Tuesday, 26 July 2011

One Moose, Two Meese.


Alex here. I’m a third year BMus student at the University of Edinburgh and am currently teaching at the CDMS music school in Trivandrum, Kerala (‘Coconut Land’).

Firstly, I would like to list some recent observations:
  1. Indian traffic laws are yet to be established.
  2. Eating with your hands is harder than it looks.
  3. A ‘vada’ may look, and feel like, but is not a doughnut.
  4. Everything takes at least 3 days to dry (including my guidebook).
  5. Curry for breakfast is an acquired taste.
  6. I saw an elephant outside the bank last Tuesday.
Now, back to teaching.

There is an army of students at CDMS – somewhere in the region of 1000. Most of them study Western Keyboard (the whole one-man-band thing with drums, bass, horn section and strings on one instrument) and about 150 study Classical Piano, with 90 entered for ABRSM exams in October. The school is open every day (!) and runs morning sessions, which are usually pretty quiet, and evening sessions for exam students after school. Most days, I arrive with my eyes full of dust at 3pm on the back of Abraham’s (one of the piano teachers) motorbike and offer one-to-one tuition for exam students until about 8pm.

It’s going well so far but I often forgot which students I’ve already seen so have, embarrassingly, managed to introduce myself to many of them at least twice. But I’m sure they don’t mind.  

Now, the teachers at CDMS are facing a bit of a dilemma. Many of the students studying Classical Piano would far prefer to be learning the Keyboard, as for one, it’s seen as a pretty ‘cool’ instrument in India, and  also puts at the performer's disposal a vast number of different instrument samples that can be played alongside pre-recorded accompaniments in a variety of styles. However, they end up studying Classical Piano because unlike the Keyboard, ABRSM offers an exam at the end of it, which gives successful candidates an additional qualification that could set them apart from other potential employees at a job interview. Understandable, but unfortunate.

The kids are a pleasure to teach and practice hard though for many, a new approach to practice may have to be adopted. One of the main problems that I have found is with fingering, as many of the kids are left to their own devices when learning a piece and proceed to invent a completely different fingering to the one written in their part. As a result, they are not in control of the dynamics, articulation or phrasing, which are key to achieving high marks in the exam. Another big problem is the fact that many of the kids cannot see past the notes on the page. To help them with this, I have come up with many (often absurd) examples of imagery and emotion to illustrate the music and open their minds to new ideas. It seems to be working and I now have my students living by the motto that ‘Every piece of music tells a story’. Well, it’s true.

I have also led a couple of aural workshops for the exam students (about 30-40 in each session) where we looked through the ABRSM tests before I gave everyone a chance to try them out individually. To break it up a bit, I incorporated lots of silly songs and games into the classes such as ‘Rhythm Detective’ (where the ‘Rhythm Detective’ has to identify the ‘Rhythm Criminal’ who is clapping and occasionally changing a rhythm that everyone else is copying) and ‘The Crazy Moose Song’ (they had no idea what a moose was so the whole thing was hilarious). I've got workshops on piano performance, jazz & blues and duets planned for next weekend, after which I will be going to the Asian Christian College of Music in Kottayam to give the teachers some advice on the BMus course that they will be running next year. I’ll let you know how it all goes!

The 'Crazy Moose'!

‘Praise him with a massive bass thumping at your chest’. Who knew that the Church held rock concerts? I certainly didn’t. This quote was taken from the opening slide of a PowerPoint presentation put together by the lovely people at Abraham’s Church. He provides all the music for the service using a Korg Pa50, and upon hearing a sample of his material, I decided to go along and see what it was all about. Turns out that every song is sung to the booming accompaniment of an 80’s synth-pop backing track, performed live by Abraham. I was blown away (although not literally, as the fan was broken).

Abraham getting his groove on in Church

My Indian cinema experience last Monday was an interesting one. I decided to see Harry Potter and found myself surrounded by a hoard of applauding lunatics that erupted whenever anything remotely positive happened to Team Potter. There were also occasional shouts of encouragement to urge on various characters during the on-screen battles and, of course, huge celebrations when the good guys won. And probably tears when they didn’t. All in all, very entertaining.

