Sunday, 11 September 2011

July: Teaching and the School Run

        Hey folks! Alice (E!) here, writing from Gurgaon (sprawling city/suburb of Delhi).  I have been working at the Lorraine Music Academy (previously the Music Studio) teaching mostly one-to-one piano throughout my stay… apologies for not posting sooner! Since I have left this a tad late I shall post from my notes in July first of all and update the more recent developments shortly.

         It took a little longer than expected to settle into a teaching ‘routine’ here, if such a fully-fledged notion has ever properly materialised. Things are simply not routine (!) and it has taken me a while to adjust to this.  As far as routines go however, mine works out roughly like this…

        3.30pm (give or take an hour) and my cab arrives to deliver me to the school, in reality the second floor of the director’s house and a back bedroom (with AC!) in which I am privileged to teach and bask in the cool.  My pupils are from almost beginner level to grade 8, with the odd violin student thrown into the mix. I rarely discover exactly who I’ll be teaching until an hour or so before my departure, and if these students are actually the ones who show up all the better. In order to be prepared for every eventuality I find it’s best to travel heavy, ie. with a rucksack stuffed full of all the music books I can get my hands on safely stashed on my back.


         A large number of my expectations were confounded during the first full teaching week. I hadn’t realised, for example, that so many students would have made their way to the school, and in some cases to India, from such an array of backgrounds. Quite a few have begun to study here only recently, having arrived from a range of other countries (from America to Dubai!) or from other Delhi music schools. The reading of previous blogs prior to my arrival had perhaps led my expectations astray; many students have progressed since 2009, and a few more fairly advanced ones enrolled. I certainly had not expected to have a student turn up on my first week of teaching with a whole Haydn Sonata prepared (along with a bit of Schumann and a Bach Invention or two)– what a pleasant surprise!! Due to the somewhat scattered array of schooling backgrounds it is difficult to comment coherently on problems that might be common to the school or to music teaching methods in one particular area of the world. I will, however, do my best to expound upon all the teaching pleasures as well as moments of exasperation!

        Firstly, let me surmise another surprise in the pragmatics of teaching in this school - the frequency and length of lessons! The more advanced pupils might come two or even three times a week for at least an hour (whilst occasionally attending lessons with another teacher also!) Although this bespeaks both enthusiasm and determination, I am not convinced that so many lessons is entirely beneficial, and perhaps explains an over-reliance on the teacher’s input for learning new repertoire.  I also had an inkling of pressures coming from above, perhaps from parents or even teachers, to push some of these kids through as many exams as fast as possible. And yes, many are doing quite an amazing job of passing exams. However, if they aren’t quite ready in either their maturity or musicality, or in their capacity for independent learning, them I’m not sure of the wisdom in this. When I initially asked pupils why they were playing scales at such at heady pace, at the expense of all other considerations, they responded – “it’s required for the exam”.

        So, what have been able to do to counteract these issues? I hope that I am gradually making some inroads in changing many of these students’ approaches and practise methods.  Inevitably, I’m coming up against some frustration… perhaps this is the only route to change? Due to the frequency of lessons with some students I feel it’s difficult to prevent myself from turning into a belligerent  piano teacher-dragon that constantly breathes a stream of words like ‘SLOW, LISTEN, INTEGRITY, LEGATO, BALANCE, NO ORNAMENTS YET!’ etc. down the pupils’ necks. And yet towards the end of this month I’ve begun to hear pupils playing slower scales/arpeggios with a firmer sound and truer legato, with better phrase shaping and sensitivity to tone/colour in their pieces. On the flipside, exasperation continues in those cases where I cannot for the life of me get students to play correct fingerings, and who seem capable of learning only by memory. Learning at speed (ie. rushing at the outset) and quickly relying on memory (which in turn allows looking down at the hands in a fixated manner), I have discovered, not only disallows an intuitive feel for the geography of the keyboard, but also encourages additional markings and fingerings to be overlooked in an instant! For example, I’m having trouble imprinting the importance of good fingerings in one student’s Chopin Mazurka (despite my many rants about the fingering helping the hand/arm move in a manner that helps to shape the phrase more expressively), who will persevere with his own haphazard memorised efforts even when they involve a complete disruption of the melodic line..! Sight-reading is problematic in this case also, and the link is, I think, self-evident. At least I have weaned him from his previous approach to learning new repertoire, which involved figuring out and then writing down every note of the piece!

        On a more positive note the progress made with students working on repertoire learned prior to my arrival has been considerable, and I have been lucky enough to teach a few that are astonishingly sensitive to my input.  One girl’s ‘Solfeggietto’ (C. P. E. Bach) transformed from a rather bland, if diligently learnt, procession of semiquavers, to something altogether magical and engaging.  I tried to encourage an awareness of the changes in textures (for example from fluid continuous lines to broken, ‘conversational’, passages), the allowance of a little natural breathing space at the more dramatic moments where the semiquavers cease, and the practising, where possible, of running passages as progressions of chordal harmony (to enhance an understanding of the build and release of tension during transitions to foreign keys). And the rest – it seemed to happen on its own! Equally successful results were reaped from hours working on the aforementioned Haydn, whose first movement in particular morphed from a barrage of crashingly loud, fast and exciting noise to something a little more subtle and elegant (though equally lively!).

