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…

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