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Published: September 9th 2009
The past few days have been exhaustingly busy for me, but I’ve been getting some great fieldwork done that exactly fits my aim of researching music education. Rather than dressing all my notes up into a polished discourse, this time I’ll just post my frantic memory-dumping note scratches from the past few nights as they are. Feel free to ask me questions or for clarification about any of the events or ideas presented on this blog. I’m still working on getting a new insulin pump; right now I’m negotiating with a company rep from Mumbai about what I need and how much it’s going to cost. Monday I bought a set of tabla, and today I bought a sarangi (similar to a violin); I’ve got a lot of music to learn! Here are my notes:
Today I just finished visiting the PadmaKanya campus of Tribhuvan University to interview students, teachers, and the head of the campus. I spoke with 2 individual students and then a group of students, a few teachers (I didn’t really interview the teachers), and then the lady who runs the campus. Dr. Music Professor was with me the whole time, and he helped translate.
Padma Kanya is a girls’ campus of Tribhuvan University, and it was the first university to institutionalize music in Nepal. The music program has been around for about 52 years, and it was started by Dr. Music Professor’s father. Right now the university employs about 20 music teachers, and they teach Indian Classical music and Nepali folk music, to include sitar, tabla, tampura, voice, and madal (and other folk drums and instruments). The voice students also learn tabla and tampura. Girls enroll in Padma Kanya after 10 grade (after their SLC test), and they can stay 2 years for certificate level qualification, or 5 years for bachelor level qualification. For upper level music majors, 200 of their 500 total marks come from music. For lower level music majors, 100 of 400 total marks come from music. Classes meet every day from Sunday through Friday. The music curriculum at Padma Kanya is prescribed by the subject board, and is tested at the end of each year through exams administered by the exam board. The curriculum is published, and is very difficult to alter (though Dr. wants to change it). I requested a copy of the curriculum. The school has a very good reputation for music, and all of the students I spoke with chose Padma Kanya because they knew they could take music there. Many of the students began music study at the university, and did not have any previous formal music education. All wanted to continue music study after graduation. Nepal doesn’t offer masters level music education, so students must go to India if they wish to continue formal institutional study. The school is very affected by political unrest, and the political situation in Nepal has disrupted class. The exams were given very late this year, teachers went on strike, and many demonstrations closed the campus for periods of time. The students are frustrated about this; they can’t rely on the school to provide them a consistent education, and they can’t count on always having access to the school’s resources. The school had no computers, the classrooms were fairly small and were equipped with closets (for instruments), a raised carpeted platform for performing and practicing, and a desk for the teacher. The students would like to have better, more reliable resources. The students all want to be career musicians; mostly performers, but they are open to teaching if the opportunity presents itself. The lower level students hadn’t performed yet, the upper level students had. They all listen to (Eastern) Classical music, and they believe learning Classical music is very important. They are not optimistic about the future, however, and they know that an unstable government can have a lot of negative effect on job markets and other opportunities. One of the upper level students is a part-time dance teacher at a grade school; she teaches 4 levels with about 20 students per level. Mostly the students expected that formal music training doesn’t come until college. They don’t like this, and they know that it puts them at a disadvantage compared to students in other countries who start much younger. The lower level students had a very limited knowledge about the music and teachers available at the university; the university has about 20 teachers, and the students only knew 3. They told me that they had the same teachers every year. The school is sponsored by the government, and tuition is VERY cheap. The expense comes in transportation to and from school, buying instruments, and spending time practicing. The students had to fill out an application to enter the school (I didn’t ask about auditions, though I assume there are none since music students start at the university as beginners).
