the tango, waltz, rhumba's, Hungarian dances etc.

This was followed by two of the choirs I had been teaching. The younger group sang a Lion King number with choreography and my adult group, the infamous 'Neil's Auntiess,' sang a Supremes medley. They were very worried about performing as they deemed the choreography as 'borderline acceptable' in Kerala. However, as I knew they both would, they performed with total confidence and conviction and it went down a storm.

This was followed by Mitali (our most talented and oldest student) who played the 1st movement of the Pathetique Sonata. At the very last minute, she gestured frantically to me asking for her music as it was originally going to be from memory. . . but after a very nervous C Minor chord she played very well and Olivia and I were extremely proud of her.

Olivia played Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu which was loved by absolutely everyone and I performed two songs by Gerald Finzi. I could tell that most of the audience had never this kind of classical song before and didn't really know whether I performed it well or not. Nevertheless they congratulated me profusely. :) :)

After an interval two guest performers performed. The first was guitarist Sumesh whom I had been teaching (and learning with) for the past two months. He played a number of small pieces consisting of numerous techniques we'd been studying and his performance was probably the highlight for most of the musicians watching that evening. He is also the first person I have ever heard play a 6-string bass guitar and made it sound just like Tabla. I nearly fainted.

This was followed by a performance by keyboard player 'Stephen Devassy'. He is extremely well-known in India and an absolute favourite of Simi Koshy's. He is also the patron of the school. I was utterly speechless after his performance . . . It was basically very virtuoisic, fast playing with MANY different keyboard sounds. A keytar solo (guitar shaped - keyboard) was also very interesting to watch. The performance would have maybe suited a stadium better but the crowd seemed to really like it. The end of the concert was the entire school singing the 'Earth Song' by Michael Jackson arranged into 8-part harmony. This was Simi's choice of song but it was a lovely feeling having the whole school altogether singing.

After the concert it was an absolute delight to talk to the students non-musically for a change. A real sense of togetherness and almost family was felt by all the performers. My mouth actually ached that night from the amount of smiling I had to do in photos!!!!!!

So . . . with the concert preponed to the 14th, this left us just over a week with the students to concentrate on purely music. No concert preparation . . Yay!!!!!!!!!

So here's what I did (I'll keep it short and snappy as I am blabbing a lot today):

Group Singing (2 lessons left):

Younger group - Introduced them to the idea of vocal percussion and using the mouth to make all sorts of sounds. We recreated scenes like farms and the beach using purely vocal sounds. They absolutely loved it and as they left the apartment I could hear them outside beeping, rrring and whooshing as they walked home!! Also, worked on some very basic harmony singing and did a couple of fun ghanian rounds: OOO EEE AAA - - - OOO UU EE . . . I think I was more excited than the kids with this one.

Neil's Aunties - Introduced them to choral waterfall music (youtube it), Classical SATB or SAA as there were only 6 women and also performed some graphic scores. They loved everything apart from the graphic scores. It was a bit too 'out there' I was told. I also gave them individual warm-ups, exercises, vocal health tips as they all really want to carry on singing. This moved me a lot as I had obviously made singing fun for them. One lad, after my last lesson, thanked me for 'opening up a whole new world' (Aladdin) for them. Yeah, I welled up a little.

The few teenagers I taught singing were all given very different things. One boy, whose main interest was rap, actually wanted to pursue a career in it. I showed him how many rhythmic exercises and the subtleties of actually breathing rhythmically. I also introduced him to vocal percussion and beatboxing which he really enjoyed. I gave him my email and I already have 4 emails asking for advice on tongue placement etc. If only I had more time!!!!!!!!!!!