        Unfortunately I have found little continuity so far with many of the younger/lower level students that I have been able to give lessons. Of the few that I have taught more regularly I have introduced a couple of duets to try and provide a bit of fun and variation to the learning process! I hope that a challenge and a more substantial task will prove invigorating, especially for a couple that are slightly older and whizzing their way through beginners’ or ‘initial level’ books.

School run

         I thought I’d write a little on the fascinating cab journeys to school, which offer me daily half-hour glimpses into some of the most striking novelties of the foreign scenery. It has been here, in my blissfully air-conditioned bubble, that the starkly ‘cut-and-paste’ disarray of old and new worlds most fiercely competes for my attention. Makeshift bars, rising from beds of dirt and garbage and yet boasting plush and glitzy interiors, dominate one stretch of highway. Further on, the sudden interpolation of waste-lands, high-rises and self-enclosed oases for the better off set my head spinning.  The cab drivers’ often ruthless approach to road bumps/gullies adds to a feeling of vaguely exalted confusion and nausea.

       The highway itself is vast and oddly bare of orientating road-markings.  Wide enough for three lanes and supporting all kinds of traffic population, the varied vehicles/bodies negotiate the space according to a mysterious logic. Rickshaws, jeeps, motorcycles, men trundling carts of mangoes, cows, pigs, buffaloes, and many more successfully navigate these swathes of dirtied blank concrete. The logic of road rules continues to evade me. Towering above advertisement billboards can be viewed tempting all with their promises of new city luxuries.  Shiningly new buff bodies (‘Zeal’ -  a gym) tantalise those who can afford it with a chance to tone softened buttocks. Below pass many of these self-same buttocks, in AC’d cabs like my own or seated on delicately framed rickshaws, powered by the most simultaneously skinny and muscled men I’ve ever encountered. It’s certainly one of the more interesting school runs I’ve had to endure…

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Round-up; Workshops, Classes and all that jazz!

Having arrived back from India, I'd hoped by now to have already done a quick run-through of a few things that had been on my mind over the last couple of weeks at Ghatkopar. My excuses for not having done so until now vary and range quite widely; from the fact that monsters under my bed had abducted the muse-stone I place upon my forehead while semi-supine so as to permit a free train of thought [not true] to the fact that my phone, upon which I'd been taking notes as I went along, managed to have itself pickpocketed at Kurla station (unfortunately true) about a week or so before leaving.

Now that my immediate reflections have somewhat frothed and spawned into some type of exotic life form, I thought it would be useful both for those generously supporting the good work of WAM and for those looking to participate in the WAM project next year to have yet another point of view of what was going on - particularly in Mumbai - this year.

It has struck me that it would be a good idea to explicitly outline a few examples of workshops that were run in Mumbai both by myself and Hannah, which I hope will give a clear picture of what the kids (and teachers) attending the workshops were letting themselves in for!

Example Workshop #1

As at St. Xavier's, 2-day (2x 2hr) workshop: c.100 participants aged 8-16

Day One

Warm-up 'Cowboy activity' Participants are introduced to a number of differing exclamations, with actions, led by one teacher. Once familiarised with the actions and calls, 4-6 participants picked to lead the call-response in front of the other students.
Warm-up 'Sani Bonani' Call and response type song with simple melody and rhythmic ostinato.
Lead-up 'Making Sounds' Introducing the idea of association of sounds and music, as well as musical gestures and extra-musical concepts. For example, Reich's 'Different Trains' and its vivid train-like string gesture.
Activity 'Making Sounds' Using the voice and parts of the body to make different sounds based on three main themes; forest, city and sea. Activity expanded by splitting into smaller groups and then having a 'performance' by each group of each of the soundscapes, followed by a larger performance using all participants.

Day Two

Warm-up 'Cowboy activity' Participants not requiring any prompts this time!
ActivitySinging Ala da' Lona: Algerian song, expanded in class by splitting into groups and having each group clapping a unique ostinato while singing.
ActivitySinging London's Burning. Traditional, learnt and sung in a two, three and (eventually!) four-part round.
ActivitySinging 'Babboon Song': Ideal for a class full of boys! Participants split into three groups where each learns a 4-bar phrase: 'The Baboon', 'The Vulture' and 'The Yak'. Each phrase interlocks melodically and rhythmically so is ideal for demonstrating ensemble singing.


Example Workshop #2

As in Muktangan schools 45 min, c. 30 participants aged 7-10

Warm-up'Name game' Participants are asked to tap their knees and click their fingers, as tap-tap-click-click, saying their own name in turn during the clicks. Teachers invited to join in.
Warm-upGlissandos Visualised by throwing a ball up and down.
Warm-upVarious call-response annoying squeaking animal noises (the kids seemed to like it)
Warm-up'Cowboy activity' As above (see St. Xavier's)
Warm-up'Sani Bonani' As above (see St. Xavier's)
  • Younger groups: The Pirate Song & I Like the Flowers (for example)
  • Middle groups: Ala da' Lona & I Like the Flowers
  • Older groups: Ala da' Lona & (on one occasion) a song in Gaelic about porridge.

