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Lessons of life in sound of music

I have huge respect for the purity of the classical tradition, because I think that is the basis from which everything else springs. It is fine to go on to fusion music or jazz, which has its own tradition by the way and I respect that a lot, but... the basic Western music classical tradition... has to be the foundation, the soul, of music....
Lolita Mayadas

Picture by Bhubaneswarananda Halder

Lolita Mayadas — pianist and former principal of the Calcutta School of Music, who was born in Calcutta, raised in Delhi, educated in London, and now lives and works in Englewood in the United States — was recently in Calcutta with her husband, the musician Azim Lewis Mayadas, to receive a lifetime achievement award from the governor in CSM’s centenary year. She spoke to Aveek Sen about her life as a musician and educator.

Lolita Mayadas: The last time we came to Calcutta was 38 years ago. We left in 1975. I had been at the Calcutta School of Music as principal for nine years, and in the last year, I decided it was important to make a transition, a change to a new person. We had been talking about going to the United States primarily because our youngest daughter, Priya, had such a gift and we wanted to open up opportunities for the other two girls. Azim was interested in finding a job where, as Robert Frost says, avocation and vocation might unite. So, we went on that rather idealistic principle. I worked in a school that had about a thousand students at that point. Schools like that are open to anybody, regardless of age, level of ability, or financial constraints. The high quality was in the quality of teaching, not in the quality of the student. That was the basic principle, and that was the principle that we adhered to at the Calcutta School of Music.

Aveek Sen: There is a difference between teaching someone to be a professional performer and teaching someone to be a teacher of music. Do you feel there is room for the latter in Calcutta: to create facilities that would produce high-quality music teachers?

LM: It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, although it is truly gratifying for me to see how CSM has grown and earned its place as a pre-eminent institution in the life of the city and in the lives of its students. If there are opportunities for teachers, and it pays well, you will find people who will come here and want to teach here. The ultimate goal of finding teachers on a permanent basis, who are Indians and who are resident in India, is extremely important. If you have a really good teacher that can produce students of a high calibre, then that becomes an opportunity for other teachers, more students come in and other teachers come in, and it becomes much more of a viable profession. The point is to build a whole musician. If there could be some kind of institute to train teachers, then there would be an opportunity for an artiste to perform here and live by it. In the West, most artistes have a multiple profession: solo performance, ensemble, they teach in schools or privately. They have a multi-faceted artistic life. That kind of professional development for any teacher is critical.

AS: What about your musical education? Did most of it happen in India?

LM: I grew up in Delhi and had a teacher in Delhi, and then my father was transferred to London. So, I was in a school there, and went for private lessons to the teacher who was part of the school. Then, I came back to Bombay and was taught there by Shanti Seldon, who was an absolutely exceptional teacher. She had ability to develop confidence in her students. She had the attitude that many teachers have in the West, where they applaud the effort, and the result follows. Here we tend to applaud the result primarily: “Did you pass this exam?” Whether you tried hard enough is seldom part of the compliments. Under Shanti Seldon, I was fortunate enough to be chosen for the scholarship to go back to the Royal College of Music, where I studied under Arthur Alexander, one of their finest teachers.

AS: It is one thing when you are trained to be a teacher or performer, but another when you choose to be neither, yet musical education becomes a vital part of your overall humanistic education.

LM: Absolutely. That is the majority of people. Most people are not going to become professional performers, so the idea of building a love of music, and joy in music-making, is essential. That also helps to build audiences for performers. Without an audience that is knowledgeable and has a love of music, the audiences will fall away, the performers will fall away, and it’s a vicious circle then. But I agree with you, that’s in a humanistic sense, music is one of the most important things that people can have.

AS: Do you believe in the purity of the classical tradition?

LM: I’m afraid I do! I have huge respect for the purity of the classical tradition, because I think that is the basis from which everything else springs. It is fine to go on to fusion music or jazz, which has its own tradition by the way and I respect that a lot, but I do think that the basic Western music classical tradition is a sine qua non for any kind of musical education and for music performance. That has to be the foundation, the soul, of music. The roots of it must lie in the learning about form, about different composers, about performance traditions, about interpretation. In the West, the music schools that I have worked for, even the school I am with currently in the chair of the piano department, the basic classical music training is key. Every child has to sign up for one instrument; they have to do musicianship; they have to do keyboard skills, and choir.

AS: What do you think music has done to you as a human being?

LM: [Laughs and sighs] Let me say this: it’s made me who I am. Without music, I think I would be lost. I don’t know who I would be. It has given me everything in life. It has given me poetry, it has given me meaning, it has given me understanding of who I am. Now that I’ve gone back to teaching, I find myself playing more. I take children now at four and five years old, and bring them to more advance levels. But when somebody is playing a Mozart sonata or Chopin étude, I have to at least be able to demonstrate, have to explain what I mean, not because I want the student to copy me, but to explain to them certain basic rules of technique, and also different forms of interpretation. If you can’t play, you can’t show them that there are different ways of doing it, although my pupils very often make their own decisions. This dialogue with other people through music has been a very important method of communication for me.

Music has also led me to a greater love and understanding of poetry, and of literature — because it all comes from the same, what I call fount of expression. And this goes back to your first question. It’s not only what you do, as a teacher, for other children, but also what you do for yourself. Yesterday I said to my first student ever, “You know, you taught me as much as I hope I have taught you. You made me look at things in different ways, you made me understand that there is not just one approach.” You are not teaching the piano, you are teaching the child.

AS: Teaching the child to listen.

LM: I am glad you said that. To listen, not just to have your head somewhere else. Not just hearing, but listening.

AS: In that John Cage sense.

LM: Exactly. With discrimination of the ear. When you are playing, you have to be able to listen to yourself.