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.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Making a lasting difference...

Massive apologies for being so useless with the blog in recent weeks.

I think there have been concerns that our teaching here will only have a limited benefit, as it will be so easy for pupils (and in some cases, teachers) to slip back into bad habits once we leave. Teaching is an ongoing process and the relationship between teacher and pupil is one which develops over a long period of time, over countless hours being shut in a room together. Sadly this time frame is not available to us, particularly with the group classes. However, the difficulty this poses is bringing out the best in us as we're especially keen to be as productive as possible and get our messages accross to pupils and teachers alike.

This morning Ruairi and I gave a "Teachers' Workshop" to a small gathering of teachers from both branches of the Theme Institute where we are teaching. Our fears of it becoming a patronising lecture were thankfully unfounded, as the teachers were extremely willing to bounce ideas and questions off us and between eachother, and even took notes as we spoke, which was very gratifying. We talked for two and a quarter hours on everything from aural games (Ruairi) to finger technique (me), and covered a broad selection of approaches to teaching, aimed mostly at how to get the most out of group classes. Personally I found it among most rewarding and productive contributions I've made here, as I now feel that our ideas and techniques will not leave India with us in less than two weeks time. The cake was pretty good too...

The teachers here really do have a hard time if they try to explore the musical repertoire, or teach outside an exam syllabus; parents are on their back all the time pressing for the next exam result. One of my classes was recently halved in size when the parents removed their children because the regular teacher didn't want to enter them for their grade 2. She tried telling them that their fundamental musical understanding wasn't good enough for grade 2, but the parents just weren't interested. This just goes to show how important our job is for these kids...

I've learned masses from all the other WAM teachers (by the way guys, I think you're all bloomin marvellous), and was particularly impressed with Ruairi's aural games. I've not given my students too many aural exercises as attempts in the first week just resulted in sheepish glances and hopelessly wrong answers, so I thought it was simply beyond them. But, encouraged by Ruairi's success with aural games, I had another go with a class today and received a far more positive response. Maybe in the first week they were just too unused to the weird white guy (no male piano teachers here) and my style. I wish I'd persevered and pursued this earlier.

Finger technique at first appears like an extremely complex business. There are so many joints and so many muscles which you have to move, and more importantly, so many which you *shouldn't* move. Teaching technique can be a nightmare and it's nearly impossible to get results immediately, as it doesn't come naturally. By chance I've stumbled accross a miraculous cure for the vast majority of technique problems: I tell the student to keep their thumb always resting on the keys. Immediately their fingers are curved naturally, the wrist moves into a sensible position and the other fingers stop waggling awkwardly around. Not a cure for everything mind - see Hannah's blog for the complete course!

Hope I haven't been repeating too much what's already been said by the others. There's been some pretty impressive blogging going on!

The monsoon seems to have finally hit Delhi. The weekend was refreshingly mild and wet. Al and I spent a great couple of days sightseeing, rounded off with a small shopping spree, and are listening with just a little jealousy to tales of the others' naked escapades in Kerala.

Theo FS

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Composition Class

After three weeks teaching I received a call from Anjli Mata, Trinity Representative in Delhi, to teach a composition class on Saturday afternoons. Fresh out of University, this seemed a rather daunting prospect. Just as there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the success of Heston Blumenthal's 'Bacon and Egg' flavour Ice cream, what could I say about the act of compositional, or for that matter culinary, chemistry?

In a group class I would be expected to make over arching generalizations about the key to a successful composition. Here are some questions I considered before planning the class:

Where do the first few notes come from?
How should you develop an idea?
How do you find your own 'style' in which to compose?

What makes a composition good?

Ouch! Anybody got any thoughts? Pen and paper down, glass of cold water. As there would be a range of ages and experiences I thought the best way forward would be to do the first lesson around increasing awareness of the 'Musical Parameters'. These cover every feature of a piece of music. In the lesson the important thing was to make sure they did all of the talking and came up with these ideas on their own.

(This next bit may be a bit technical if you were reading with the hope to find out what happened next to Neils fly-away doti!)

Musical Parameters:

Rhythm - how do we vary the length of each particular sound? Are we aiming to let the music breathe by creating balanced phrases? Or do we build suspense by creating patterns and displacing the accented beats as Bartok might?
Register - what end of the piano are your hands spread over: are the pitches high or low?
Pitches - together with contour, these two parameters create and govern melody. How do we select the first few pitches? Do they imply a key?
Contour - do the notes begin high and descend as is a feature in the second movement of Beethoven's 5th piano concerto?
Harmony - the grouping of pitches in both the 'vertical' chords and the 'horizontal' melody can imply a changing rate of harmonic development.
Tempo - just because alternations between two notes may be quick, the rate of harmonic change may still be slow. How fast does the piece unfold within this tempo?
Texture - is there one solo melody or several in counterpoint or rhythmic unison creating homophony/chords? Is this a blanket heading for all other parameters?