Viola/violin also brought in for some workshops, encouraging some discussion about instruments.

All in all, we had devised a good workshop template from the start, meaning that sections could be added and expanded or dropped and revised as depending on the size of the group and the age of the participants. It was especially helpful to have a secure blueprint when, having already delivered seven 45-minute workshops in a day in one case, the thought of getting through another workshop would have been a little disconcerting without such an aid.

So there we go. No magic, no voodoo, just a little planning, preparation and luck!

Day-to-day work at Ghatkopar was a little different in the last 2-3 weeks as my focus shifted towards leaving the school with something useful before making my way home, particularly in relation to their upcoming Junior and Senior Productions. For varying reasons it seemed to be quite difficult to get a grasp of just what it was exactly they wanted, largely compounded by the fact that the musical numbers to be included in the production seemed to change on a daily basis. An understanding of the fact that creating, for example, backing tracks (thank goodness I'd armed myself with my MIDI I/O and Logic before departing) would take time was not hugely apparent and so I felt a little guilty in the last couple of days at having to put my foot down and say that doing yet another new number would simply not be possible in the time remaining.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Every song...a winner!

This is the motto of the concert that takes place in three days and serves as a closing ceremony of the past two months.
Everyone is very much looking forward to it since that is most probably the only opportunity for the kids to play in public.
The way to get there was and still is full of adventures and activities.

While working on exam pieces we started to look for appropriate music for the concert. Simi says that people are not really exposed to western classical music so pop like ABBA and Beatles would make them happy...I asked past WAMers (and myself) whether this is the kind of music on which we should spend weeks and lots of energy. No one seemed to have problem with it so I assume this question arose only to protect the sort of musical hierarchy that was built by my personal taste. It is true that exam repertoire consists pieces in similar style.

Although I brought scores with me it proved to be an arduous work to find or in some cases to make suitable arrangements. Beatles songs will be played in duet form during the first half of the concert and the second half will be filled mainly with ABBA. For the later there will be solo singers and choir with choreography, accompanied by piano solo or duo, synthesizer and guitar. We started with some vocal training and turned out that there are talented singers so they will sing parts too. Actually the children enjoyed very much the versatile work especially when they had the freedom to create their own choreography. Advanced pianists will play improvised accompaniment (chords given) so they started to listen to each other more and communicate in different ways.

With beginners we listened to the well known 'Do-Re-Mi' from the Sound of music and learnt the whole scene and it is going to be performed before the ABBA songs saying: "when you know the notes to sing you can sing most anything"...
We had group sessions with rhythm and solfa exercises following the Kodály method so we discovered how to sing a song with solfa. We notated it, played it on the piano and made up some simple left hand accompaniment. It was amazing to see how easily kids adopted the new system.
There has been a few sessions on music history where we explored some orchestral pieces. This was to support the aural tests so we notated themes then we played their piano transcription which was meant to help sight reading.
Luckily we had small groups of 8-10 people allowing enough space and time to involve everyone equally.

It has been a very intense period and the concert is still ahead of us.

In the next blog you can read about - the concert
                                      - the musical luggage
                                      - what music means to these children


Thursday, 25 August 2011

Grape Juice

Yep, it’s my new favourite drink. Abraham took me to a juice shop last weekend and now I’m hooked. Whenever I return, the staff become very excitable and begin shouting the Malayalam equivalent of ‘graaaape juice!’, followed by numerous handshakes and pats on the back. Never before has rehydration felt quite so rewarding.

So, blog no. 3, eh? How time flies…

The workshops last Saturday went very well and got a great response from the kids. The first was on piano performance and ‘how to approach a piece of music’. I came up with a 10-step formula to follow when learning a new piece of music, arranged in order of what to look at first:
  1. Title
  2. Composer
  3. Tempo Indication & Metronome Marking
  4. Playing Technique
  5. Scales
  6. Fingering
  7. Rhythm
  8. Tone Quality
  9. Dynamics
  10. Phrasing & Articulation
Surprisingly, no-one was able to tell me that the first thing to look at should be the title. I explained that not knowing the title is like eating something from an unmarked can - you’ve got no clue to as what’s inside! It’s been put there for a reason and can often provide vital clues regarding the character of the music. In relation to fingering, it seems that I put too much emphasis on the importance of finding one most comfortable for the performer than on achieving a balance between that and the most appropriate fingering for maintaining phrase structure, articulation and tone quality. As a result, my efforts to suggest more suitable fingering in subsequent lessons have been struck down with the response – ‘but this is the most comfortable fingering for me!’ Damn my wise words.

