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Asia » Nepal » Kathmandu » Lazimpat
October 6th 2009
Published: October 6th 2009
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I've been here in Nepal for seven weeks now, and I've just finished writing a preliminary report of everything I've learned so far. It starts with a description of my primary informants and our conversations (names changed), continues with a description of the schools I've visited so far, and ends with some of my own thoughts/observations/conclusions. It's very long, but I'm more interested in being thorough at this point than in being concise. Please comment, especially anthropologists and professional music educators. Here it is:

Principal Informants:

Dr. Sitar Professor:
Dr. Sitar is a prestigious professional sitar player from a family of prestigious professional sitar players. His grandfather brought sitar music to Nepal. Dr. Sitar earned his Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Delhi, and his dissertation was in Nepali classical music of the Rana period. He plays professionally in the group Sukarma, he teaches sitar and classical music at the Padma Kanya Multiple Campus of Tribhuvan University, and he teaches privately in his home. I have had the following discussions with Dr. Sitar:
We spoke about grade school music teachers verses university/professional music teachers. Grade school teachers are expected to know a little bit about many kinds of music and instruments so that they can teach a broad range of music ideas to their students. Grade school principals want their students to know a little bit of folk singing, a little bit of madal, a little bit of other Nepali instruments, and a little bit of general performance skill. University and professional music teachers, however, are expected to specialize in one particular form of music or instrument, and teach students that particular form to a much more proficient level. These teachers are specialists, and many are leaders in their own specialized field. Because of this difference in teacher backgrounds, the two types of music teachers are not easily interchanged. It would be difficult for Dr. Sitar to teach in a grade school, and it would be difficult for a grade school teacher to teach in University.
We also spoke about pedagogy and what to expect from students. We know, as music teachers, that many of our students will not become proficient enough to play professionally. If we start with 100 students, maybe 10 of them will become very proficient and continue past our instruction, 40 may become fairly proficient hobbyists, and 50 will develop other interests and slowly remove themselves from music study. We spoke about expecting the highest level of proficiency from all of our students; only in that way will some of them approach the skill levels that they need to continue past their study.
We then spoke about student motivation. Students in Nepal have very little incentive to become professional musicians, and those that do cannot start with the expectation of living a rich, comfortable life. There are some opportunities for professional musicians, but they are few and very competitive. To seriously pursue music students have to forsake other more technical subjects like science and math, which have a much higher success rate. Music takes much time and effort to learn, so it can be a very difficult commitment. Students must necessarily work less at their other subjects and other duties to be able to pursue music. It would be very difficult for a poor, working young man to come up with the necessary time to study music. In the States, musicians can get reliable jobs as music teachers, and make a good living. In Nepal it is also possible to be a music teacher, but there are far fewer music teaching jobs available here, and they don’t pay very well. It is also difficult to make a living as a performer; venues cannot afford to pay very much per performance, and the music industry is so saturated with pirated recordings that selling CD’s is also not a reliable source of income. Some musicians teach privately, but private music teachers often earn less than private English teachers. There are some institutional music teaching jobs available, but the ones that I know of at this moment require a master’s degree in music, and this is only possible in India. This is an instance of the institution-based qualification system moving in on the skills-based music proficiency system.
We spoke about music curriculum in the university. University music students only learn music in one out of five classes per term, and they learn in subject-based classes. All of the sitar students take sitar classes together, the vocal students take vocal classes together, etc. Students do not spend class time in rehearsal with performance groups. Of all of the music offered at Padma Kanya, sitar, tabla, classical vocal, folk music, and a little bit of western music and theory, students have to choose which classes to combine to suit their plan of study. We still need to speak about each student’s music course requirements verses music course electives. Dr. Sitar has criticized the system as being old and not productive for well-rounded musicians. Music students must spend more time in music classes, and they need to receive a more rounded system of classes to become better all-round musicians. Students also need to practice in performance groups, and get more opportunities to perform. Dr. Sitar is working to change the curriculum, but it is a long and difficult process. Many of the university music students begin their university studies as beginners, having never received music training in schools previously. This puts them at a disadvantage against students in other countries who started at a much younger age.
We spoke about the problem of money as regards music learning. Music learning is expensive; students must purchase their instruments, maintain their instruments, pay for music teachers, and dedicate time to individual practice. Students with interest but no money are excluded from the system, and some students with money but no interest are forced into the system. Money is also an issue for schools when considering music teaching. Grade schools need not teach music, it’s not on the official tests, so any investment in music has only an indirect and hard-to-define effect on the success of the school. Music teachers can be expensive to hire, instruments must also be purchased for the students to learn, and necessary time during the school day must be given over to music. All government schools, and many private schools, simply cannot afford to offer music.
We spoke about the guru-shishya param param educational style, wherein students study devotedly for years from a master guru, form a deep and lasting relationship, and often help with non-musical everyday chores in service to him. This is the traditional music education system in India and Nepal, and it requires years of dedicated service and practice from students, and even more dedicated teaching and guiding from the guru. This system is still around, though it’s being pushed to the side by qualifications-based institutional education.
We spoke about raga music and music development. He said that there are some purists/traditionalists who do not consider any playing outside of the traditional ragas within the strict raga scales to be raga music. This is a very closed, narrow-minded opinion. Dr. Sitar is of the opinion that any music can fit into some form of raga, and that it is only in this way that the musical form will develop. Traditionally there are different types of raga styles—there is the formal traditional raga which accepts no deviance, there is the mixed raga which allows ideas from many different ragas to be transferred, recombined, and developed, and there is the light-classical which allows much freedom in melodic construction, accepting ideas from western music and other styles, as long as they contribute to the effect of the melody. He gave me a definition of raga which I had never heard before: raga is the melody with the power to attract listener’s attention. Under that definition, much liberty can be taken with melodies, as long as they attract listeners’ attention. He didn’t specify, but I understood it to mean the power of beauty to attract attention; an ugly melody that attracted negative attention may not be considered raga. We also discussed that the sound of the music should be the thing which is judged, not the appearance. Somebody who attracts attention by playing pianos with his feet is merely a novelty, not an appropriate player of raga melody. Dr. Sitar is a promoter of musical creativity and development, and he is open to influencing his and others’ music with outside traditions.
Dr. Sitar is very well connected among professional musicians in Kathmandu, and he has offered to take me to music schools and introduce me to teachers and administrators. So far we’ve gone to Padma Kanya campus, and we have plans to visit Gurukul, Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory, Do Re Mi Music School, and others.
With Dr. Sitar I am also learning elements of music performance. I sit in with him during morning practice time and learn basics of Eastern Classical music, raag patterns/scales, and improvisation techniques (on clarinet).