Amrita (the Indian Idol winner and playback singer) I spoke to for sometime and we eventually came to the conclusion that although her western singing was beautiful it would never be as good as her Hindi singing. I am so glad we did talk about it as the last 2 lessons were far more productive as we focused on her Hindi singing, breathing and recording techniques. After these lessons she told me that during the recording for a new Malayalam movie, musical director asked her for a 'western inflection' on a certain track. She said she used some of the belting techniques I had taught her and also some western ornaments and the director had been seriously impressed with it. A compliment or what?!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The other singers I taught were also given as much information as I could about how to carry on singing and how to pursue information after my lessons. On reading the blogs, I realise that the issue of continuation of teaching styles after we leave is going t be very difficuly and I feel that the singers I have taught will suffer the most. It is very difficult to keep singing without a teacher in these early stages as it is very tiring and requires more will-power.

For this, I gave Simi a final singing lesson and she wrote down all the information / exercises / FAQ's / common problems I could think of so that hopefully she could oversee some of the students every week or so after I've gone. I really hope this does happen.


Sumesh - Finished his Grade 8 syllabus teaching and spent many extra hours discussing the finer points of incorporating Indian music into guitar playing. This is where his interests lie and I believe I learnt as much from him, if not more, as he did from me. He has developed a very unique style of 'funk-raga' playing which is absolutely beautiful to listen to.I developed a very close relationship with Sumesh and this is evident in the re-recording of the 'earth song' which happened two days before we left.

Simi was unhappy with the lead vocalists performance and the harmonys were inaudible on the video that was taked on the concert so she decided to rerecord it. We went to the studio and Cheri (Simi's son) laid down a basic piano synth/piano track and then left Sumesh, Simi and left Sumesh and I do the rest.

As the session progressed Sumesh and I got more and more indian in our playing and the rhythms got more and more funky. In the end, we ended up with a VERY VERY scrunchy, chromatic 13-part vocal harmony backing and a plethora of vocal, real and synthesised percussion. . . . Ridiculous, some may say, but absolutely brilliant to record. On returning to the studio that evening Simi was shocked to say the least but . . . she did love it a lot. I don't know how much of the extra stuff she will keep on but I do have a full blown copy of the 'raga funky 'Earth Song'. Get it . . . Raga funky . . . 'Rather' funky . . . Sorry, very bad joke.

Anyway, I've got to go and meet some more lovely indian people that Ruairi and Theo have met so . . . I will finish this blog tomorrow. I'm writing this here so I remeber to include it tomorrow: Da Din Din Da.

Neil x

Monday, 24 August 2009


PS - I read Al's post just after having posted my own, so he pipped me to the post in mentioning Parimal. Just to quickly respond to his point about the call-response technique of learning which Parimal demonstrated, I actually think that it can be applied to the Western approach very usefully. As Al said, the students of Western classical music (and especially piano students) get very used to not using their ears. I think the aural technique Parimal demonstrated has immense benefits in this department - there is no sheet music, just the instrument, so students would have to get used to playing according to what sounds they're making, and would not be able to passively hit piano keys without thinking about the sound it makes. Just one small point there, but one of many ways in which the Indian approach can inform and assist the Western one.

Ruairi x

Parimal and Ravi Shankar (Ruairi)

Hi all, for the second time today!

This one was actually supposed to be written quite a while ago, but it's still fresh in the mind so I'm going to go for it. The WAM team are very lucky to have as the chair of their advisory board Sir Rob Young, former High Commissioner to India. Amongst a plethora of other things, Rob gave us the contact details of the Ravi Shankar centre in Delhi so that we could make some inroads into this potentially very useful connection. I dutifully obliged by sending them a no-frills email talking about WAM, with the hope of maybe organising a concert for some of my piano students at the centre. After not having heard anything for quite a while, I was eventually contacted by a man called Parimal Sandaphal and I arranged a meeting with him to talk about our ideas.

I didn't know much about him at the time but I assumed that he had a least vague connections with the centre. When I eventually met him at his office, he was an extremely lovely and accommodating man. He told me that he was working for the UN and the World Bank (very impressive, but not exactly very musical). But then he told me that he was also one of Ravi Shankar's disciples, and that he had travelled the world performing with him. Given that I'm a complete sucker for getting star-struck, I found it quite hard to remain calm throughout the meeting after hearing this. Nevertheless, I just about managed.