After a brief talk on ABRSM examinations, I gave the students a basic introduction to jazz, as many of them were completely unfamiliar with the concept. Aided by numerous listening examples, I took them through a history of early jazz styles, which included African-American work songs, ragtime, blues, Dixieland, swing and bebop. Due to the time restraints, I decided to stop around 1950, as it can be said that this is where jazz ceased its journey along a one-track route and began to progress in a variety different directions. I likened jazz history to the structure of a huge tree, with the trunk being representative of its early beginnings, and a firm foundation from which subsequent developments (the branches) have grown.

During the workshop, we managed to collaboratively write a blues tune – I gave the students a basic form to work from and asked for lyrics reflecting the typical themes of loss and depression. Here are the results:

I’m breaking up with my friend ‘cos I don’t like them.
I’m breaking up with my friend ‘cos I don’t like them.
Here at CDMS, life’s hard, but we try our best.

Exams are fast approaching and I don’t want to fail.
Exams are fast approaching and I don’t want to fail.
Here at CDMS, life’s hard, but we try our best.

I didn’t get no money, so I got nothing to spend.
I didn’t get no money, so I got nothing to spend.
Here at CDMS, life’s hard, but we try our best.

On a final CDMS-related note, I have decided to stop beginning every lesson with a request for the student to remind me of their name. It’s getting a bit ridiculous now and some of them are probably worried about my state of health…

The week after the workshops was mostly spent back at the College, where I helped Abraham with some final preparations for the new BMus course that opens there on 1st September. The syllabus is still not complete and the instruments are yet to arrive, but I have complete faith in him and am sure it will all come together (cross fingers). On Tuesday, we met Binoy Chacko, Dr. Kunjamon Chacko’s brother, and one of the most famous singers in India. He took us to meet a potential tutor for the audio programming course at a recording studio in town, which was particularly interesting, as I discovered that the whole place was sound-proofed with coir (a fibre extracted from the husk of a coconut)! Binoy has recently recorded the whole bible as an audiobook for the first time in Malayalam, and even provided the voice of Jesus in the 1973 Malayalam film, Jesus. Phwoar.

Me and the Chacko brothers

To conclude the trip to Kottayam, I volunteered to lead a workshop for the kids at the Children’s Village, situated just down the road from the seminary. The project is funded by the Prison Fellowship India and gives children victimized by crime the opportunity to go to school and grow up in a safe environment with the provision of all basic living essentials. My friend, Azo, joined me for the workshop, which turned into a 3-hour session of songs and games for the 150 kids that live there. At the end of the morning, my Australian friends from Alleppey came to visit and were given a warm welcome by the children, who sung them a couple of songs that they had learnt. This was followed by lunch, which featured a delicacy of North-East India - buffalo intestine. It was prepared by the students from Nagaland and was accompanied by some sort of pork stew. Delicious, but spicy enough to make a grown man cry (or at the very least, get a runny nose).

Workshop at the Children's Village

To my delight, I discovered that the dental clinics in Kottayam (and possibly most of India) have fantastic names like ‘Tooth Place’ and ‘Tooth Affaire’. I particularly enjoy the latter, what with its ingenious and probably unintentional French twist.

An additional, non-essential and somewhat amusing observation: there is a student at the seminary who goes by the name of ‘Rex Jelly’. I am yet to meet this character, so now have yet another reason to return to India...

Can't wait!


p.s. I got my fortune told by a parrot yesterday. Apparently, I will live to the ripe old age of 91, have 3 children and lead a life of prosperity and wealth. I even managed to haggle the price of my future down to 40 rupees (about 50p)! Bargain.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Festivals and fun times

    Well it’s been festival season here in Mumbai. Over the last two weeks my school has celebrated Krishna Janmashtami (Lord Krishna’s Birthday), Indian Independence day, Rakhi (where a sister tied a thread to her brothers wrist), and yesterday the crazy Gokulashtmi festival, where groups of men and boys gather in the streets and form incredible human towers.  All this excitement has meant that my teaching has become a little interrupted as half day and full day holidays have been granted. However I have witnessed some amazing sights and to see the children rehearse and perform patriotic songs for Independence Day was great.

Warm-up at the teachers workshop
     I have, however had the chance to lead a teachers workshop. This was a riot, with the teachers at Avalon singing and dancing with masses of enthusiasm and quite a bit of skill! We did a few warm-up songs before I set them the challenge of composing their own educational songs using well known tunes (actions obligatory). The resulting performances were fantastic, and hopefully some of the ideas they came up with will be used in the classroom.  On Friday we have another session planned for the kindergarten faculty, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what mad songs and actions they come up with. 

A serious new educational song

      Last Wednesday we went back to Muktangan to do a second day of music workshops. Whilst we mainly had new groups, the last two sessions were with children we had met two weeks before. To our amazement and delight they had memorized perfectly the songs we had taught them! We took this as a sign to give them some more challenging material and after 45 mins we had them singing a round in 4 parts which was just brilliant! We were joined by the school's keyboard teacher who played along, providing a great support to the voices.  Ronald took his viola as well so the kids were treated to a multi-instrumental accompaniment! Tomorrow (Wednesday 23rd) will be our third and final full day at Muktangan and will include a session with the holistic education team which will be good. On Saturday I will be going back to lead workshops for the teachers. 