Mr. Madal Teacher:
Mr. Madal is a folk music/madal specialist and grade school music teacher here in Kathmandu. He teaches part-time at 8 different grade schools, many for only one or two hours a week. In addition, he plays rhythm in a Nepali folk music group, and he has played at culture shows around Asia, including Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. He holds a bachelor’s degree in tabla from a university in Nepal. I met Mr. Madal through the owner of an instrument shop in Paknajol. I walked into the store, asked if he knew any madal teachers, and he responded that he did, and that I should come back the next day. The next day he introduced me to Mr. Madal, we agreed upon a lesson schedule, and he took me to his house. Since that time I have been learning madal techniques, learning folk songs, and visiting grade schools with Mr. Madal. I have had the following conversations with him:
We have spoken about the education system in Kathmandu, and the difference between government schools and private schools. Government schools are funded by the government (obviously), and are generally considered inferior to private schools. Government schools perpetually suffer from a lack of funds, they teach only the government curriculum in preparation for the district and SLC tests, and they teach in Nepali. Private schools vary tremendously, but in general they teach in English, and they offer their students a wider variety of subjects. They are funded by student tuition, and they are generally judged both by the subjects they offer, and by past students’ success on the SLC test. Private schools which have better reputations attract more students, earn more money, and offer more subjects. Public schools have generally been abandoned by the middle class, and I’ve heard the breakdown of 70% of students in private schools and 30% of students in public schools (this is by no means exact—I’ve heard 60/40, 70/30, 80/20, and 90/10—the point is that a larger percentage of students go to private schools). Parents have complete control over which school to send their children, setting up a capitalist market-like atmosphere among schools to compete for students. Government schools do not teach music at all, and less than half of the private schools offer music instruction to their students (I’ve heard 10%, 20%, 30%, and 40%). Those schools that do offer music teach it on the side, between 40 minutes and 2 hours a week.
We have spoken about the limitations that school music teachers have to deal with. Mr. Madal has described a strong frustration about not being able to do justice to his field of music teaching. He is expected by his principal and the students’ parents to train the students to sing songs and play instruments well enough to put on a couple of performances during the school year. As a result he spends all of his time teaching them performance practice by rote—he teaches them to sing a song, and to play rhythms behind it. One hour per week is not enough time to teach the students any significant amount of music theory, composition, notation, history, or advanced performance techniques. Aside from expecting his students to perform, his principals have no direct influence on the music curriculum—Mr. Madal is free to teach whichever songs or instruments he wants. This is the case with every grade school music teacher in town; each one has his own ideas of what to teach and how to teach it, and that’s what he does. There is no unity or agreement or general oversight over city-wide grade school music curriculum. In addition, his principals have little understanding about the resources required for music instruction. Some principals hire him, give him no instruments and no classroom, and expect him to travel from class to class and create little musicians. He said that one principle gave him 3 drums and expected him to teach 50 students at a time (in one hour a week). Mr. Madal gets paid very little for his services, usually between 3,000 and 7,000 rupees per month per school (approx. $40-$90). His schools are spread out around the city, and he spends considerable time and petrol in transit.
We have spoken a little bit about the education board which oversees all school activity in the city. This board sponsors special events, culture shows, music competitions, and holds all schools to a minimum standard. The board is different from the ministry of education, but I don’t know the exact relationship at this point. We will speak more in the future about the education board.
We have spoken many times about Nepali folk music. Madal is the main accompanying instrument for vocal folk songs. Songs tend to be in two stanzas, generally AA BA form, and very ornamented and melodic. Nepali folk songs come from all over Nepal from many ethnic groups, and right now in the city the various repertoires are mixing and forming a multi-ethnic Nepali repertory of folk songs. These are the songs that Mr. Madal teaches in the schools, and he often makes a point to mix tunes and rhythms from a wide range of Nepali ethnic groups. There seems to be a large effort to bring Nepali folk songs to a wide, modern audience. Culture shows (both student and professional) feature mixed-ethnic songs and dances, often with some kind of electronic element, and sometimes mixing roots within songs. I witnessed a single dance with costumed performers representing many diverse areas of Nepal. Mr. Madal is teaching me to sing and play a variety of folk songs, and with each folk song he tells me its meaning and original ethnic group/geographic area. This multi-ethnic folk song repertory is being adopted by many Nepalis when they are very young, building a common group of songs that most Nepalis can identify with (similar to our US national and folk songs: America the Beautiful, Oh Susanna, etc.). The songs that I know so far that are widely known in the city are Resham Firiri, Malushree (for dashain holiday), and Fulko aka-ma. There are more; I just haven’t learned them yet.
We have spoken about the types of music that students learn, and the types of music that principals want their students to learn. Mr. Madal told me that principals want him to teach Nepali music, and a wide variety of Nepali music. As a result, he gets better music teaching jobs than a classical musician would. He also gets better music jobs than a pop/western musician would. He chose to specialize in Nepali music because not very many people do (there are far more tabla players than professional Nepali folk music players), and because it makes him attractive for school principals. Because students are learning Nepali folk music, and because they are learning by rote, with only a little explanation as to what the song means and where it comes from, music tends to be secondary to the subject of Nepali culture. Mr. Madal doesn’t really teach music as its own subject, he teaches Nepali culture as the subject and music as the type of culture.
We have spoken about opportunities abroad for music teachers. Mr. Madal is not satisfied with the current struggles facing grade school music teachers in Kathmandu, and he is interested in investigating opportunities elsewhere. He explained that a friend of his has created an organization and cultural performance group with the express purpose of performing at culture shows abroad.
I’ve spoken with Mr. Madal’s nephew about a music education promotional program put on by the Japanese Embassy here in Nepal. The Embassy distributes a number of Japanese-made pianica instruments to schools around Kathmandu, then sponsors a music contest to see which school can integrate the pianica the best into a Nepali musical cultural program. In this way the Embassy promotes school music education and Nepali culture, but also promotes a little bit of Japanese culture and widens the potential market for the Japanese instruments. I think it’s a really brilliant idea, and I totally support anything that will support music education so heartily, Japanese influence or not. Everybody seems to win—the Japanese cover their interests, and it really does help out with music education and the promotion of Nepali culture. I think there’s potential for the US Embassy or maybe a US instrument company to do something similar. I’ll have to speak with someone at the Japanese Embassy about the program. I also need to speak with Mr. Madal about the full details of the program.
Mr. Madal will continue to teach me Nepali folk music, and continue to take me to grade schools to speak with the administrators, teachers, and students.