Also, the Pepsi here has recently been contaminated with some sort of disease, so I’ve been told not to drink it. On a more positive note, I have a rechargeable mosquito-hitting bat.

That’s all for now!


Music Mumbai

Hello, Hannah here, writing from Avalon Heights School, Navi Mumbai.

 Well I'm just beginning my 3rd week here and am beginning to really get a feel for how music education works in my school/ Mumbai in general. I've been given three mornings a week in kindergarten (3 and 4 year olds - so cute!) and two days a week with junior age children (ages 5 to 11), which involves classroom teaching in the mornings and helping out in the keyboard classes in the afternoons.I have also observed a few of the lessons given by the singing teacher which has been really interesting.

 In kindergarten I am pretty much trying to get the kids to recognize musical ideas such as 'high' and 'low', loud and quiet, getting them to sing together (as opposed to randomly starting/stopping whenever they feel like it), call and response etc, clapping games. The class teachers requested I sing songs related to the present class topic (plants in lower kindergarten, health in upper), which has been great, the kids get a whole cross-curricular lesson! After only 2 weeks they are already showing real progress, they can recognize high and low notes, can sing as a response to my call, and have been having lots of fun learning dances as well. Another great thing is that the teachers are really supportive and interested, singing and dancing along with me and the kids, and generally being fantastic. We have an open day next Saturday where we will hopefully get to showcase some of the songs they have learned.

In the Juniors it's a slightly different ball game, and I feel I have yet to establish a proper routine. As yet I haven't been given a proper timetable, instead I'm used as a cover teacher, dropped into lessons at a moments notice to spend half an hour playing games and singing songs etc. Whilst this is fun I really would like to be given a routine, as I don't feel prepared for my lessons and am finding it hard to keep a track of where I have been and what I have done. Whilst the teachers are all very enthusiastic about my classes, and the kids are receptive, enthusiastic and very quick to catch on to musical ideas, I feel that I'm seen as a 'fun' teacher rather than as a person teaching a real subject.

This view seems to be prevalent across the city; an Indian friend who teaches music at another international school feels his subject is sidelined in favor of maths/ science etc, and that he is given less respect then teachers of these subjects. Whilst this happens in the UK as well, I am beginning to appreciate how much effort, training and funding goes into music education there. Where I work in London every borough has a music service which provides specialist music teachers to schools. These teachers are trained, supported, paid well (ish), have access to a wealth of resources. In schools the value of music is appreciated and teachers go out of their way to encourage and support musical activity (at least most of the time).

Here music teachers receive no training, are part of no overall body, do not have access to schemes of work or to sessions with other music teachers. Hence the teaching, or at least a lot of the keyboard/vocal teaching I have observed, is somewhat chaotic and often not suitable for the size of class or ability of the students. Students are singled out whilst the rest of the class chats, meaning that they never get a feel for communal music making, something which, in my opinion, is one of the joys of working in a large group.The teachers simply have not had the opportunities to learn good group songs or to teach music as a classroom subject as they themselves learned privately and only have that experience to go on. However, this approach does mean that individual children have little self-conciousness and are happy to sing alone in front of their friends and teacher, something which kids in London always find hard.

In spite of a lack of timetable I do feel like I can be useful whilst I am here. I am working with the keyboard teacher (who has to deal with up to 20 unruly kids who turn up with or without their instruments and with or without their books), and giving him ideas about teaching instrumental lessons to a large group, games to play etc. I am also going to run a music workshop for the school teachers; I will use the opportunity to preach the virtue of music education to the utmost of my abilities! The singing teacher and I also have some sessions in kindergarten together so we can swap ideas and songs.

In other news, Ronald and I did a couple of workshops in an orphanage at the weekend; 100 boys in a room makes for a fun if rowdy experience, especially if Ronald is dong baboon impressions for their amusement! I have found myself playing violin with a cool singer/songwriter dude from Nepal who has got us a gig at the Blue Frog which will be wicked. We also are planning a few workshops with Furtado's, a local music shop, and for the British Council. Ronald and I are also doing some string quartet (three violins and a viola, who needs cellos) playing with a violin teacher and his student at Garodia school which is really fun. We are just working on learning folk tunes by ear and playing along with some stuff they learned, it's less of a teaching thing and more just a playing thing which is so nice to do.