The aim of this approach is to move away from using vague words like 'atmosphere' or 'feeling' when discussing music. By understanding what a composer is specifically doing we can understand the choices that are being made and there for inform our own decisions.

If an aspiring composer can make a decision about just one of these considerations, they have already begun composing and the manuscript paper is no longer blank.

Though a rather academic starting point I believe this was a good foundation for later classes as it does not limit discussion to classical music. All following lessons have begun with a student playing a piece of music that they love to the class, (so far we have had prog. rock, and Sufi music) followed by a discussion of the features of the piece.

  • Compose a piece using only 40 notes. An introductory task that limits the amount of material that can be composed but requires that every note counts! Musical parameters must be fully considered if a piece is going to work.
  • Individual projects and aims to be discussed and agreed upon.

Upcoming lesson plans, as requested by group:
  1. Theory: Discussion of circles of fifths and common modulations with reference to jazz and classical music.
  2. Analysis: of Beethoven Pathétique Sonata with passages played on the piano, and photocopies of Beethoven's original sketches handed out.
  3. Film Music Class: Project to teach a 2 hour seminar at the Delhi school of Music on creating a dynamic score for a visual medium. How is this composition different from other compositions?
These classes cover a wide area of subjects and will introduce students to a number of areas that they are not familiar with. The problem will be that the students will have less time to work on their specific composition, however I have given my mobile number and email address out, so they are free to contact me with questions or to arrange extra lessons.

Now, time for some compositional chemistry!

Theo V. x

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Holidays and musical musings (Ruairi)

Hi all,

After a long absence from all of us, there seems to have been a spate of blogs in the last 24 hours, and I'm hopping on the band-wagon not only in doing one myself but also in thanking Hannah for her hugely useful and (intimidatingly) comprehensive analysis of her experiences and thoughts from her teaching. Like Neil, I think I've been experiencing many of the same things, but haven't had the sufficient clarity of thought to put it all in to words (we can't have it all, eh?).


My personal excuse for the long absence is that I've been on a little holiday - my girlfriend, Harriet, came all the way over from England to visit me for my birthday. In fact, she herself was my birthday present - her plane ticket was financed by both my mother and hers. Best present ever, hats off to both mums involved!

I took 5 days off teaching (making up the lessons on extra time), in which we were able to visit Rishikesh, a busy and typically chaotic town perched at the foot of the Himalayas, and Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan in East India. Rishikesh is famous for its great river rapids and yoga sanctuaries. In fact, apparently Brad Pitt came to Rishikesh just to do some rafting, and (even better depending on your disposition) the Beatles went there in the 1970s for some yoga. All this meant that the locals of this lovely town were prepared for some more celebrity action as I arrived there...ahem.

Jaipur was a fantastically colourful and bustling city, with the locals there much more used to tourists. This meant a lot more hassle came our way, but it was all completely worth it. On my birthday night, Harriet took me to the Rambagh Palace for a meal. Just to put that into context, it's supposed to be the most romantic and luxurious place to stay in India - Diana and Charles went there for their honeymoon!

Apart from following all these celebrities' footsteps, I also introduced Harriet to some of my pre-grade 1 pupils back at my music school in Delhi. She happens to be a pretty good opera singer, and so accordingly we performed a few numbers for them. This was all in line with WAM's priorities of exposing them to a wider range of music and sounds. Even so, given that in my previous lesson with them we were learning to play middle-C, the step up to late 19th century French Opera was quite a conceptual leap for them. I think they enjoyed it though - the dumbfounded expressions on their faces almost certainly meant that they were entertained.

Music Lessons

Now that I've settled back in at the school, I've had time to reflect a bit more on my teaching out here. Without wanting to repeat any of what Hannah, Neil and Al have already mentioned, I just want to respond to some of the things that have been talked about, and about how these different approaches that we are all trying to instill have been received by my school specifically.

In general, Theme music school has been very receptive to what I've been trying to do over the last month. Like the others, I've been working on that most fundamental aspect of music-making - sound and imagination. So all the things like historical awareness, sight reading, thinking for oneself and seeing the piano as more than just a typewriter have been very important aspects of my teaching. In particular, I've been using my ipod in nearly all of my lessons, in an attempt to get the students to think about the different sounds that the piano is capable of making, and of the different styles of playing that are possible. This relates most strongly to getting the students to actually think about what they are doing when they're sitting at the keyboard. This has been well received, and I've had lots of positive feedback about it.

Indeed, many students are now practising much more than before, and evidently with a lot more enthusiasm. So while I've been strongly encouraging them to practice daily, I've tried to make this prospect more appealing by emphasizing how much fun the piano can be if we just use our minds and ears a little bit more (which I've tried to achieve with the daily dosage of aural, rhythmic and improvisation games).