Mr. Tabla
Mr. Tabla is a working tabla player and student of guru Hom Nath Uphadyaya. He is about 25 years old, has been studying for ten years, and is a well-respected member of the Eastern Classical music community here in Kathmandu. He performs often at classical music venues, makes and sells music recordings, and teaches privately. I met Mr. Tabla through Dr. Sitar, and he is now teaching me tabla. I don’t know how much formal schooling Mr. Tabla has completed, but I’m fairly certain he has his SLC. We’ve had the following conversations:
We’ve spoken about the difficulties of being a working musician; living from gig to gig, teaching a little bit, and recording a little bit. He plays often, so he and his brother have enough money for a flat in Kathmandu, a motorbike, and various music things (computer, keyboard, a few sets of tabla, some other instruments, etc.). He’s an incredible player, in high demand, but he’s told me that playing tabla is the only thing he does well. He’s not rich, by any means, and he works hard and practices often. There are very many tabla players here in Nepal and all over South Asia, so the field is much more competitive than I previously knew. This makes it difficult to get performing jobs sometimes, but it can also make it easier to get teaching jobs, provided that interest in tabla remains high.
He has taken me with him to a few classical music concerts, and has introduced me to some of the regular musicians and concert goers. I’ve found it to be a fairly tight community; the concerts are not well publicized (at least not to my awareness), but these people always know where to go.
He has also taken me with him to a sound engineering studio. This was a small room with a large electronic set-up and pro-tools software. He recorded a few tracks with a flute player, and they were in the process of mastering them. It was a fairly informal gathering; we talked and joked and had a good time, all the while the sound engineer was working on cleaning up the recording. I got the impression that recording happens fairly often here, in small studios, and it’s fairly inexpensive. I’ll have to confirm this with Mr. Tabla when he returns to the city from dashain holiday.
Most of my time with Mr. Tabla has been tabla learning time. He is teaching me stroke techniques, rhythm combinations, and classical music rhythmic cycle counting. It is a difficult instrument and music system to learn, and I require much practice.