We also got to see Charis (the 3rd Mumbai WAMmer) give a piano recital at her school which was a real treat.
I'm trying to get involved in the Indian music scene here as much as possible, I'm looking for a teacher and will be attending as many concerts as I can. In general I am loving Mumbai; the trains and the rains are amazing, the food is fab, and even the grumpy potty-mouthed Scottish man who hangs around my apartment isn't too annoying.

Hope everyone else is having a great time too!

Hannah x

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Pianos and Politics: End of Week Three

Electric pianos? Who said they wouldn't go out of tune?

It seems every electrical device I've brought with me - laptop included - has decided to play up; typing this on a flashing neon screen is already beginning to give me a headache. The humidity ends up frying the brains out of all these devices, ending up giving them a life of their own. And the Clavinova last week? That was a joke. I was convinced Harry Partch had come round in the middle of the night and deemed the 12-tone scale, for the umpteenth time, redundant.

I feel like I've settled into the way of things at Garodia and in Mumbai quite satisfactorily. There was, unfortunately, the scare last Wednesday with the terrorist bombings - not an experience I'd like to repeat again. Possibly made a little more chilling by the thought that two of us - myself and Hannah - had been down and past St. Xavier's about three hours before the horror unfolded.

Hannah strikes gold:
Cadbury's saves the day.
The food situation seems to be a bit up and down these days, but on a plus side, I've (unbelievably) found a Costa Coffee. And internet. I think I'm already a Costa Convert and fortunately these folk seem to be a little unsure of what to do with my Costa Card. I got a free coffee yesterday, 20% off another day. Wicked.

Classes have been having academic exams over the past week or so and, unsurprisingly, any practice that the kids at the Music School should have been doing has gone by the wayside. On the other hand, it was obvious that some were quite relieved to come and simply have a piano lesson - a change from sitting in front of textbooks I'm sure. In general, however, the methods that the children have been following in learning piano are a little worrying. Very old-fashioned. Standing in front of a chalkboard and tapping this, that, the-next-thing. Repeat. And again. Can't imagine it's the best way to learn. Fortunately, a couple of things I've managed to timidly and diplomatically - a first for me - suggest, seem to have been taken on board, such as dispelling the notion of having all the keyboards beside each other; it's quite plain to see that the students were in no way encouraged to develop an ear - an ear which should be taught to constructively criticise and correct throughout the learning process. Simply impossible when you've got three kids in a row all playing Yankee Doodle (or a theme and variations thereof). In addition, that brings me to another of my niggles - none of the piano tuition at the Music School is truly one-to-one and is usually a class of 2-3 students at the same time, a concept which is quite foreign to me indeed (at least, for private instrumental tuition) - though I've no picture of the financial situation at the Music School to be able to comment on the viability of one-to-one tutorials.

At the primary school, Blaise and I have been giving each class a little exam, where each of them goes in front of the class in turns to sing a song which they've learned over the past term, as well as clap the rhythm of it, demonstrate it in sol-fa and 'conduct' it. It was quite good for me to be able to see what sort of standard each of the students was at - there's certainly a few number of students who can sing quite well, but a rather larger number who still struggled to put two consecutive notes one after the other. Partch, again, would have been delighted: room for improvement, I think. However, I was thrilled to see that each of the students tried as very best as they could - and that's the most important thing.

There's a concert coming up next term, where a series of fairytale animals meet another series of fairytale animals and sing some fairytale songs. So far we've got Mother Goose, Barney the Dinosaur and an as-of-yet-unidentified frog in the plot and so I'm understandably a little apprehensive as to how 'The Frog' and Mother Goose are going to be incorporated into Barney's "I'm a Dinosaur" song. (*edit: I've just read the "Barney & Friends" Wikipedia entry, which clearly demonstrates a link between Mother Goose and Barney, alongside the note that Barney "is ranked on TV Guide's List of the 50 Worst TV Shows of All Time")

