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

No comments:

Post a Comment