Ms. Nepali Language
Ms. Language is my Nepali language teacher. She has been teaching for over 15 years, and she worked previously with the Peace Corps in Nepal. She has taught many Fulbrighters, diplomats, and other important visitors over the years. I was given her name by the Fulbright commission office, and we started the day after I first called her. I meet her every weekday for two hours each day, one on one, to learn Nepali. We’ve had many many conversations, and a few of them directly relate to my project. She has a nephew who is school age, and I’ve learned a little of the students’ perspective on school from him. We’ve had the following conversations:
We’ve discussed the government curriculum and SLC test. Students take a district-level standardized test when they are in 8th grade, administered by the education board, and students take the SLC test in 10th grade, administered by the SLC board. District level tested subjects include English, Nepali, social science, science, and math. SLC tests also have these subjects, and add the following: environmental science, advanced English/optional math, and computers/accounting. Students prepare for the SLC during most of their 10th grade year. As a result, students often take no extra-curricular subjects in 10th grade. Extra-curricular subjects abound for the younger children (games, art, music), and they steadily decrease as the students get older. In some schools music is compulsory for students in 1-5 grade, and then they cannot take it after that. Ms. Language told me that music used to be a tested subject, and it was on the test when she took it—both a performance/practical aspect and a written aspect. Since then it must have been replaced by a more modern subject—computers or accounting or environmental science. I need to speak with somebody on the board about that. Her nephew wanted to learn music when he was younger, but he has since expressed the opinion, “Why should I learn music if I won’t get any credit for it?”
We’ve discussed past forms of music education. She told me that the Manandhar clan traditionally worked in mills making mustard-seed oil. There were seven mills around the Kathmandu valley, and it was the job of the Manandhars to run them. She said that the Manandhar family used to have a music guru who would teach all of the Manandhar children the seasonal songs. They would go to him for a week or so every month to learn to sing and play the songs, and the songs would change every month according to the meaning of the season. She said she doesn’t know for sure, but this was probably the case for the other Newari families as well: the Mohorjans, the Shresthas, etc. She said that the practice is dying out. First, because modern global trade has pushed the oil mills from prominence in the city; people buy imported oil at cheaper prices than Manandhar oil. As a result, Manandhars are abandoning the business and getting modern jobs. This is spreading the family out, and diminishing the importance of traditional things. Second, children don’t have as much time to learn things from their family as they used to. They go to school from 9 to 4 every day, and they take care of housework after that. Some of their parents don’t want them to learn music; they don’t want them to like it and abandon prospects for more secure math and science jobs. The gurus also don’t always teach anymore, and some clans don’t have gurus at all anymore. The gurus don’t make money from teaching the clan (that I know of), and they are busy making money in industries other than mustard-seed oil. I believe one of the gurus is abroad working in the Arabian Gulf. Ms. Language knows one of the Manandhar gurus, and she will introduce me to him.