The interviews were a bit awkward at first. I was introduced to the students by Dr., and then I asked the questions, but the students were very shy. The first girl I interviewed was supposedly an English teacher, but she only answered in Nepali and she only spoke to Dr.. She looked really uncomfortable the whole time. Same for the second girl. The next group I interviewed were a little bit more outgoing; it was a group of about 10 girls, and they seemed to feel safer in a group. I didn’t ask any specific girl in particular, and they came up with answers as they thought of them. Hardly any spoke English to me, though I’m sure they could if they tried. They asked me a few questions, also, and I ended up singing a little bit for them. I didn’t have a hard copy of my question list, so I was just coming up with questions off the top of my head (next time I’ll bring a list). I met the madal and Nepali folk music master, my teacher’s teacher. He was very friendly, and he invited me to come to his house. I made audio recordings of all my interviews. The last person I interviewed was the chief of the campus, and she was very friendly and answered my questions in English. I think the whole thing went well, but it could have been much smoother. I’m still getting adjusted to my role as interviewer. I’m sure next time will be a little better.
Last night I had quite the ethnographic experience! I went to a Hindu place for a goodbye puja ceremony for an expat who would be leaving Nepal the next day. I was mixed in with about 7 expats, some Nepali friends, the Nepali Hindu guys who ran the ceremony, and some musicians. When I arrived at the place near the Bagmati river bridge there were a few musicians playing some tunes on tabla, harmonium, voice, gongs, and a plucked string attached to a drum head. I think it was a previous puja that was ending (ours would be next). The place was the inner courtyard of a simple set of buildings, totally unmarked from the outside, with a few rooms opening out into the courtyard. There were monkeys and cows running freely about. Some of the walls were painted in Hindu designs, but crudely (not as art). I sat down and hung out with some of the other foreigners as the previous party finished up; we were distributed tea, and we sat and listened to the music of the other guys. When our part started we congregated around a low fire with incense, a brightly dressed, dreadlocked, and painted old Saddhu said some things, wrapped a red shawl around the girl who was leaving and the guy who organized the event, put tikas on their heads and painted their cheeks, said some more things, then came around and put tikas on all of our heads and gave us each a little pink flower. There was then more music, and we were passed some snacks on leaf plates. As the sun went down the previous musicians stopped, and my sarangi player friend, another Persian musician, and I started a jam going. We did some Resham Firiri (the folk song that’s played all the time in Thamel), and my friend played some other folk tunes on sarangi. I was way out of tune with the harmonium (the harmonium guy came back and tried to join in), so I quickly traded my clarinet for my egg shaker. The Persian guy played a big, shallow, circular frame drum with metal rings on the inside for sound effect, and he and I went back and forth with rhythmic intensity. This lasted for about a half hour, at which time it was completely dark. When we finished with the music outside it started to rain, so we went inside a long rectangular room to eat our dinner. The room was long from end to end, but short from side to side. It was lit with one candle, the cooking fire, and a small, yellow electric lightbulb in the corner. We sat down crosslegged on mats and waited for our food. The food consisted of a bowl of milky, chunky, kind of sweet pudding substance served in a leaf bowl (I didn’t have a good view of what I was eating), some spicy potatoes, a milky oniony sauce, and some spicy other vegetables. Before we started eating, the Persian musician pulled out a 4 string zither-like instrument with frets and a resonating gourd, and started playing. It was repetitive, but it was really relaxing, and it helped facilitate falling into a trance kind of attitude. I finally pulled out my clarinet case and drummed along a little bit. He played for a long time—all through dinner, and a bit after. After dinner people continually fell into a more and more intoxicated state. We chilled for a while, I drank some fresh boiled sweet milk, we had tea, and then it was time to go. It was really a unique experience, and it really helped me to realize that I am, in fact, in Asia. I was told not to tell anybody about the place—they want to keep it local and low-key. They don’t want it to be another Pashupatinath. Much of the ceremony and proceedings I didn’t understand at all, but I was there, and I can remember.