However, in many ways this process has been an uphill struggle. Theme music school is heavily exam-oriented, and it's painfully obvious that this is their number-one priority over everything else. This means that very often the students are taught in a very regimental way. For example, watching some of the other teachers, I've noticed that their method of trying to get the students to learn their exam pieces more quickly is by getting them all to play at the same time, and then stopping whenever their timing is wrong and "drilling in" the correct rhythm. This doesn't appear to be enjoyable for either party, and even worse, it also means that they view their pieces as exercises in counting and in playing the correct notes, and nothing more. This approach has become so natural and common here that it will take a considerable amount of time to change the habits.

The parents of many pupils here put a lot of pressure on the school towards getting their children to pass those all-important exams. Given this pressure, the style of teaching is understandable. It's extremely obvious which pupils are there because of their parent's wishes.

Despite this however, I'm happy to say that the teachers have been very receptive, and have let me "do my thing" in all of my lessons. Some students really are showing vast improvements in their stylistic and musical awareness, which, as I have mentioned before, is my main priority while I'm here.

Anjli is very helpfully organising a seminar which will be given by myself and Theo FS to all of the teachers of the Theme music schools. What I'm really going to emphasise is that the best way to prepare students for their exams - and indeed the best way to get better marks in those exams - is to enable the students to listen and think for themselves. Doing that will mean that they enjoy the whole learning process more, and so they will practice more. It also means that they'll play their pieces in a less mechanical and more musical way, which will get them all those extra marks.

There's my motto then - success in exams and enjoyment of music are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you can't have the former without the latter. Catchy, isn't it?

I'll stop waffling now. Hopefully some of that was interesting. In terms of the technical details of teaching though, I won't bother repeating any of what's been said before. In fact, I think I'm going to copy and paste Hannah's blog and then use it as my teaching manual!

Finally, I'm amused to hear of Neil's experiences with his dhoti, but at the same time I can't understand why he doesn't just opt for the classic t-shirt and trousers option which has worked pretty well for me. I'm sure the residents of Delhi are happy that they haven't had to witness any accidental "flashes" from me so far...

Lots of love to everyone - England and beyond!

Ruairi x x

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Doti's, Bikes and beer

I know I have just posted but I still have a little more internet time so I'll write about some of the experiences Olivia and I have had in India.

Last week we went to Munnar, a beautiful mountain region of South India full of tea plantations. We arrived their very late on Saturday night with just enough time to grab a quick meal and head to our homestay.We had a TV in our room. A luxury I've, guiltily, missed having. An evening of Kingfisgher beer and 'Die Hard 4' was planned. The 'one small beer' must have hit us really hard because we , ashamedly, knocked both of them on the floor that night. I know! The shame!

Next day, we hired a scooter. Olivia was seriously doubting my eagerness as the roads were not dissimilar to the alpine bends of the Alps and helmets were 'not compulsory'. This means they didn't have any. Seeing Olivia so worried I had to reassure her by answering her question with 'I have ridden scooters many times'. I have never been on one in my life! However, being the arrogant mountain biker that I am, I was confident it couldn't be that difficult. Luckly, for me, it n't. Olivia and I had one of the best days in India yet.

During our 6 hour bike ride I had to leave Olivia with the bike on her own on 3 occasion. Even though se was only yards away, she managed to topple the bike EVERY time! The most embaressing was on an alpine road. I was having a pee on one side and she was stood laughing at the toppled bike when a van stopped and all the men ran out to help this 'damsel in distress'. After lifting up the bike for her, I emerged from the forest, obviously just having been to the toilet and . . . wearing an Indian doti (very badly). They all laughed very hard!

On the subject of doti's, I might aswell write about it now, they have changed my life. I feel I can now contribute to a womans argument on the subject of the hardships of going through childbirth, wearing heels etc. They have never worn a doti! In all seriousness, it is the hardest thing I have ever done. The embaressment of walking down the street and having the whole thing blow in the wind and fly straight off is ridiculous. Especially in such a conservative state of India. Or even riding a scooter and a gust of wind blowing it up so that oncoming traffic have a very intimate view of me. AAH! I have been wearing mine for 3 weeks now and am still none the wiser as to how to keep it up! I will see this through to the end though. I don't know why, but I will. Must be pride!

Right! I must go now, I think I might have gone into my second hour! Gutted.

Hope everyone else in India is having a lovely time ad to my friends and family reading this. Muchos bessos and I miss you all (sometimes)

Neil x

P.S. I can't seem to access my email here so please send me atxt if it's important.

Practice makes EASY!

Hello again,

Once again profuse apologies for not blogging sooner. The electricity in Thevara is very unreliable at the moment and both computers available to us have BOTH experienced hard drive failures again! Anyway, I have managed to get some free time and I am 3 storeys up in a little cafe overlooking MG Road. (For those of you not in India, MG Road stands for Mahatma Ghandi Road. It is the name given to the main road in every large town in India)

Hannah's Blog

I must congratulate Hannah on writing an absolutely superb blog!!! Every single aspect you have talked about is evident in the students in Cochin also. I do not wish to repeat what has already been said as I probably couldn't put it as well as you so I will simply talk of my experiences with some of the students.