Jamming with Ayush
    Speaking of viola playing, Ronald is now playing with Ayush and I, and we have a very exciting gig coming up at the Blue Frog on Thursday. The show is in support of Dharavi Rocks (organized by the Acorn Foundation), an initiative which brings together local musicians and children from the slums to create music from makeshift percussion instruments. We went along a few weeks ago to one of the workshops and were very impressed with the percussion band, they have amazing energy and play together with intuition and great skill.

   Thursdays  event promises to be pretty special, with famous Mumbai bands performing alongside the children, and we are well chuffed to be involved. Check out the link here

    So, as the last week in Mumbai approaches I find I’m busier than ever, with rehearsals, workshops and concerts galore!Hannah x

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Dhun dehra dhun dehra dhun dhun derha dhun...

Have just returned form a trip out of Delhi to Mussoori in the foothills of the Himalayas and Dehradhun: home of the prestigious Doon School where myself and the other WAM Delhiites have been teaching for the last couple of days.  The trip to Mussoori was blighted on my part by a nasty fever I had picked up on the Friday night and our 9 hour cab journey early on the Sunday morning was hard-going at times; an un-remitting stream of Bollywood's finest on the stereo from 5am helped to ease the pain. 

 We were all excited about the prospect of traveling up into the mountains but had somewhat underestimated the Delhi exodus that we were joining in celebration of a long bank holiday weekend marking India's Independence day. Mussoori was complete honking, fuming gridlock and not much fun especially when combined with non-stop torrential rainfall and some suspect hotel bedding. However, we made the most of our brief holiday and the views were certainly spectacular!

Our trip came into its own on Tuesday morning as we were driven down to the aforementioned Doon school. Here we were introduced to Priya Chaturvedi the school's warm and welcoming Director of Music. The hospitality we immediately received helped to settle our sleep-deprived minds and we were soon happily teaching some of the students. Priya was kind enough to let us take a restorative nap in her house (on campus) and the rest of the afternoon was dedicated to practise for an evening recital which we were to give on the school's grand piano, (prior to 2007 - last tuned in 1916 - it had 'character'). The concert was attended by the entire music department as well as many others and seemed to be a great success with much positive feedback from the kids.

Yesterday we got stuck into teaching and I was able to give a 2 hour masterclass to a group of Grade 4 students on the grand which was a wonderful experience.

In the evening, one of the school's previous students, Pulkit Sharma, an extremely able Indian musician and former school music captain, took us out to see Deradhun and introduced us to the Beatles song of the same name, written along with the songs from the White Album during their stay there in 1968:

Despite the horrendously delayed return train journey and 330am wake up call this morning, my short trip to the Doon school stands as one of the high points of my stay in India. This is surely thanks to the enthusiastic students, wonderful campus,  fascinating history and  generous hospitality of the school, not forgetting the consistently hilarious company of  my 3 travelling companions.

...dehra dhun dhun dehra dhun dehra derha dhun derha dhun dhun...


Saturday, 13 August 2011


Dear All,

Let me show you some lovely pictures. This is Noel and Joel in 2006 when Esme and Duncan visited Cochin. ( left, bottom of page)

...and the boys today. 

Nice to see their endurance and their enthusiasm.

There are about 60 students at the Amadeus Academy of Music and Fine Arts. There are children and adults from initial - grade 8 level and a few who are preparing for ATCL recital. They are like a big family as Simi describes it. Simi and Anthony compose the staff. Kids come on weekdays after school (3pm-8/9pm) and Saturday all day for aural and theory practice. In the mornings eager mums visit the school because they want to learn music either for their own good and amusement or because they would like to help their children and play duets with them. This is touching in the sense that music making appears to be much more than a subject. The school has good reputation. Countless calls from parents enquiring whether they could join. 'It is hard to say no but I prefer quality over quantity.' says Simi.
I soon realised what they are working for and found it easy to identify myself with their philosophy.
What can be done in two months?
The plan was to spend 2-3 weeks working on exam pieces, since most of the children will take an exam (Trinity Guildhall) in November, then we would start the preparation for the concert that takes place at the end of August. 