Mr. Sarangi Gandharba
Mr. Sarangi is about 25 years old, and he works as a street musician in Thamel. He sells sarangis, plays sarangi on the streets for donations, teaches sarangi at the Gandharba Culture and Arts Organization (GCAO), sells his CDs, plays occasional gigs for money, and organizes treks when he has enough tourists to go. Mr. Sarangi is my key to the street scene, and my informant about the GCAO. He likes to go to bars, heckle tourists, and sweet-talk girls. We’ve had the following conversations:
We’ve spoken about the GCAO. It’s an organization of Gandharba musicians—the traditionally low caste of people that travel and play folk music for anyone willing to listen and hopefully donate. The organization was started by an American guy, and it brought the Gandharba family together to cooperate, organize, and present the music to Nepalis and tourists in a more efficient way. The organization has an office in Thamel, and Gandharba guys support the organization by selling their CDs, instruments, and giving lessons, all through the central hub of the office in Thamel. Tourists can go to the office to listen to music, take lessons, buy CDs, and buy instruments. The Gandharbas, through the organization, teach Nepali instruments and folk songs for a short period of time to both Nepalis and Tourists. They offer something like a month-long crash course in sarangi, bansuri, madal, or vocal for anybody willing to pay the price. They don’t really intend to form long-lasting relationships with their students or guide them to become professionals in the field. They’ve mostly capitalized on what they do best—Nepali music, and they sell the music and a basic idea of how to play it to anybody who’s interested. With the money they make from their business pursuits they support themselves, and they support Gandharbas in other areas of Nepal. They give a portion of the money to help Gandharba kids go to school and buy clothes, and they use some of it for cultural advocacy.
Mr. Sarangi has also talked very seriously with me about the problems involved in getting a visa to the US. He said that it takes a lot of money and time to put together the application, another payment to have an interview at the Embassy, and he said that he and his friends get rejected for the silliest reasons. He said they do everything they are supposed to, they have arrangements from Americans in the US who will support them, they fill out all their forms completely, they get to the interview, and they’re rejected because they’re not married. They also see how nice and fancy and expensive the embassy compound is, and they know how much they and countless other Nepalis pay to get the chance to interview for a visa and are rejected, and putting this together they know that it’s they who pay for the embassy and get nothing in return. They feel the exploitation very strongly, and Mr. Sarangi and his friends have been embittered with no future desire to deal with any more American officials.
We have spoken a little bit about school, but Mr. Sarangi doesn’t seem to pay much mind to it. I don’t believe he has gone to an official school; he learned English through an English program sponsored by the organization, and ever since he has been a street musician, doing what he always does. He needs to know music, which he learned from his family, and English, which he learned from the organization, and street skills, which he learned from experience, and not much else. He doesn’t have many options for upward mobility outside of music performance, but he seems to like the life he’s living now.