With our concert looming up on the 14th of August things are getting VERY hectic. Kids are returning daily for practice advice, tellings off and general questions. Our school runs on a sort of teacher-rotation scheme, so we have had to develop a slightly different approach to teaching.

The notes are generally learnt with principal piano tutor Anthony (the nicest man you will ever meet in your life). He is a very good teacher with a certain amount of stylistic awareness so the notes are not just learnt, they do have some sort of shape. However, the piece is usually lacking in any dynamics / expression / articulation etc. Normally, this is where Simi (principal of the school) would step in and teach them, by singing, how to bring out melody etc. but here lies a problem. The kids know the notes and they know that they want to biring out the melody as Simi SCREAMS it into their ears BUT . . . they just don't know how to do that. This is where Olivia and I have stepped in the most.

After they have a very basic grasp of the notes Olivia takes the students and makes sure they learn the entire piece, but not ignoring the dynamics or articulation. This is an important stage which was previously missed out. Learning a new piece of music should never be just note-bashing. The kids find it far more enjoyable to learn a piece when with dynamics, a sense of shape ete. After all, it's music NOT typewriting.

After they are fairly confident with te piece they are sent to me. For the first few weeks I concentrated heavily on scales, arpeggios etc. This was because EVERY student had very weak scale technique and little or NO knowledge of how to use their hands to their full potential. I used numerous daring, and hopefully innovative techniques in order for them to realise this.


Most students found the concept of weight difficult. Believe it or not, I first had to make them laugh. Experience has taught me, that they find it very difficult to really tell me what they feel if I am a 'Sir' so having a little fool around brings me down a level and they are not afraid too smile. Hooray! A smile! Having said that, due to some pupils being very uptight my techniques have become very animated and I feel some of the pupils look at me while thinking "There's the crazy guy from England who shouts and screams and makles me hit pianos and actually likes the sound etc. etc." Whatever, they now feel comfortable enough to try totally new approaches

OK, back to the point. By making them lean on the piano, use visualisation techniques, give cute names (for the younger kids) like 'Tigers paw' most of them now realise that using your body weight is much easier than stabbing at notes. Once they have grasped this I can then move onto staccato technuiques, effective thumb-under techniques, arpeggio playing etc. LIke myself, most of them hate scales and arpeggios so . . . I have taught them how to makle up their own games using rhythm, volume, tone, the WHOLE piano to make them more interesting while still getting the benefit of scale playing. It works! But still some students are scared of this as they feel they will get tld off by their other teachers for messing around. I have told Simi and Anthony about this and I have called it 'Effective Scale Practice while exploring your sound world'. This sounds very pianistic and Simi likes it. Awesome!

This may sound like am over-complicating scales but once they have this idea of weight, everything else, albeit with a little guidance, starts to fall into place. I tell them it's called 'playing the piano' NOT 'working the piano' or 'studying the piano'. The idea is to make it as EASY as possible. Practice makes easy! I show them numerous examples of myself concentrating INTENTLY and really playing HARD and another example of the same piece but with the easiest movements possible concentrating totally on my sound. The latter is always far more enjoyable to listen to AND watch! Hopefully this is hitting home.

I'll stop there for teachniques! Back to my original train of thought. After they have a new set of established ways of playing and thinking about piano music I can then show them how to apply these techniques to create different legatos, staccatos, crescendos and rallentandos.

Here was the missing link! They knew the notes and they knew what they needed to do with them they just didn't know how. Hopefully the HOURS of practice they put in will now be far more effective and rewarding! The results are promising already but it is still early days!


As I have said previously, Hannah has really addressed a lot of the same issues I was set to write about but there is one aspect I have found to be very common in Kerala and in the UK too for that matter. The subject of practice. They just don't know how to do it!

Most of them will zip all the way through a piece and 'hope for the best' when they get to tricky parts. I do believe they have never been told about 'isolated practice'. Olivia and I have taken to drawing huge circles around certain points and only allowing them to play these sections, we've been tempted to rip out bars and just let the pupils take them home!!!! Drastic, but it really affects there playing. Some of the pieces are 90% beautiful with maybe just 2 bars that always go wrong. I am very glad to say, that a lot of the students are isolating their practice so hopefully this way of practicing will be carried on by them and the teachers after we leave.


A breakdown of work done with Mithali 'the schools top student'. . .

The innocence of Indian 18 yr olds . . .

