Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Should American Musicians Study Indian Classical Music? Part 1: Introduction

After several years of studying Indian Classical Music (still very much a beginner in many ways) it just doesn't sound that exotic to me anymore. This is actually something about which I am quite happy. Even more-so, Indian Classical Music has become such a regular part of my daily routine it's rather strange to me that not everyone knows what Raga and Tala mean. They have never heard of Ram Naryan, baba Allauddin Khan or Rabindranath Tagore.

Almost two years ago I posted a video on YouTube where I asked the question: “does anyone think it’s strange that the whole world studies western classical music?” Though no one created any responses, I would be wholeheartedly surprised if any person answered in the affirmative. The idea of violin/cello/piano schools in every continent of the planet seems to be something of a mundane fact. Nobody bats an eye over the notion that several of the most accomplished European classical musicians have family and cultural roots that go back to Asia, not Europe.

So my next question would be: “why then, if the rest of the world has embraced our classical traditions have we not reciprocated?” Why is it still a novelty to see a young American playing a spike fiddle or Sarangi? Is it possible that this ignorance stems from the same notion that (for so long) informed us that western classical music is the greatest/most sophisticated music that exists?

Surely in our modern age global intercommunication and cultural diversity we have overcome that outmoded idea. Therefore I suppose the short answer to the question “why should American musicians study Indian Classical Music?” could be answered with another question: “why should American musicians European Classical Music?” 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Cup Song Phenomenon, and What It Can Teach Us About Musical Play

Yesterday a student came into my office with her normal 16 oz Dutch Brother's chai - for better or worse, it certainly seems to give her the energy to tackle difficult music. She brought with her an extra cup and let me know that she taught herself a new song. I said: "cool, have you been singing along with a recording or using a karaoke track?" She replied: "actually, you just sing with a cup." So, we sat on the floor and she proceeded to drum and move the cup around creating percussive sounds while singing a bluesy (mostly pentatonic) melody. 

I was really quite astounded. The drumming and choreographed cup movements were repetitive, but none-the-less sophisticated. Of course her singing was beautiful as always. I asked her when she finished whether or not this was a popular thing. It turned that that many young women were posting videos of themselves performing this (apparently the original version of the performance appeared in the film [I didn't see] "Pitch Perfect). One example is below:

It wasn't really surprising to me that the vast bulk of these videos were being created by young females. I can remember being in grade school and observing my classmates. Boys would often be playing tag, chasing each other around, punching/kicking, and/or playing basketball. On the other side of the yard there were usually at lease a few girls playing elaborate versions of patty-cake. This seemed a mystery to me (along with the bizarre future telling device made out of paper... but I digress). 

So, obviously there is quite a precedent for "the cup song" phenomenon. In fact, musical games are performed (primarily by girls) all over the world. And I think, as music teachers, this represents a wonderful opportunity for us to reevaluate the way we go about teaching rhythm and melody. Kodaly revolutionized (or at least codified) music instruction for young children by (re)introducing musical games, singing, and group activities into the classroom. In that vein, wouldn't it be possible to generate a book of simple rhythms and songs that could be learned by all students as part of a standard music curriculum?

Music teachers love to complain about students not practicing. And yet, the young people posting "cup song" videos on YouTube are spending a fair amount of time learning how to maneuver their "drum" and sing at the same time. Think of the classic American folk-songs (especially those from the south) that could be revived by doing similar things with them.

*Of course, it is entirely possible that a curriculum like the one I am proposing exists already and I just haven't heard of it. If that is the case I hope you will post some info for the rest of us. But until then:

OK composers and music teachers, let's see what you got!