The exam pieces have been well prepared regarding correct interpretation of notes and rhythm so we could work on technical stability which was one of the main requests. We started with good posture meaning feet flat on the floor or on wooden blocks for little ones and stool adjusted to their height. This might seem banal though major technical problems can be solved only by taking care of this so I really hope the school will soon buy some piano stools and blocks. 
The next point was, as many of you mentioned in earlier blogs, how to accommodate arm weight and the whole body while playing. The causes or roots of the dis-ease are : 1) that many kids have only electric keyboard or synthesiser at home that simply don't respond to subtle changes of touch, weight, attack or the respond is different from what the acoustic piano gives. I can't do much about this 2) but the other one, and this is where the whole story gets interesting! One can be physically at ease only when the mind is at ease. If one knows what he is doing because he understands music, the meaning of the piece somehow the path opens up. The whole misery of technique, attack, weight, fingering disappers. I do say they are important but I tried to get there from a different angle. So we started to play imagination games. I asked them to make up a short story that we turned into music. E.g. 'the train' - trio for beginners: terzo is the train engine, secondo is the horn, primo is a passenger who sings a song. Terzo alternates two notes, minim C, D. Secondo plays two crotchets (C-E thirds) together with terzo's C. Primo 'sings' a tune using C,D,E,F,G in any order. We imagined the train going full speed and full of passengers ( fast attack and forte ) then a silent train during the night ( piano ) a train going up and down the hill ( crescendo-decrescendo ) bouncy train (staccato) tired train (legato)  added more notes according to the story. Quite a silly game but kids enjoyed it so much! And me too...They were freed from the prison of notation and loved interacting.
Students at intermediate level made up more complicated stories including primary chords, whole tone or chromatic scales, onomatopoeia like glissando, tremolo, cluster always carrying some meaning, expression.
After that we returned to pieces and tried to figure out what the story could be. What is beyond notes?

We are experimenting with a new practice chart that involves etudes, finger exercises not only scales, plus a bit of improvisation along with the pieces. Simi has the idea of creating a syllabus for the school that we are hoping to complete by the end of the month. Luckily there are so many tutor books and music scores thanks to Nadia Lasserson who sent a luggage full of treasure. Many others provided by past WAM-ers and Alex, who visited us a few weeks ago. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Alex!
I must pause for a minute and tell you a funny story. When I arrived Simi was complaining that kids don't know how to play 'Happy Birthday' and it is a shame that whenever one has birthday they can't jam. So Alex and me taught the tune at least 60 times :-) so from now on...

Antony and Simi are doing a great job with the kids. They provide everything. Not only knowledge  but something which can't be described by words. The kids know a lot, they are very receptive and well-mannered so it is a pleasure to be with them.
I am sure that our morning yoga/meditation also helps to build a good team :-)

In the next 'chapter' I tell you about     - our adventurous expedition of 'The sound of music'
                                                        - the mystery of solfa and modes
                                                        - the ABBA and Beatles craziness



Thursday, 11 August 2011

Month 1 at Mehli Mehta

I finally have a few moments to sit and write a few thoughts about the past 1.5 months.  It’s been a whirlwind, but I’ve been very much enjoying the teaching.  Charis here, at the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation, the third WAMer in Mumbai. 

Mehli Mehta is a music school in the heart of the city, offering piano and string tuitions to both kids and adults. It all began 16 years ago, in honor of conductor and violinist, Mehli Mehta.  They had a desire to promote western classical music, and so it all began...  The foundation has been growing rapidly.  There are now  21 teachers, 564 students and over 1400 students on the waitlist!!!  Apart from private lessons, they also offer something called ‘Discover Music.’  As the name suggests, this is a group class which introduces music to children as young as 2 yrs old!  Other activities include choir (which i’ll talk more about in my next blog).

Hanging out with 2 of the teachers

I’ll perhaps just blog about July in this post and fill you in about August a bit later.  During the weekdays, I have been mainly teaching privately.  In the mornings, I taught a variety of adult students, ranging from 16-70, who were all mainly of the intermediate level, with a couple advanced students.  Most of them had two lessons a week.  These morning lessons have been some of my favorite as the students have been very receptive and responding quickly.  The use of arm weight has been a common focus in lessons as many students tend to solely focus on finger action, rather than the use of the arm and or the whole body.

Delicious Parsi meal at the Foundation

One highlight for me has been teaching this one student who could play music like Bach Prelude in C (Book 1), but had nearly no knowledge of theory (not even being able to identify/write basic crochet beats or rest!)  Needless to say, i was a bit shocked!  But in this past month, we mainly worked on theory together, and by the end of it, she was transposing and analyzing, and composing different harmonies (even using Augmented 6 chords!).  

After lunch, from about 2-8, I move onto younger students, of whom are mostly beginners.  Most of the kids have been very well behaved, with of course a few who struggle to sit still, but have been nonetheless, very enjoyable to teach.  The main things I have been working on with almost all the children have been note recognition (or sight reading).  Most of the kids here can play tunes, but have a lot of trouble in reading music.  Many of them have relied on phrases, such as ‘F-A-C-E’ or ‘All Cows Eat Grass’ to identify notes.  As a result, it takes them a very long time to read a new piece of music.  So flash cards and note-finding games have been readily implemented in the lessons.  Another repeated topic has been the use of the body/hand, which is perhaps an universal problem, especially for beginners.  Kids prefer to swing their feet, rather than having them flat on the stool/ground; flat fingers; low wrist, etc.  These common issues led me to lead several workshops.

Jam'n with the kids

All workshops happened over the weekend.  Over the course of the month, I had 10 workshops: 4 for teachers, 2 for adults and 4 for kids (two for 6-9, and two for 10-14).  With the teachers, we touched on the basics of posture, technique (rhythm, phrasing, scales), sight reading and musical form.  I will just highlight one workshop on sight reading.  Sight reading seems to be quite the abandoned field here, and it was great to see the teachers become excited about sight reading.  Some stayed for over half an hour at the end of the workshop to sight read duets with each other!  The two adult workshops were on the body and musical form.  And finally, with the kids, we again touched on the subject of posture and learning about different musical concepts (tempo, pitch, timbre, articulation and instrumentation) through Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.’