. . . and wearing the Doti (the truth)

Until next time,

Peace and Love from India (yes I know . . . Cheesy)

Neil x

After a very long time

Hi, readers and mates,

After a long silence, due to practice and being out of home most of the time, I'm back at blogging. This post is to keep you updated about the first experience at the Delhi School of Music over the end of last week. Thanks to Jaspal Singh and Mr. Banerjee, we have implemented a workshop each Thursday and Friday, which I normally take because Hannah is at her school on those days, whereby students come for an open lesson, masterclass kind of thing. I must say that after the first week there, I feel that the experience has been very positive and never have I seen students and teachers so receptive and responsive.

As far as the students are concerned, I listened to a few of them playing exam and non exam pieces, and we worked on things like phrasing and quality of sound. They all seemed pretty familiar with the notes already. The security guard was having a bit of a laugh seeing me run from one piano to the other on the room to set examples during a class in which the student and I spent about twenty minutes in the first four bars of the Moonlight Sonata, but when he seemed really puzzled about the whole thing was when I hid behind a curtain and spoke covered by it, in order to explain to a third grade kid the difference between piano and pianissimo. This kid was actually amazing, I only had to explain to him what phrasing was and he did it at first go pretty well, all out of intuition.

With teachers, two of them decided to play and participate in the workshop. With them, I worked on things like posture in order to save oneself from backache or tendinitits, or tried to convince them of the fact that having no editorial marks in Bach's keyboard works does not grant you the right to play without them but gives you the responsibility of choosing them.

Apart from the classes, Jaspal Singh, Deputy Head of the school, and I had long talks about how to make the syllabus better. I suggested the obligation of an external set of pieces of varied styles apart from the exam pieces, because the exam pieces should not take longer than 3 months and it is the fact that they only do their exam pieces which causes lack of awareness about main stream composers and repertoire. I also talked to him about implementing some kind of system whereby students be assessed publicly in faculty classes at the end of each term, the importance of self-awareness, and he also asked me for advice on a system he had created to evaluate the progress of each student from class to class, which I thought was a fantastic idea, as it gives you concrete aims and objectives for your weekly practice.

All in all, I hope they let me work there after the concert on Saturday, for which I'm already praying, he he, because I feel that, with the responsive ability that they have shown ever since we first established contact with them, they will benefit a lot from this scheme.

I liked the idea so much that I am actually going to be conducting similar workshops in my school, where up until now I have only taught one to one, so I'll make sure I'll let you know how that goes.

Best wishes to everybody, and good luck for all WAMers, whether around Delhi or down south.


Opening eyes and ears (Hannah)

Firstly, apologies for not updating sooner. Secondly, apologies to any non-pianists reading, as this entry covers the more technical side of things! Life here has been as busy as ever, in between moving to a different flat, getting lost in taxis, practicing for a concert and keeping up with the teaching routine!

Now that I have been here a month I feel that I am really beginning to address some of the main issues I have been faced with when teaching the students. I am very fortunate in that both the teachers and students at my school in Gurgaon have been receptive to the many new ideas I have been introducing. They have been willing to cooperate with a different style of teaching, and I have been told that the way I am teaching is completely different to their usual lessons. I was both touched and encouraged when one teacher told me that I am able to ´make the music come alive´.

This really points to the heart of the issue and the problems faced by many students I have taught. There is so much to discuss that I will attempt to split the various topics into sections as far as possible.

´Making music´ vs ´Typewriting´

One teacher drew a particularly helpful parallel to illustrate the way students in the school are taught. She explained that students here are taught the ´grammar´ of the music, i.e. the correct notes, fingering and rhythms, and all the information that can be found on a printed score. However, as with speech, it is not enough to be able to speak grammatically correctly, as without the correct emphasis and phrasing, the words will sound flat and meaningless. It is this meaning which is lost in the music, when played by students who are able to play the correct notes in the correct order, but without any consideration for the shape of phrase or the emphasis of the harmony.

Even taking a simple example such as Fur Elise, which I worked on with a student in the very first week, I showed her just how dramatic the music was, with the many sudden and unexpected changes of harmony that are characteristic of Beethoven. She simply had not yet had her ears opened to many expressive possibilities of the music, as I tried to demonstrate with a harmonic reduction to illustrate the changes of harmony and uses of dissonance and resolution. Three weeks later, and her playing of the piece was already starting to transform, with the left hand much more elegantly shaped as I had shown her. Most of the students play all notes with equal volume regardless of the musical texture, and this can lead to some very confused and cluttered performances, as there is little understanding of the hierarchy of parts and beats within any given bar.

Sightreading and keyboard geography

This is almost a universal weakness (as seen so often with students in the UK too), but perhaps even more so here, where most of students learn their pieces from memory before performing it, and when they do play they almost never look at the score. This unfamiliarity with aspects of the score creates an added problem, where the students are unable to pick up the piece from any given bar when requested, as they struggle to recognise the music from the page and can only play in a memorised sequence from beginning to end. This also hinders effective practice strategies, where it is both effective and necessary in longer works to divide the music into smaller sections to be worked on separately.