It quickly became clear that having some kind of student concert this summer at the centre would be impractical and poorly organised. However, we instead came up with numerous ideas about some kind of fusion project that would be organised over the next year that would include seminars, masterclasses and performances showcasing the differing styles and approaches of Western classical and Indian classical music. This being part of WAM's longer term goals, I thought this sounded perfect. Happily, Parimal also sounded genuinely excited by the idea. This was made clear when he casually stated that he would get THE Ravi Shankar himself involved if we developed it into a substantial and feasible package.

With my internal excitement nearly boiling over by now, he then asked if I and the other WAMers in Delhi would like to come over to his house for a meal and a mini musical exchange. Just to reinforce the point - this man is one of Ravi Shankar's best disciples, and he had essentially invited us all to a private sitar recital. At his own home. I can't remember whether I responded to him with proper words or whether I was simply making funny noises, but I managed to convey back to him that we would all definitely take up the offer (offer is probably not the right word - I prefer opportunity. Honestly, how many people get "offers" like that?).

All of this may have been helped along by the fact that, by complete coincidence, his daugther had decided to take up Western classical music on the piano (despite her father's basis in Indian classical). Given that we WAMers were all there as Western classical piano teachers, this seemed almost too convenient to be true. But true enough it was, and within less than a week all five Delhi WAMers were sitting in Parimal's home listening to him playing sitar for us (which was totally stunning), and reciprocating with our own piano playing. We also listened to his daughter (who we were very impressed with - real talent and potential, and a genuine possibility for future admission into a UK music college). The whole afternoon/evening was sublime - we all had such a wonderful time listening and playing, and I think we all really felt like there was genuine musical exchange in the making.

These were definitely fertile grounds for what will hopefully be an immensely exciting musical collaboration/exchange next year which will involve Ravi himself if we work hard enough. At dinner, we discussed many different aspects of our respective musical approahces ( a conversation which I had swotishly prepared for by purchasing Ravi Shankar's book a few days earlier and giving myself a quick crash-course in Indian classical music). There were many interesting points made, and Parimal was very keen to meet up with us again and discuss some more ideas before we left. So this Sunday we are all going over to his house again, and this time we're taking Neil and Olivia who were previously in Kerala. Incidentally, Parimal is also perfoming a concert tomorrow very near to where Theo V and I are living, and has invited us to it, and for dinner with him afterwards. I don't really understand how I've been lucky enough to get caught up in all of this, but I'm certainly going to make the most of it!

So tonight I'm going to get stuck into Ravi's book again, and perhaps listen to one of the 8 CDs of his which I bought the other day, in an attempt get savvy about Indian classical music before I see Parimal again tomorrow. Perhaps I'm trying too hard?? Maybe, but it's so worth it! There's the possibility of coming up with something really special here, so we might as well make the most of it.

I'll let you know how the concert goes - it's almost certainly going to be amazing.

Ruairi x

Inspiring encounters, Alvaro

Hi, all,

First of all, yes, I'm still alive. Sorry about that, I believe I haven't posted anything since before the DMS concert, which is certainly not good... Anyways, enough of that, I have lots of stuff to talk about, ;)

Over the past few weeks, I've met people with such enthusiasm and love for music as to trigger some thinking processes about music and WAM.

First of all, thanks to Ruairi, we established a very good contact with one of Ravi Shankar's best musicians. I was late for the meeting because I was teaching at my school on that day, but I got there just in time for him to give us a demonstration of sitar playing. And here it is, one of those loose cultural connections that I love.

