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TOUCHING THE SOUL AND OPENING THE IMAGINATION

“I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy: but most importantly music for the patterns in music... are the keys to learning.” — Plato

“We must teach music in our schools.” — Martin Luther

“Music is the purest form of art.” — Rabindranath Tagore

A Calcutta winter is simply delicious. It visits the city at the end of the year and stays on while the New Year still feels new. This fleeting visit also ushers in yet another festive season and a season of music. The feast of music comes in many forms in concert halls, churches and clubs. And there is the Dover Lane Music Conference for classical Indian music devotees.

This is the time of year when in school you will hear snatches of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and “Away in a Manger” emanating from the kindergarten hall while the choir practises “Joy to the world” or “Silent Night, Holy Night”. The Christmas decorations, made by our primary department children, have been up for a while now. Evergreen wreaths with bright red berries and silver-tipped pine needles are strung across in rows, right down the kindergarten corridor. Meanwhile, Rabindrasangeet enthusiasts start teaching winter songs to their group of students. Favourites like “Elo je shiter bela” and “Shiter hawae laglo nachon” are taught and sung year after year. When I reflect on the way the march of festivals and seasons is marked in school the year round, I realize that music has always been an intrinsic part of this and other school traditions.

There is no denying that we all understand the importance of music in our lives but strangely we do not seem to give it any weight in general education. Music does not find a place in the school curriculum once our students enter the world of tests and exams and start worrying about college admissions and careers. I am not aware of schools that allow their students to take up music in the board examinations. In the last so many years, art, unlike music, has found a firm status in the scheme of things and many students pursue courses in art and design right up to high school and thereafter. Fortunately, there are some good institutions in the country offering art-related programmes. Alas, you cannot say the same about music. There is an almost complete absence of the serious pursuit of music in secondary school education and beyond. Very few higher education institutions offer music programmes. It is only the exceptionally gifted student with a musical family background who thinks of music as more than just a passing hobby.

This gives us enough reason to worry that unless we provide for a proper music education for our young, we will be in danger of losing quality music altogether. If you ‘Google-search’ the benefits of music you will come up with a long and impressive list. The list would include an improvement in critical thinking, self-esteem, mathematics and reading skills and, believe it or not, an improvement in all subject grades. But most of us have always known that a good music education improves our cognitive, affective and psycho-motor development. And who has not heard about the correlation between music and mathematics? Although this has not been scientifically established, we all seem to expect musicians to be good at mathematics, if not the other way round. And now Mozart Effect music CDs are available for unborn babies and newly born ones to enhance their mental development.

But music education should not be justified on the basis of its effect on the learning of other subjects. What about music for itself? Doesn’t it uplift the spirit, touch the soul and open the imagination of every child? Moreover, every primary teacher knows that music is the most effective way to teach — as someone said, “what would a child learn sooner than a song?” And what is wonderful is that at this stage every child is taken to be a singer — there is no screening and no weeding out. Every child joins in even if she has the most jarring of voices, even if she can’t hold a note and even if she is tone-deaf (except, of course, when they are being selected for a contest or for the school choir). This early exposure to music stays for life and I, for one, subscribe to Henry Thoreau’s sentiment that “the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sing best”.

Even some years ago, every self-respecting Bengali household would expect its girls to take out their harmoniums and practise their scales and their repertoire of Rabindrasangeet every morning. The para would either be entertained by or be subjected to loud renditions of carefully chosen first-level songs accompanied by even louder harmoniums. The mastermoshai, if the child was taught at home, would always check with the Swarabitan for correctness of tune, rhythm and beat. Teaching to sing (or play an instrument) with feeling came much later. Those learning classical Indian music would be heard doing their riyaz with their tanpuras. Children who were learning western music practised on their piano or violin. The latter would produce much screeching and scratching before any semblance of a tune emerged.

The music classes that were held in school — especially in the Christian schools — instilled in children a sense of harmony and oneness. I remember how much in awe we held our music teachers — they would teach us how to breathe correctly, emit sounds properly and finally sing tunefully. It was quite magical how the seemingly untuneful parts when finally put together produced such beautiful and uplifting music. Students had their fun moments too. I am reminded of my erstwhile colleague who was exceptionally competent and dynamic. Her diminutive figure and youthful face were very deceptive as she could train a hallful of lively, young girls to sing the most difficult classical pieces. She would play the piano, keep an eye on the girls and demonstrate how a particularly high note had to be hit confidently without even a hint of a struggle and how the voice had to be lowered to the right pitch immediately after. Oh yes, the lungs had to be filled and mouths had to be opened wide for pure and true sounds to emanate. Once she expressed her exasperation with a girl who was “just not getting it right”, so the next time, the girl decided to ‘lip-sync’ and let the others do the singing. My colleague was satisfied at last — she beamed at the girl and said, “That was excellent!”

Music certainly teaches discipline but it also teaches something that is invaluable and very rare among us Calcuttans — the ability to listen. This is a skill everyone must master especially today, when most of us are busy shouting down one another. Students who have been taught to listen actively to music, first learn to pay attention to form, rhythm and melody, and thereafter, the more intricate aspects of a piece of music. In the process, they learn to concentrate and then appreciate. All school music syllabi should incorporate music appreciation. It is true that not everybody can sing or play an instrument but everybody can enjoy music and if young people are taught music appreciation they will grow up to be discerning listeners. They will learn to enjoy a wider variety of music and their level of enjoyment will have considerably deepened. An educated audience is vital for every serious musician — an audience who will not burst into applause when musicians are tuning up or start clapping vigorously in the middle of an orchestral performance when there is a pause between movements. A person who has received a basic music education in school is unlikely to converse with her neighbour or text messages on her mobile phone during a concert. She will be immersed in the music.

Sadly, the serious pursuit of music has declined over the years and quality teachers are wanting. However, friends from the field of music claim that the demand for music lessons outside of school has risen substantially. Many parents are keen that their offspring should learn to play a musical instrument and not just play music on their laptops and listen to music on their i-Pods. But they are impatient and ask for quick results. They don’t realize that dedication, long hours of practice and perseverance are required to be able to perform on stage. Children are naturally attracted to the catchy Bollywood numbers and, of course, the latest pop hits. I hear that learning to play the drums is the current craze among girls. These are all fine but a sound music education given at school develops young people’s aesthetic sense and trains their ear. They will learn to appreciate all genres of beautiful music.

Our city is actually quite fortunate in its institutional musical heritage. The legendary Father Mathieson ensured that the children of Oxford Mission in Behala were taught both western and eastern classical music. His star pupil, Anup Biswas, now an international cellist, founded the unique Mathieson Music School in Behala, to preserve his teacher’s legacy of imparting to the children of the area a holistic education which included music. The Dover Lane Music Conference has survived robustly since 1952 while the ITC Sangeet Research Academy has been doing its bit to ‘revive, preserve and nurture Hindustani Classical Music’ since 1977. There are many reputed schools of music, such as Dakshinee, Bani Chakra and Gitabitan, Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty’s Shruti Nandan, Jyotishka Dasgupta’s C4 and Abraham Mazumder’s Kolkata Music Academy. The Calcutta School of Music is preparing for its centenary celebrations beginning in January 2014. Not only has the institution been providing education in western music to the people of Calcutta for the last 100 years but it has also brought to the city great musicians in times when it was being happily by-passed by artists who were visiting India.

But music education is not for the talented only. We must teach music in all our schools for all the reasons mentioned and many, many more.