The necessity of looking at one´s hands while playing was highlighted to me when I was given a Grade 5 book to sightread by one of the teachers. After I had finished doing so, she asked in amazement how I was able to do so without looking down at my hands. I explained that it was necessary to ´feel´ the notes under one´s fingers, as there isn´t time to glance down to check each note whilst maintaining the continuity of the music.

The more I thought about this, the more I realised that the lack of keyboard ´geography´ (i.e., an instinctive sense of where each note lies on the keyboard and the distance between notes) was a large part of the issue, after working on some sightreading with a student who looked down to find each note, thus preventing him from ever achieving fluency in his reading. The other important principle in sightreading is of course to be always reading ahead in the music, but this cannot be tackled before the student is able to play without looking at their hands, otherwise they will never be able to read ahead and keep their eyes on the music.

I attempted to tackle these problems in two ways, first with the student who kept looking at his hands, I covered his hands with a book so that he was not able to look at them and therefore had to keep his eyes on the music. This led to an improvement in fluency as he was able to find more notes using his spatial memory than he had trusted himself with previously! Similarly, to encourage reading ahead, I covered up each bar once it had been played to prevent students from making the common mistake of ´correcting´ their sightreading, when rhythmic continuity is of greater importance. I also encourage my students to practice passages with their eyes closed, as this will increase awareness of keyboard geography as well as making it more secure, since they are no longer reliant on their sight but can play by touch alone.


Another issue that I find myself frequently addressing is the importance of good fingering. All too often, a lack of fluency or quality of sound is the result of ineffective or worse still, unplanned fingering. Either students do not follow the printed fingering, or they follow the fingering without realising the implications it has for the movement and shape of the hand while playing. This is especially true in scale-playing, where it is essential that the correct fingering is learnt to prevent ´running out of fingers´ at the top, or a horribly awkward improvised fingering that destroys the legato line and rhythmic continuity. I tried to overcome this problem by asking students to play their scales slowly while saying the finger numbers at the same time, a form of multitasking that requires utmost concentration and awareness of which fingers are being used, so that the patterns can be learnt more thoroughly.

Just as important is the issue of the possibility for tone production inherent in each finger. While playing pieces for example, I was met with many students playing important notes with the weaker 4th and 5th fingers when it was both desirable and more convenient to use a stronger finger with a greater capacity to ´sing´. I have frequently found myself pointing out to students that as pianists we are all working to overcome the natural imbalances of strength in the fingers, and encourage them to avoid heavy thumbs whilst trying to weight towards the tops of chords and develop finger independence in order to achieve this balance. I was especially surprised to find an adult student who was unaware that it was not just her who struggled with a weakness in her 5th finger, but that in fact we are all born the same way! These differences were not made so apparent by the light keys of a Clavinova, but I am sure that when faced with a grand piano many of the students would have struggled to produce a sufficient sound using this fingering.


Although few of my students have begun to use the sustain pedal, the ones that do have little idea of how to use it effectively. First of all, some of them raise their heel off the ground so that the foot is suspended in mid-air when it should be resting on the floor, so that the heel can act as a pivot. Additionally, some lift their foot off completely when releasing the pedal so that it makes an unwanted sound upon returning to make contact with the pedal.

Most students do not seem to understand the concept of legato pedalling, and they release the pedal too early so that they are unable to connect the notes. Another problem is over-reliance on pedal, so that finger-legato is not utilised, leading to a disconnected line that makes little musical sense. In fact most students at a more advanced level play in a ´vertical´ fashion from one chord to the next, with little consideration for the musical line of a piece.

Posture and the implications for sound production

Aside from the proven health benefits of adopting a balanced posture whilst sitting, there are many musical implications for the position of the body when sitting at the piano. Far too many of the students sit too close to the piano, which does not allow their arms the freedom to move. Some sit too far away, while others perch precariously on the edge of the stool, not letting their full weight be supported by the stool. This problem is compounded by the fact that none of the stools are adjustable. Since many of the students are very young, I often find that the stools are too low, forcing them to reach up to the notes which means that their wrists hang down and they are unable to use their fingers without ´dropping´ the wrist with each note, creating a heavy and unpleasant sound, since it is the full weight of the forearm which is coming down with each note. I have tried to counteract this by encouraging students to move from the fingers alone using a variety of finger lifting exercises, however, this can never be satisfactorily realised without a correct posture in the first place. I find there is little awareness of the ´correct´ way to sit at the piano or any consideration of its importance, besides for purely aesthetic reasons!

Posture also has a direct impact on fingering as mentioned above, as students sitting too low or too far away play on the very edge of the keys and are reluctant to use the thumb whilst playing, as they let it hang redundantly away from the keyboard and are unprepared to play when they need to use it.

Similarly, for some of the older students the stools are too high and they struggle to make contact with the keys. Coming from a greater height, they put too much arm weight into the note and find it difficult to control the sound from this level, including playing deeper into the keys.