Today I went to a grade school and saw an after school music rehearsal. The grade school is called the New Zenith English Model School, it’s a private school, it’s an English-medium school, and it teaches grades 1-10. It offers music as a required extra-curricular subject; the music teachers go into the classrooms twice a week and hold music class. It has taught music since it started in 2000. Speaking with the principal, I found out that they offer music because they believe in offering a well-rounded education to include culture, and they also offer dance and sports. He said that less than half of the schools in Kathmandu teach music, and those are all private schools. He said that government schools don’t have enough money to offer music. As far as I understand, the government controls the SLC test (school leaving certificate), and that’s the overall accountability system for education. If students pass the SLC in 10th grade, they’re ready for +2 or university study. If they don’t, then they study until they pass it. Parents choose where their children go to school, and according to this principal, over 60% go to private schools. Private schools are good because they have more money, they teach in English, and some can offer things like music and dance. The curriculum is proprietary to the school, and the school is judged by the SLC results. This allows a lot of room for schools to offer their own types of early education, and the principal was telling me that the private sector was really helping out the overall education climate in Kathmandu (stepping in where government schools can’t deliver). Music is not tested on the SLC, and is therefore not ‘officially’ important for a student’s educational progress. At this school the children learn Nepali folk music. My madal teacher teaches folk percussion and rhythm, and another teacher does folk singing and melody. The band that I saw rehearse is the best of the best, mostly from 8-10 grade, who rehearse together after school in preparation for concerts and events. They were 2 guitar players, a piano player, 2 tambourine/egg shaker/cymbal players, 3 multi-drummers (madal, dholok, khe, dhime), 4 madal-only players, and 4 pianica (melodica) players. The keyboard and pianicas played melody, guitars harmony, and the rest rhythm. Only the guitars looked at any kind of written notation; the others played from memory. The composition was arranged by the music teachers as a string of folk songs from all over Nepal; they are fit together with rhythm and tempo changes, which the students performed beautifully, together, and without direction from the teacher (during the performance). I imagine they learned by rote—the teacher playing or singing, and the students repeating. Madal teacher said that his class time is spent on performance practice. Theory is important, but performance is more important, and he only gets 2 classes a week with them. They know rhythms and dynamics, but only as they are applied in performance (from what I observed). Madal teacher teaches them folk rhythms and drumming technique. The other guy teaches them singing. The compositions are not written down, and every performance spawns a new composition. The same compositions, therefore, can’t be used from year to year, and can’t be used by more than one school. Music education at this school, then, seems to be just as much culture education as it is discreet music education. Both teachers work part-time at the school. Most of the musicians in this after school group were male; there were maybe 3 girls, and they all played pianica. I didn’t get a chance to interview any of the students. This school music group will be featured tomorrow at a government ‘education day’ culture show, and they won first place at a recent music competition. The other music teacher works at 3 other schools.
Today I went to a culture show sponsored by the Nepal Ministry of Education in celebration of Education Day. I first met my madal teacher outside of city hall, where it happened, and he took me backstage with his school to help set up. The backstage scene was just like I’ve experienced at band contests in the US; the kids did the unpacking from the bus and moved the equipment inside. Once inside, the music teachers checked the drums for tuning, moved the benches to a good spot, then everybody hung out, conversed, played around, and generally did what kids do until it was time for them to perform. There were more than one performing group at this event, so the backstage was a constant come-and-go between various costumed groups and their teachers. The event started with an award ceremony on stage; various schools were recognized for being good, better, and the best. I asked a teacher backstage how the schools were judged to be better than other schools, and she said she had no idea. The award ceremony dragged on, as they usually do, and people started getting restless backstage. There were about ten different school groups waiting to perform, and most of them were huge groups of costumed dancers. There was no climate control in the auditorium, and it was packed, so it was really hot and stuffy inside. The teachers and students performing had no concern except to put on a good show, so they did their various warm-up routines outside while the rest of the ceremony was going on. Some of the kids were nervous and jumpy, and the ones around me were naturally intrigued by my