 Apart from teaching and workshops, i assisted in a few Discover Music classes and in my ‘spare time’, I did my best in squeezing as many practice hours as i could for my July recital.  It was a bit stressful as it was difficult to find time to practice on top of the teaching and planning.  But the recital went very well and it was nice to see current WAMers, Ronald and Hannah and past WAMer Ryan!  Now i’m preparing for my next recital which will be in a couple weeks (eeks!).

One last thing, apart from piano work, i’ve been working with some of the violin teachers, observing violin lessons, and assisting in the violin ensemble class (it’s been 6 years since i seriously played the violin, so that’s been rather interesting).  It’s been good fun playing the good ol’ pachelbel canon and other folky tunes.

Mumbai by night

July has been busy but August has been even crazier.  I’ll post more soon.  Take care!

Ciao ciao,

Charis x

Under the Indian Sun :)

Based in Gurgaon in southern Delhi, along with fellow WAMer Alice, I’ve been assigned to help at the Performer’s Collective, run by the very welcoming and helpful Jack (who, despite his name, is Indian).  The staff at the Performer’s Collective have been extremely hospitable and friendly and made the transition from England to India for us as easy as possible.  

We were lucky enough to be given time to get to find our feet and get to grips with life here in India before starting our teaching. There were many things for us to have to adapt to – not least the sometimes non-existent water and electricity in our flat, the living room with not one stick of furniture, the ‘friendly’ resident geckoes, the downright ugly resident cockroaches and the initial lack of a cooker.  And despite taking great care with food hygiene, we’ve been ill on several occasions.  But balanced against the sheer vibrancy of Delhi, the friendliness of nearly everyone we’ve met, and the amazing experiences which seem to happen on a daily basis, I am so, so very lucky and happy to be here!

The Performer’s Collective has many contacts on the Delhi music scene, and Jack has ensured that we have been introduced to as much of this as possible.  We’ve met and exchanged ideas with some of the top guitarists in India and been taken to some of the big jazz clubs in Delhi. We’ve even had our photo in the ‘Times of India’.  However, our main focus at the Performer’s Collective is to teach on a, predominantly, one-on-one basis.  

Teaching these lessons and getting to know individual students has been an enlightening process.  People choose to have lessons for a variety of reasons and it’s been interesting to see how a different approach needs to be taken for each individual.  I have, for example, one student with mild learning disabilities who responds well to being given very direct instructions.  Mechanics of piano theory come more easily to her than the concept of musicality and thus she enjoys playing scales and finds it comical to be interrupted every time she plays an odd fingering or dud note.  In fact, the more defined the interruption, the funnier she finds it!  
The children are generally very responsive to what I’ve got to tell them and need a lot of basic technique advice – hand positioning / not jerking when putting the thumb under etc...  simple techniques which are generally learnt earlier on in Europe.  A lot of students have lessons with another teacher and then extra lessons with me so I spend a short time providing suggestions for their pieces (which often lack any sort of dynamics or individuality) and the majority of time on sight reading, aural exercises and rhythmic games in the hope that they might continue after I leave and so develop a stronger and more independent general musical awareness.  Most students insist that their sight reading skills are atrocious and they probably need to overcome a psychological barrier before they can improve.

I also try to stress the importance of maintaining a steady pulse and developing rhythmic comprehension as a lot of students prioritise working out the notes.  Thinking about fingerings, the key and thus the scalic progressions should combine with strength in terms of rhythmic interpretation to provide a successful strategy for sight reading.  However, one of my students summed up what seems to be a general feeling over here - when I asked what she would do in the exam in the minute she would be given before the sight reading test she replied: ‘I’ll get a pencil and write on all the note names’... I’ll be trying to do something about this!

We are now in touch with Music Basti, a local NGO which has 3 orphanages in Delhi for children from the streets.  It uses music and the arts as a basis for teaching and helping these children, who have often experienced substance and sexual abuse.  We are about to start regular workshops with the boys’ orphanage and have already begun at one of the girls’ orphanages. The girls here are very affectionate and appreciate new company and whilst they were timid at the beginning of the first workshop, a few silly games and tricks later and the chorus was a lot stronger.  Providing structure through repeating some of the songs and games and becoming a familiar face over the coming weeks will hopefully give them even more confidence to join in.  We were informed that, for some of the children, even sitting down and listening was an achievement and I hope that with some gentle encouragement we will bring some of the shyer ones out of themselves and give them something meaningful to enjoy through the medium of song.  Music is a great way to express oneself and just teaching a few songs and games could really help these kids who don’t have much else to distract them from the harsh realities of life.  