Historical and general awareness

While I recognise that students in the early stages of learning will not have a broad knowledge of musical history, the lack of stylistic awareness does become a problem later on. This is especially true when playing Baroque and Classical music, which is often played too heavily, or Romanticised, and with particular difficulty when interpreting ornaments. There seems to be some confusion on the correct interpretation of different kinds of ornament and their placing (whether before or after the beat).

This narrow range of experience only became apparent to me in a listening class where the students had not heard the sound of a cello before, or could not name a wind instrument. I believe that through exposure to a wider range of classical music, the students will have a greater idea of the variety of sounds that are possible and be encouraged to seek this in their own playing, such is the capacity of the piano to imitate other instruments which has been exploited by many composers. As more students become aware of other instruments they will be encouraged to learn to play them and so facilitate ensemble performance, which is currently sadly neglected. This can be a fun and sociable way to learn music, which has the added benefit of improving sightreading and listening skills, as it is necessary to listen to other members of the group.

Sound and imagination

One thing I have recently been encouraging students to do is to concentrate on listening intently to the quality of sound they produce. This is something that seems not to have been taught before, as quality of sound is distinct from the volume or articulation of the notes. For example, the speed at which the key is depressed as well as the part of the finger used or type of finger used can all affect the sound. Additionally, the type of pedalling used, whether una corda, half-pedal or flutter-pedal can also have a dramatic impact on the sound and open up a wider sound-palette.

Just as a sound cannot be produced before it is imagined, it is sometimes helpful to have a mental picture when approaching a piece in order to achieve a more vivid idea of its character. For example, one student played a piece about a circus in a rather uniform manner. I then asked her to play it like various characters from a circus, and she proceeded to play the piece in a number of contrasting ways, each more interesting than her original ´blank´ interpretation. This was also a useful means of demonstrating that there is not only one way to play a piece, but in fact several different interpretations may be desirable in order to keep the musical imagination alive and avoid staleness, as advocated by Chopin to his pupils.

Above all, the key point here is to encourage more sensitive listening skills. A particularly productive lesson was one where the student worked slowly on 8 bars of Bach, but listened intently to the sound of each note. The outcome after 20 minutes of careful, slow practice was a much greater quality of sound than his original performance, where he moved his fingers but did not listen to the sound he was producing. The more students listen to and evaluate their own playing, the faster they will be able to progress by themselves. Most of the students seem to use their teachers instead of their ears, and act only on the teacher´s instruction. It is up to teachers to encourage students to develop an ability to work independently, and to evaluate their own playing based on a sound they are able to imagine in their heads.

General impressions

As it has previously been commented upon, the students here are much more obedient and concentrated than their UK counterparts. I am impressed by their dedication, with many students coming for lessons twice or even three times in a week. This means that they have the potential to go far with the right instruction, as long as they develop alongside it an ability to question, and a curiosity that will enable them to discover things for themselves. For example, I had one student who frequently looked to me as his teacher for confirmation of approval. He could not tell for himself whether he had played the passage correctly/well, and without this ability to self-criticise he will not be able to progress as efficiently.

It is perhaps because of, rather than in spite of these challenges that the teaching has been so fun and rewarding. I am thrilled by the positive reception I have been getting, and am pleased to be able to make a difference in their musical education, however small. I am interested to know if any of these points reflect anyone else´s experiences? It would be great to hear from you.


Saturday, 25 July 2009

Sorry, forgot to include my name in the last blog.
Theo FS

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Last weekend Hannah, Al and I made a wonderful visit to Agra, seeing the Agra Fort, and of course the Taj Mahal. Getting up at 5am we stood on the rooftop of our hotel as the pale dawn light illuminated the Taj Mahal in the distance. (I'll try not to make this blog TOO corny...) When we arrived at the Taj by 6am there were relatively few visitors and the buildings were simply breathtakingly beautiful.

We spent the afternoon at the massive Red Fort, the red sandstone military stronghold converted into a white marble palace by Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) - a palace in which he would later be imprisoned by his son. From the massive ramparts the Taj Mahal is visible on the other side of the city. I could write about this all day, but it's all been said before! It's just a wonderful, wonderful place.

We had dinner on the roof of a hotel at the Taj Mahal's south gate, watching the sun set on the glistening marble... ... ...

As we returned to our hotel we found ourselves caught up in an enormous Hindu water festival called Bam Bam Bullai, in which thousands upon thousands of boys and young men surge through the streets, barefoot, completing a complete circuit of Agra while dancing to Indian pop pumping from speakers at the every street corner and chucking water around. Being westerners we were mobbed every time we stepped into the street. We couldn't move without a throbbing crowd pressing against us in seconds, all wanting to shake our hands or have us take their picture. Eventually they decided I was too dry so I was promptly drenched by a cheering crowd. One of the main culprets immediately came at hugged me, as if to say "no hard feelings". There weren't any! One guy, soaked with water and sweat, put his arms around me and shouted above the crowd, "Your God, my God - same!" It was a fantastic experience to be welcomed into their festival so willingly.