He called his daughter at some point, to demonstrate us how hard playin sitar was. Apart from the funny (from the pathological cynicism that I suffer) idea of showing these difficulties by calling somebody to show how sitar should not be played, and apart from the fact that I thought she was incredibly talented, he gave her a class on the spot. This class consisted on him playing and her trying to imitate. And I think that this is where they go wrong, applying a system that works perfectly well in Indian traditional music to Western classical music, where it might not go so smoothly.

Over the past few weeks we've been trying to tackle problems such as rhythmical precision, reading abilities, or phrasing and dynamics. And I'm convinced this happens because, rather than being given the intellectual tools to think and read a score by themselves, students are spoonfed knowledge by imitation.

Working on this point, I must say, has been fascinating and inspiring. I have been teaching my regular students, but I've also taking workshops both at the DMS (Thursdays and Fridays) and at my school in Gurgaon (Sundays). During these workshops I tried to insist on the idea of self-assesment, and all students responded very receptively:

- Something doesn't sound quite right.
- You find out why, whether by yourself or the help of your teacher.
- You try to think of solutions, asking your teacher for help if you need to.
- You try to implement these solutions into your playing.

Many of them responded so effectively as to solve their problems in class, on the spot, whether it had to do with balance of the hands and voices, contrast of dynamics or, more surprisingly, the engagement of the arm and the back while playing. Above all, I found this idea became an excellent tool for many of them, who believed that you only play piano with your fingers and didn't support them with their wrists, elbows, arms or backs.

The amount of enthusiasm and motivation that these students have is incredible. Their love for music cannot be expressed in words, but, to wrap this post up, I'll try to exemplify this love and passion by talking about the latest inspiring encounter that I had.

There is a saxophone teacher at the DMS who had a stroke quite a while ago. Half of his body had been paralised, yet I heard he still taught and, furthermore, many of his students were counted amongst the best at the institution. Fact is, I was having a cigarette outside, tired of practising (I had an hour break between two of the students) and frustrated with a few things in the coda of Chopin's fourth ballade when, as I was coming back in, he called me into his class from the window. I learnt who he was and what he taught, for I hadn't met him before. After a short chat, he asked me for help to open his drawer and took out a contemporary saxophone piece, written in contemporary notation and said: "Can you help me with this? I have seen normal pieces of music but I can't understand this". I must say, I was struggling with many of the things myself, as I don't play saxophone and many of the indications had to do with technical details of the instruments. However, I found it very inspiring that a musician who is about 70 years old had the will and drive to still learn new things and the humility to ask about these to a mere student who does not even play his instrument. It was very special to meet him and I will treasure that moment as one of the most motivating events in my life.

I'm glad I finally got round sharing these with you, readers, and rest assure that I'll come back with another post or two before we part.

All the best,


Sunday, 23 August 2009

Reflections on the Indian experience (Ruairi)

Dear all,

Hello again from Delhi! What a great time we've all had since I last spoke - as Hannah mentioned, three of us were lucky enough to go and visit Kerala last weekend, where we met up with our southern counterparts Neil and Olivia who have been living in what is basically a palace for the last 7 weeks. Walking into their 3-bedroomed deluxe apartment overlooking a river and a private swimming pool was an experience only the strongest of hearts could have dealt with without crumbling in jealousy...But they certainly haven't had it easy the last couple of months, and their fantastic concert which was put on the night we got there was testament to that. Their well-drilled students gave fascinating and varied performances.

Coming from a school which is so exam-centric and often emotionless, I was impressed by level of passion these young performers were delivering. The word "passion" has become almost derogatory for Olivia and Neil, and it was evident that the emphasis on passion at the expense of sound technical grounding was (and still will be) a tough nut to crack at this school. Nevertheless, hats off to both them for putting together a fabulous programme - Olivia's piano duets/quartets were wonderful, and Neil's choreography for the junior's performace of the Lion King, and also the "Supremes" medley, was mightily impressive (I actually spent the rest of the weekend singing "Stop! In the name of Love", along with all the actions - thanks Neil!). Their own performances in the concert were brilliant (unsurprisingly!).