Mr. Guitar American,
Mr. American is an expat guitar player living in Kathmandu with his Nepali wife. He supports himself by teaching English, and in his spare time he practices guitar, plays gigs around town, and hangs out with other expat friends. He does spend a lot of time with Nepalis, especially his wife, his wife’s family, other Nepali musicians, restaurant owners, expat spouses, and his students, but he relaxes with other expats/travelers. He’s from Nashville, TN, and he plays country, blues, and folk tunes—some covers, some original. He has some regular gigs, and he’s looking to get more. I met Mr. American outside of a restaurant he’s been playing at, and he immediately invited me to come play with him. Since then I’ve played at most of his gigs, him singing and playing guitar, and me taking horn solos. I’ve had the following conversations with him:
We’ve spoken about the gigging music scene here in Kathmandu. It’s a very open scene—if performers here of a musician in the audience, they will often invite him on stage to play. This is different from what I remember of the US; in the US you don’t play in strangers’ gigs because they don’t know how good you are. Here, if you have an instrument and say you can play it, there you go. Mr. American brought up the idea that there are so many transient people here that musicians must take chances to play with others because they may never get that chance again (with that particular person). If an incredible musician will only be here a week and he’s available to play, the gigging musicians will tend to want to take that opportunity before it’s lost. Even so, there’s an element of trust when asking a stranger musician to play with you, and most musicians here are willing to extend that trust. I’ve also heard the opinion that “if you’re no good, it’s you who’s no good, and not us.” The music scene here is not supportive of full-time professional musicians. Gigs pay very little, if anything at all (other than complimentary food), and most venues stick to the tried-and-true classic rock cover bands. They’re not creative, and the songs have been played thousands of times, and a trained monkey could rip the chords with enough practice, but they attract tourists, and they’re not very expensive. Young middle class guys will play in these cover bands to have fun and enjoy the holiday atmosphere that tourists bring. Mr. American himself only plays for fun and food (most of the time) and supports himself otherwise by teaching English.

Mr. Heavy Metal
Mr. Metal is a 23 year old heavy metal guitar player. He’s a very dedicated and talented musician, and often practices for 3 hours or more per day. He’s part of a Nepali heavy metal band that plays original songs, and he’s a senior member of the Kathmandu underground metal music scene. He is also learning sitar and Eastern classical music with Dr. Sitar. To support himself he plays shows, makes recordings, and teaches metal guitar techniques to students through his ‘Heavy Metal Institute’. We’ve had the following conversations:
I’ve asked him about learning music in school. He said that while he was in school he had to learn music on the side. Most of his time was taken up with school classes, and he had very little time to dedicate to his music. He said that he got tired of this system, and he left school so he could practice more. He said that he learned guitar in the beginning from a teacher, but after a few basic lessons he learned on his own from listening to recordings. He’s been playing for about 6 years now.
I asked him how he supports himself with metal music. He said that he teaches about 9 students a month, one on one, and earns between 1,500 rupees and 2,500 rupees per student. He also plays some concerts, but these are inconsistent and don’t pay very well. He said that at most his audience gets to be about 500 people, and this is rare. I asked about his recordings, and he didn’t really factor that into his accounts. He’s made a couple recordings, and he distributed them to the radio and some music stores, but they don’t bring in a significant amount of money. He said that it’s very hard to live as a metal musician in Kathmandu, but he does it because it satisfies him. He said that he can’t imagine going every day to a dreary job and coming home again and forgetting about it. At least he can be passionate about what he does, he says. He lives at his parents’ home, and he is the only musician in the family. His dad worked a job in the past, but is now retired, leading me to believe that he comes from a middle class family that may not have had to really struggle for food. He also teaches out of his home, reducing his overhead costs.
I asked him what he wants to do in the future, and he responded that he wants to play music. He doesn’t really have a solid plan for a breakthrough album, or a band tour, or any of the things that might increase his popularity; at the moment he’s satisfied to just keep learning, playing, and teaching music in the same old way. He has expressed an interest in going abroad to study or play, but this seems more like a pipe dream than anything else, and he knows it. I haven’t asked, but I’m fairly certain he has his SLC, and I don’t think he’s done the +2 certificate. If his formal education is thus limited, he will have fewer options for going abroad than those who have completed +2 or bachelor’s studies. He made a decision to improve his music proficiency rather than to earn qualifications, and now he is an excellent player with few formal, mainstream work options (not that he really wants to do any mainstream work). He’s very eager to learn any kind of music, and he’s asked me to teach him some jazz practice.
I asked him about why he’s learning sitar with Dr. Sitar, and he replied that it will be good for the future. He didn’t elaborate.