Local schools have also shown interest in us and we’ve been invited to run some workshops for groups of 10 year olds – where we will be wired up so that we can teach big groups of between 90 and 180 students! I am currently spending quite a bit of time planning the content of these workshops, and though at the moment it sounds nerve-wracking, I’m hopeful that it will turn out to be great fun too! 

Last week I went with WAMers Alice and Gabriel to meet Parimal, who studied Sitar under Ravi Shankar for 40 years.  Unfortunately, Delhi belly had struck again, and I spent a lot of the journey throwing up.  However, Parimal looked after us very well and we jammed Indian styyyle.  It was great!                                                                               

Akshardam temple - biggest Hindu temple in the world
We have also been able to do a bit of sight-seeing, including a trip to the beautiful Taj Mahal and a wonderful weekend in Jaipur, where we travelled to a hilltop fort by elephant and had the most fantastic views of the surrounding countryside.  Travel here is different– we went by overnight bus, which we had been assured was an air-conditioned double-
decker, but it turned out that we were on the top deck which was in fact a glorified luggage rack!  But a surprisingly comfortable luggage rack ....

Back to work now, apart from one short tourist trip, we have a workshop planned for nearly every remaining day of our stay..... 



Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Probably the most boring blog you will ever read. We will try to make the next one "fun".

We finally have regular internet access... let the blogging commence:
This is Viktor and Grace, based in Kolkata.

Our schedule
We have a busy schedule, working six days a week at three schools in Calcutta and Salt Lake – Calcutta School of Music, Dolna Day School and C4 School of Music. Grace works mostly at CSM, with one day at C4 and some morning and evening classes at Dolna. She helps with singing, recorder, violin, drums and piano. Viktor is primarily involved in piano and music theory, mostly at CSM and C4, with some sessions at Dolna.

Our Free Fridays© are usually spent finding shopping centres and markets, and for Grace, being distracted by sparkly things and spending too much money on clothes. (- That’s really true! says Viktor.)

Impressions about students and teaching
We have had a very warm welcome in Kolkata, and are being extremely well looked after by all the teaching staff. We have lovely, safe accommodation in Dolna School, with food provided for us every day. If we have any need for medication or doctor’s appointments, we get all the support we need.

Our pupils are enthusiastic and respectful – they are attentive and eager to make the most of every lesson. Ages and standards are hugely varied, and although some of the younger ones don’t have much of a practice timetable (!), many of the older pupils practice every day.
The kids are very affectionate, and we have been given drawings and sweets on many occasions!

How to practice:  
The students need an increased awareness of different practice techniques, e.g. hands separately, varied articulation (staccato, legato) and rhythms (dotted, triplets), slow practice, and practising select passages rather than playing through the whole piece.

Breakdown of rhythms:
The rhythmic relation of one note to another, the function of a dotted note and the ‘pulse’ of the music are some aspects of rhythm which can be problematic – i.e., the maths behind the music.
A metronome beating the smallest rhythmic value of the piece usually helps with the subdivision of note values. We are hoping to take a session for younger children to help with both the understanding of note values and a more general concept of ‘pulse’.

Playing from memory:
It is fashionable to play piano music from memory very quickly, even in the early stages of learning a piece. This can result in mistakes being ‘learnt’ into the music (of which they are unaware), and a lack of ability to read music fluently (due to lack of reading the written score while playing).

Pedalling and hand position:
We’ve noticed in students that the pedal is often lifted too late or too early, affecting clarity and continuity in the music. We are aiming to make students more aware of the effect on the actual sound produced through different pedalling techniques.

As with any young students, there are many dipping wrists and flat fingers...

Musical genres and styles:
Lack of generic distinction is particularly evident in Baroque music, where appropriate articulation is often missing or understated. This is partly because the student may not have broken the music down into phrases, sub-phrases, etc.
We are planning several workshops in which we will help the students to aurally distinguish the features of different genres, and to reflect this in their playing. (Hopefully, by using syllabus repertoire, we can incorporate some practice techniques which will be immediately useful to them!).

A brief note on violin technique from Grace – the most common left-hand technique here is to hold the neck of the violin in the curve between the thumb and first finger (i.e., the thumb is right round the side of the neck rather than underneath it). I am not used to this technique, and feel it is quite restrictive – it effectively shortens your fingers (!) and can make fourth-finger tuning and shifting more difficult. I’ve brought this up with the teachers, and it seems that the only widely available violin tutor book recommends this position. I have suggested a more flexible hand position for beginners, but many of the students have been practising this hold for several years and I don’t feel I should meddle with it...

One other small point is that some violin students hold the bow very high up on the wood which lessens their control over it and can cause excessive tilting. I’ve suggested that more of the grip should be focused on the base of the bow - but as with left-hand position, I feel that in only two months I should probably just make suggestions rather than try to enforce new techniques...

We realise that this is a very heavy blog and heartily apologise. We promise our next entry will be less poncy and boring.

On a less serious note, recent highlights include:

·         Viktor being tagged in photo on Facebook as an Indian girl (- It’s because of his beautiful swooshy hair, says Grace).
·         Grace getting biting ants in her knickers.
·         Drinking Chai for two rupees at the street corner.

Viktor and Grace