The next few days we spent there were about as blissful and peaceful as it gets. Swimming, yoga, great food, lazy strolls along coastal rivers...and that was all before we got onto the backwaters. Hiring a houseboat and coasting along serene Keralan backwaters was probably the best thing I've put my money on since I got to India. The fresh-river swimming was about as natural as it gets - especially without the swimming shorts...
Ultimately a great time was had by all, and we really enjoyed getting back in touch in with Olivia and Neil - it felt like seeing old friends again somehow, and we can't wait to welcome them to Delhi for our last week here!

Speaking of last weeks and all, we've inevitably been reflecting upon the fact that our experience with India and with WAM is nearly at an end. This is definitely a bad thing -I think we can all safely say that we've had some wonderful experiences here. Quite apart from the teaching, I've had so much fun living in Delhi. Some of the friends I've made here will be there for life I'm sure. I've found it inexplicable that we're treated with so much respect and love by everyone - as a British person staying in an ex-British colony, I can't help feeling just slightly guilty or responsible for the years of subordination (this was especially true on Independence Day last week!). But the Indians really don't seem to care anymore - they're just really nice people who love making you feel special and helping you out. Not a bad deal for us I suppose! In all seriousness though, I'm going to miss my new Indian friends a lot - I've now got a whole new bunch of people to keep in touch with, and to add to my friends list on facebook (ridding any hopes I may have had of getting that thing out of my life...)

But it is obviously the teaching that has formed the focus of our time here, and in that department I'm also going to cherish my experiences. From the selfish point of view, it's given me a whole new set of transferable skills - teaching over 45 people every week from aged 6 to 51, and from pre-grade 1 to diploma level, has really forced me to learn how to talk and relate to different people in different ways. There's also the fact that I've had a constant mixture of group lessons and solo lessons. All of which means that I've had to adapt the way I teach depending on who it is and how many of them I've got to teach at the same time. Hannah put the point well in a conversation we were having the other week, where she said that the challenge is to "get inside their minds". This is a really big point. Understanding how other people absorb information is essential if you're going to successfully be able to transmit that information to them. I think I've got better and better at this since the weeks have gone by. I love the fact that in one lesson I'll be playing the "fast-slow; major-minor; loud-soft" game with 6 little kids who are running around a small piano booth, and in another I'll be deep in conversation with a friend-come-student about the finer aspects of cantabile and what it means to be a piano player. I've absolutely loved developing each individual relationship and tackling their problems in their own distinctive ways. Whether or not they've enjoyed this too I won't find out until I get their feedback forms back!

But from a more objective perspective, and more important in the context of WAM's longer-term goals, there's the valid question of how the children here are learning generally. Hannah does raise an important point about the entire mentality of the musical approach here. It very often feels like the teachers here treat the musical learning process like their economy - if they can get them to a higher level (ie grade) as fast as possible then it will be an unquestioned success. I wouldn't even be surprised if they replaced the grade system with musical GDP (sorry bad joke there). This raises a bigger point - what is going to be the effect of our teaching here? Theo FS and I were concerned about the fact that although we've been interesting for the school, there's a great possibility that they'll go back to their old regimental ways as soon as we leave (see my previous blog).

However, I'd like to be slightly more optimistic than Hannah about this. Firstly, it's understandable that the teachers teach in the narrow exam-centric way they do. As Hannah said, the pressure from the parents is enormous, and piano achievement is just another string they want to add to their child's bow. But I don't think that this mentality is set in stone, and I've been greatly encouraged by how receptive the students have been to my "alternative", non-exam style. Furthermore, Anjli, who is the principal of my school, has shown a real awareness of the problems that exist (which do indeed come mainly from the parents) and of the need to address them. Theo FS's blog has already talked about the teaching seminar which we conducted to all the teachers here. It was a great session, in which all of the teachers were hugely receptive to the ideas we shared with them. I genuinely felt that there was some real resolve amongst the teachers (and especially with Anjli) to address the issues we raised.