sound recorder and white skin, so I had to field a bunch of energetic questions about my home country and what in the world I was doing backstage at a cultural show with a funny looking hand-held machine that wasn’t a camera. It was a fun time, and again, reminded me of multi-school performances back in the States. Before I forget, the whole thing started with the Nepali national anthem as played by a school music group with clarinets, baritones, pianicas, trumpets, some western-style bass drums, some folk drums, flutes, and maybe some other western-style band instruments. After their performance, the group left (and probably went back to school). This was the only group with Western band instruments. Then the award ceremony (above), and then actual student performances started. I was really impressed with the quality of the shows and the amount of work that must have gone into preparing for them. Most of them were dance performances highlighting folk dances from all over Nepal. The students wore elaborate, colorful folk costumes representing different Nepali geographic areas and ethnic groups, and they performed fantastic folk-style choreographed dance numbers that lasted anywhere from 6-10 minutes long. The dancers were all girls, and they ranged from very young (maybe 5-6 years old) to adolescent (15-16 years old). The dancers were accompanied by folksong recordings, and they varied in style, but they were all distinctly Nepali. It’s hard to convey with words the variety, energy, visual, and aural effect of the different performances—some had girls of the same age group wearing the same costumes and dancing to the same song, some had a variety of age groups, a variety of costumes, and a combination of songs, and others had some constants and some varieties within that range. No two performances were the same, and there were about 10 performances. I got a sample of video recordings on my camera of the different school performances. Mixed in with this dance extravaganza were two school groups who were primarily musical; one was the group I was with—the one that my madal teacher teaches, and the one I described in the write-up from yesterday, and the other was a group that had a line of instrumental musicians in the back (they looked like they may not have been students—they looked older, and they weren’t wearing costumes/uniforms), and a line of costumed singers in the front (definitely students). They sang folk songs, and they included a mixture of boys and girls. The last school-based performance was a group of teachers who sang folk songs, danced (one at a time), and were accompanied live by a madal player and flute player. They weren’t nearly as impressive as the students before them, but they were still fun to watch. They weren’t costumed—they wore regular sari-type clothes. Men played the instruments and women sang. After the teachers, a comedian did a show; I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I could tell he was really funny! After him, another man gave a speech, and it was really long, and fast-worded, and boring. After him, it was over.
Other comments about the event:
From watching the shows I got the idea that music and dance are important in Kathmandu on an inter-scholastic level, and are a great way for schools to teach children Nepali culture. Nepali culture seems to be more important a subject in schools than either music or dance, and music and dance seem to be the medium through which culture is taught. Dancers here were strictly girls. One performance even had girl dancers wear male costumes. Musicians were co-ed, but mostly boys. All of the music and dance represented folk culture, and a mix of ethnicities and regions. No classical music, no western music, no Indian popular music, and no re-mix music, though the music and dance were performed in a fairly modern style (stage shows, choreographed dance, recorded music to accompany the dancers, guitars, keyboards, and pianicas in the music performance). Some of the shows had dancers with costumes from different regions and ethnic groups dancing the same moves at the same time. The music performance from the school I was with strung folk tunes from various regions and ethnic groups one-after-another. The shows were wildly popular; some songs/moves/dancers inspired spontaneous applause in the middle of the shows, and all shows received huge ovations upon completion. My madal teacher told me that his school ‘was invited to perform’ at this event, so I imagine all the schools were there by invitation. His school was invited because they got first place at a music contest earlier this year, and he told me the contest was sponsored by the education board (different from the ministry). I need to interview somebody from the education board; he told me they sponsor many events. So far all of the grade school music/dance (the Nepali word for music, ‘sangeet’, includes dance, so just by definition my ‘music’ ed project has expanded hugely to include dance) I’ve encountered has been in the folk tradition, and this fits with the idea of using music and dance to teach Nepali performance culture (as opposed to writing/drawing/painting culture) (I haven’t encountered ANY drama/acting yet). Schools ARE recognized here, music field trips DO happen (and they’re much the same as music field trips in the US), and culture performance is VERY popular.
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