As we left the hotel for our train at 5am the following morning the thousands were reduced to hundreds, some still walking (or limping), others asleep in the road.

On more piano related matters, I've found the opposite from Ruiari: the group classes are stifling as all students have different levels of ability and it's difficult to work on a level which is productive for all. Very impressed that Ruairi is making a success of it though (going to pinch some of your techniques...)

Solo lessons I'm finding much more rewarding, and it's great to see some kids actually smiling in lessons - something which I feel they're not used to. One lesson recently was particularly satisfying. A girl played me her exam piece and was clearly unexcited by it, understandably - it's a very boring piece. However, underneath I could see she was quite musical and just needed and opportunity to enjoy some music in order for her natural musicality to come out. "So do you like this piece?" I asked. "No." They're usually not so honest. "How about this one?" and I played her a short, punchy and fun piece by CPE Bach which was well within her capabilities. "Much better!" After 45 mins of slow methodical practice, one minute before the end of the lesson she played it for the first time all the way through with both hands, turned round and gave me a high five. It wasn't a very technical lesson, but seeing her transformed for boredom to genuine enjoyment and satisfaction was immensely fulfilling. I'm feel I'm making similar progress with other pupils.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Hi everyone,

First of all, apologies on behalf of myself and Olivia for not 'blogging it' sooner. The computers we normally use have both experienced hard-drive failures and there are NO internet cafes in Thevara!!!! Anyway, 60 km away from Thevara, I'm sat in a small interenet cafe sweating like mad trying my best to touch-type, for the first time I might add, to finish this as quickly as I can so I can get out and breathe!!!! So . . . I'll just stop rambling and get on with it . . .

As well settling into our laid back, relaxed, possibly even chilled morning routines (just for you Ruairi (",) we have also settled into 5 hours of teaching for 6 days a week. Monday is guitar for me followed by four days of piano and finally the three vocal ensembles on Saturday.


One of the major battles I have had to overcome from the start is the sheer enthusiasm of the owner of the school. She firmly believes that if you put your passion into singing, it's more than enough. It is an absolutely beautiful way of thinking that I don't condone at all but given the level of technical skill she wants from her students and they want for themselves it is rather difficult so . . . How do I introduce technical exercises but make them 'passionate'?

I use a diversion tactic not dissimilar to those used in card tricks. I disguise the technical aspect e.g. moving the larynx, by talking of how we may want to put more or less 'emotion' (or tone) into a note. As for sliding up and down scales while altering the larynx, I had to talk about this in terms of 'intensity' and 'emotional climax'. It sounds drastic but it seriously was my only option at this point. ITseems to work a treat and . . . now that she is sufficiently happy that I am working on 'emotion', I drop the bomb and reveal it is in fact a technical exercise and very good for the voice. She loves this idea! Hooray! I then try to push it further by saying that to some extent, we have to detatch ourselves from putting all our emotions into music when practicing and act as a sort of 'technician' so that in performance when certain feelings ARE to be conveyed to the audience we have the technical ability and fallback to do so. She is not so keen on this idea and replies with 'if there is no emotion in practice then the song is dead'. I leave it there, but I am sure that with a few more weeks our viewpoints will meet somewhere in the middle.


The students here have been learning guitar, on average, for about 1 year. However, I discovered that most of them couldn't read music OR even Tablature. They were set on just learning the chords to deifferent songs.

On talking to most of the older pupils I realised that they were in fact frustrated as they LOVED guitar songs but just thought the sound was a bit DULL when THEY played them. Hmm . . . Not sure what they meant. By fluke I was playing along with one of the students and I started inprovising over the top and the student asked me how to do it. On showing him how I use a scale to improvise he wasn't that impressed. I took another angle. I showed him how I used chords AND my knowledge of scales to create added/suspended notes, though for now I just call them EXTRA notes, he loved it. This is what the guitarists wanted! They wanted to learn HOW to find the chords and HOW to change them to make them more interesting. I focused on this aspect in the next week and the change in attentiveness and eagerness of the pupils was dramatic. I am NOT going to try and teach them notation in 7 weeks as I don't feel I will be using my time effectively. As they have been taught by ear and most of them can recognise mistakes/added notes, even if they don't know what they are, I hope to, in the remaining 6 weeks, give the pupils an undersanding of HOW to find Chords and scales and move it around the guitar to get different colours and possibilities, but also HOW to carry on discovering the guitar after I've gone. My BIGGEST challenge in this deparment I feel.

PIANO to follow soon, unfortunately my connection is about to an end and I have some elephants to visit. Goodbyyyyyyyyyyye for now,

Neil x