The key thing to remember is that none of this is going to change overnight. It will take time, and that's exactly why WAM will be sending even more teachers over to India next year (I'm thinking of auditioning again!). Also, given that many of the problems we've been raising on this blog still exist in a big way in the UK, we can't expect any miracles. But progress is definitely possible. At our teaching seminar, the key thing Theo and I tried to emphasize was that enjoyment of music and general musical awareness (ie the things which are always left out of lessons at the moment) are central to exam success. We'll never be able to get rid of the huge focus on exams here, but we can keep stressing that having fun and being a better all-round musician is mutually compatible with, if not essential for, big marks in exams. Surely that can sit well with the parents too. Hannah is already, by the sounds of things, having remarkable success with her school in the teaching approach they're taking.

Sorry again for the rambling! But I think this stuff is very important. When we do sadly return from India, we'll be having what will hopefully be a really productive de-briefing session with the WAM bosses, where we'll be able to sort out some practical ways of getting a longer-term emphasis on our non-exam-centric teaching style into the music schools of India. In the meanwhile though, I've got one week left in this amazing country in which to visit all my new Indian friends for meals and outings, go to the Taj Mahal, complete my yoga training course (yes, really), see the streets of Delhi for real, and sort out broad plans for a very exciting project that WAM will hopefully be undertaking with the Ravi Shankar centre (on which more soon). Oh, and I've got to prepare myself and all my piano students for my school's summer WAM concert which is taking place next weekend. Makes you wonder how I've got time to sit here and write this blog...

Best wishes to everyone reading this, wherever you are in the world!

Ruairi x x

Patience is a virtue (Hannah)

Hi everyone! Last weekend here was Independence Day, when we had fantastic time in the paradise that is Kerala and enjoyed swimming, seafood, cool weather and a trip on a houseboat through the backwaters. Now it’s back down to earth and the stifling northern heat, where we continue to work hard both teaching and practicing. Alvaro and I have another concert to prepare for at the Polish Embassy in Delhi next week, where we will perform an all-Chopin programme as an introduction to the bicentenary celebrations in 2010.

So, now that we have just one week of teaching left, I have started to think about what lies ahead for the students I have been teaching.

Since the school I teach at opened only three years ago, the vast majority of students are at around beginner to Grade 3 level. But there is a huge amount of pressure from parents on both students and teachers to achieve more in a short space of time. I was in a meeting with a parent only two days ago where she said of her son, ´We must make him learn faster.´ Of course, all students want to progress to the next level as quickly as possible, but my concern is that this is all too often at the expense of a solid musical and technical foundation.

I was made acutely aware of this general impatience in a particularly productive and revealing group session on scale-playing last week. As I wrote in the previous blog on ´Opening ears´, I have been encouraging my students to listen closely to the sound they are producing. During this lesson we focused on playing scales slowly with the utmost evenness. And I mean VERY slowly, which is in fact far more difficult on the piano for producing an even line, since it requires a huge amount of concentrated listening. At a speed of less than 60 bpm, the students found it impossible to maintain a steady pulse, and invariably ended up at double the speed by the time they reached the descent of the scale. This is generally apparent in slow music, long notes and rests, where the students are impatient to get to the next part, since time for us as performers always takes on different dimensions than as listeners!

I can remember being shown by my teacher how to practice pieces and scales painfully slowly, focussing on the quality and balance of the sound, and not really understanding the point at the time. Yet it really is a valuable use of practice time, as I explained to the students it’s like putting a ´magnifying glass´ on the sound, allowing you to notice details and problems in your own playing, which at speed would pass you by. If they can find the patience now to practice in this concentrated way, to establish a solid foundation, then they will reap the benefits later on. I am speaking partly from experience, since I was allowed to rush ahead and ´learn fast´, only to develop bad habits that I had to spend a great deal of time overcoming afterwards.

