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

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