Sunday, 23 August 2009

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.

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