To draw a broad parallel, we have seen for ourselves the preparations that are taking place all around Delhi for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, including expansion of the Metro network. To be seen as a truly global city, Delhi needs to provide sufficient infrastructure for the millions who travel within the city every day, and the thousands more who will visit as part of the event. Yet only last month, a tragedy occurred when one of the concrete overground sections collapsed, killing several people. There have been complaints that the work is not being carried out properly due to the demand to complete the project on time. Whether in construction or any other field, this highlights the danger of neglecting to establish a solid foundation on which to build.

There is strong sense from people that I’ve spoken to that India is in competition with China in terms of its development. This also includes music education, where the Chinese are said to be training 40 million piano students to diploma level (BBC Music Magazine, Aug 2008). Lang Lang has become something of a hero to many of them, a figure to aspire to. Regardless of one’s own views on whether Lang Lang should be regarded as an appropriate role-model(!), there is still a completely unrealistic awareness of what it takes to get to that level, or indeed the level of any professional musician. I spoke to a teacher who had met with the head of one the local schools, keen to set up a music department. He believed it would be possible to set up a school orchestra from scratch and have them performing by Christmas, and was similarly ambitious on behalf of Indian students, declaring, ´We must have them playing at the next Olympics! ´ (to follow Lang Lang’s example in Beijing last year).

This lack of awareness has also manifested itself in some of the older students I’ve had the chance to meet. Having reached a reasonable Grade 8 standard, some of them are keen to pursue their music studies abroad (there is no provision for higher education in Western classical music in India). However, these students are completely ´in the dark´ about the application process and required standard of entry since there is no one who is experienced enough to be able to advise them.

It is both saddening and frustrating that such a situation should arise; that talented and motivated students will be bitterly disappointed not to achieve their short-term goals, due to lack of proper guidance and exposure to the wider world of music. I believe that the first step in counter-acting this should be to establish opportunities for talented Indian students to study at one of the many summer schools in the UK. Here they will have the chance to receive tuition from leading professors who can offer guidance for the future, as well as meeting with other piano students from all over the world and being exposed to a wider range of music. This introduction to a broader repertoire will hopefully make music much more enjoyable and interesting for students here, who either insist on playing only exam repertoire, or one of the handful of ´popular´ pieces which include Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata et al… usually in simple arrangements or unreliable editions as part of a miscellaneous collection.

This increased pressure to compete globally has led to some alarming trends. A teacher at my school informed me that many of the affluent parents here push their children into music as young as three, because ´that’s what they do in China and Korea´, and there are people in India who feel compelled to follow their example, as they believe this is the only way to succeed, regardless of the natural talent and inclination of the child concerned. One 5-year-old that I teach has been coming for lessons since the age of 3, since his mother felt it was necessary to begin at such an early age, yet he still cannot read music. This must make one question the value in pushing children prematurely into something so disciplined as music.

This is where I believe the Kodaly method has much to offer. Instead of putting students through the rigours of instrumental training before their brains and muscles are ready, they are instead encouraged to focus on MUSICIANSHIP, a skill which has certainly been neglected across the board, with the main focus here on training instrumentalists as opposed to musicians.

India is still relatively new to classical music, and there is a long way to go in making it more widely available, not just in the quality and maintenance of pianos in schools, but also in the range of printed and recorded music available and concert-going opportunities. Only then will the students be able to realise their potential, with the right training and encouragement, and I´m sure that all of us feel daunted by the enormity of the task that lies ahead! Again, it comes back to need for patience which is such an important quality in a music student, especially when everything else in the modern world is becoming faster and faster. Even if other demands can be met instantly as technology develops, one thing that will never change is the many hours that are necessary in order to master an instrument. The sooner parents and students can appreciate this, the more they will be able to enjoy the learning process as a journey, and avoid becoming fixated on some non-existent ´destination´, since learning is a life-long experience.