Open-Top Tours, but not as you know them:
Tree Surgeons take heed, this is the way to go.
Hannah and I attended a violin class last week which was particularly good. We'd sat in on a lesson with an older student, to see what else was going on and were warmly welcomed to stay. We eventually came back in the next lesson and spent a bit of time with both the teacher and his student, demonstrating and teaching them a couple of tunes by ear and playing along with them. Fortunately Hannah and I had the good sense to bring our violin/viola to India, though the humidity got the better of the instruments as well - but that's another story. Traditionally of course, in the tuition of Classical Indian music, you've a 'guru' and the student - and it's all by ear. It's therefore a shame for this same skill to not be used to its full potential in other musics, especially in the tuition of a string instrument, where the player has a much greater sense and physical connection to pitch than with, say, a piano. I'm no hardcore disciple of Suzuki/Kodály method - or any other 'by-ear' method - but it's unequivocally ideal to incorporate such skills in lessons as part of a balanced musical diet.

I've been doing a fair bit of exploration on the trains and on the buses. Though the trip to school is a little long, it also gets me out of Vashi and so when I fancy popping off somewhere at the end of classes it's quite quick to get into town/go north/whatever. At the end of last week, I headed up to Ville Parle, where I knew of an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity. They were very accommodating and - although they don't usually take any volunteers - agreed to have me come in on Sunday afternoon to do some music with the children. With all ages in the room, between 3-14, it was a little bit of a struggle to have them sitting down and so eventually had to give up on the notion of sitting down at all and just launch into a few songs with them. Some of the songs (thankfully, I'd brought a few) sank like lead balloons. But one in particular got them going so much that they sang it six times round (it's a 4-verse song…) before eventually cooling down after having exhausting themselves. I'm planning on heading up again next Sunday and so I'll hopefully find a few more crackin' good songs before then.

Blaise and I headed up to St. Francis's school/orphanage at the beginning of this week to have a chat with the Brothers about doing a small music project with themselves as well. Tomorrow (Friday), we'll be going up (myself, Hannah, Blaise) to Borivali for an evening session with the children there, followed by another session on Saturday morning - though as far as the practicalities of getting up there before 8am are concerned, I'm as of yet unsure as to how that'll work out!

In any case, it's about time I head back to my internet-less cavern and put together a few papers for tomorrow's kids - so long, folks! 

[Barney voice]: And remember, I love you!

-- Ronald

Monday, 18 July 2011

Sight-reading 101

Now seems like a good time to post my first blog, having just completed my second full week of teaching and settled down comfortably. I've been able to get to know the students a little better and get a handle on the challenges of teaching in India.

I arrived two weeks ago to be met at the airport and taken to my lodgings for the two months of my stay: the office of the Trinity representative in India, Anjli Mata. The area is refreshingly green and quiet with a local market and easy transport links. At first it was difficult to get to grips with the geography of the city, especially without a map,  but I soon gathered that I was some way South of the city centre in the residential  Chittaranjan Park. In the course of each week I travel to three different branches of the THEME music school; one  nearby, one further to the South closer to the other Delhi WAM folk, and one in the East of the city. Having taken in some of the sights during my days off I'm now starting to develop a better impression of the city and its sprawling enormity!

On the Monday after my arrival I had my first day of teaching at the Southern branch of THEME. My job at THEME involves taking one on one piano lessons with students who have signed up, as well as three, weekly group sessions. Naturally I was a little nervous prior to my first session but appreciated being thrown straight into the mix with a lively group class. Once I got going I found the kids friendly and responsive. At first I was very much feeling my way and improvising my subject material, however, building on this I was able to conduct more carefully planned classes during the second week. To begin with I was sceptical of taking a 'group' piano class, but soon came to realise the benefits: students can learn from each other, gain regular performance experience - vital for steadying nerves, engage in debate and discussion on technical and musical matters and overcome challenges together. Sight-reading tuition proved especially suitable for this format...

Almost all of the students here take the TrinityGuildhall exams and I was very surprised to discover that until recently, sight-reading has been optional until the higher grades. Perhaps inevitably students tend to shy away from sight-reading in favour of the 'musical knowledge' and aural choices meaning that when they reach their grades six and above they are suddenly presented with challenging sight-reading that they have no way of tackling. This lack of experience in sight-reading proved to be endemic in the students here and so, starting with these group classes, I have been taking many of the students back to basics with the initial and grade one level tests.  My ultimate aim is to build from this basic foundation over the two months, leaving them with a better grounding in the discipline and the ability to succeed at their respective levels. What I hope to get across is that as long as they have the technical facility required to the play the music, and most of them do, sight-reading is a mental process that can be learned and practised just like anything else, with tactics, tricks and appropriate exercises. My shortcomings as a sight reader have been a particularly useful source of inspiration and it’s amazing how much I've learned about my own approach during these first couple of weeks.

Each group class contains around five students and lasts for one hour. Unfortunately these are the kids’ only weekly piano lessons and as such I’m finding it hard to prioritise and cover everything – basic technique, aural, scales, grade pieces etc – in the allotted time. At one stage I hope to combine two of the classes allowing for a more in depth exploration of one of the areas mentioned above - will post on the results.

That’s all for today, will blog again soon on my experiences with the solo students!


Sunday, 10 July 2011

Teaching and Training: End of Week One

Choo choo training. Not training training.

Well hello there! I'm Ronald (seemingly often spelled Ronlad, Roland or 'Christiano' over here) - one of the WAMers sent out to Mumbai. I'm placed in Garodia School, in an area called Ghatkhopar. I've just finished my second year BMus at the University of Edinburgh and as a first trip to India (or indeed this far east in general), it's taken some getting used to.

Trains are a funny business over here. Having arrived Saturday afternoon at the apartment, rested and washed, Sunday's escapade on Mumbai's train network was nothing short of extraordinary. Gone are the nice little queues and people waiting patiently for the train to grind to a halt, in comes the mad stampede, pushing and shoving, faces shoved in others' armpits, asking in broken English "Where from, country?", hanging off the sides of carriages and generally being pushed around in what is a complete ruckus.

In any case, trains aren't why I'm here. Teaching. Teaching? WHoa now, hold on… rings a bell… 

Plonked into the first day at Garodia (I'm told it's Gar-OOOOH-dia, not the other mispronunciations I've had going on) - and being crammed like a sardine into the back of a bus for 45 minutes so as to get there - it was quite a little shock to the system. Class teaching back home is, by comparison, like teaching the quietest souls in the world. These guys, on the other hand, were wild: savages. Cute - but savages nonetheless. Striking any sort of bargain, be it 'how long can you be quiet?' etc., was completely pointless.

Ryan and Aaron, the WAMers from last year, had put together a musical curriculum which the school was following with the intention of putting a formal, structured course tailored to the needs of (savage) kids in grades 1 to 4. Blaise, the permanent music teacher at the school, enthusiastically demonstrated how the curriculum was used in class, to great effect. His rapport with the students was at once wholly noticeable and his love for teaching demonstrable by the way he managed to coax every student into singing, clapping and cheering; learning, while having fun. It's up to me now to get a grasp of how to use this as best as possible in class and see how this could be expanded - beginning with the Grades 5 and above, who are a little on the older side to be taught from square one, by way of Kodály-esque 'nursery rhymes' (for want of a better way of explaining what they are) - can't imagine that'd be the most popular idea.

The set-up at Garodia is a little unconventional, in that the school is also involved in operating an after-school 'music school', running from approximately 15:30 to 19:00 every day (oh and that's another thing I've noticed - times here all use 24h format, but are written in 12h… very annoying). The music school is in fact split between two locations: one at the main building (here, on the map) and one over at Bandra (here). It's a little ride on the train and a couple of rickshaws away (don't even get me started on rickshaw drivers). Being involved though in both the class teaching and the after-school one-to-one sessions is something I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to do - as I certainly enjoy both.

From what I am able to discern, there's a great interest in music among some of the younger students at Garodia school. I do notice, however, a different temperament (boom, boom) among the music school students… I understand that extra-curricular activities such as music are pursued solely with the intention of putting it on school applications and so - inevitably - it brings a wholly different attitude to music and, more specifically, learning an instrument. In any case, I hope my initial impressions are misguided - but it's something I'll be keeping a close eye on.

-- Ronald