Schools which I have visited:

Padma Kanya Multiple Campus, Tribhuvan University

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. Sitar’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. Sitar 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).

Interview answers, Padma Kanya:

For Students:
What motivates you to learn music, and for how long have you been studying music?
-Most of these students just liked to listen to music, or started as dancers. They knew they wanted to study music before they entered university, but most started their formal music education as beginners at the university.

What do you want to do in the future? Do you want to be a professional musician or music teacher?
-These students do want to be professional musicians. They have dreams of Indian Idol and cutting records and becoming famous, but they know that it’s a long process and very rare. They wouldn’t mind teaching if they had to, but most of these students want to be performers.

What kind of music are you learning, and how much time do you spend learning or practicing?
-Students at Padma Kanya learn Eastern Classical music and Nepali folk music. Instruments include tabla, sitar, tampura, madal, voice, and various other folk instruments. They spend about 45 minutes to 2 hours in class, then 1 to 2 hours outside of class practicing.

Do you learn in classes or in individual lessons?
-At school they learn in classes. Some have lesson teachers outside of school.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?
-Eastern Classical, and some Indian popular music.

How many teachers have you had, and how did you find your teachers?
-lower level university students had 3 music teachers at the university. They found the teachers because they were attracted by the reputation of the university.

Do you ever perform your music, or do you have any music students?
-Lower level students did not perform, but upper level students did. One upper level student is a dance teacher in schools.

How expensive is it to learn music?
-Tuition is very cheap, but the instrument is expensive and takes a lot of time. Vocalists pay considerably less at Padma Kanya.

Do you prefer to learn music theory, Western Music (staff and notation), Classical music, Popular music, Folk music, or a combination of these? Why?
-Classical music. Most other music is less complex than classical music (they say), so if they learn classical music they will be better equipped as overall musicians. They also learn Nepali folk music.

What advice would you give a young student who wants to learn music?
-learn classical music, come to Padma Kanya campus, but don’t depend on Padma Kanya for everything. Get a private instructor.

For Teachers:

What motivates you to teach music, and how long have you been teaching?
-These were long-term teachers. They’ve been teaching for 30 or more years.

How many students do you have, and how old are they?
-The university students are 17 and older, and the teachers have classes from 3 to 20 students each. Some of the teachers teach at more than one school and privately at home, so they have hundreds of students.

What kind of music do you teach (genre, instruments, theory)?
-Nepali folk, sitar, voice

Do you teach classes, individual lessons, both?
-Classes at the university, lessons at home

How long do you keep your students, and how often do you instruct?
-University class is every day from Sunday to Friday. Teachers keep their students for the length of time they study at the university.

At what skill level do your students start, and what skill level do you teach?
-They start as beginners.

For institutions:

How do you attract students?
Padma Kanya has a very good reputation as a music school.

How many teachers do you employ?
About 20

What types of music do you teach?
Eastern classical and Nepali folk

What qualifications do you offer your students?
Certificate level and Bachelor’s level degrees (2 or 5 years)

How do you stay in business?
Government subsidy

Are you overseen by the government or another institution? What is your legal status?

Are you an autonomous institute or affiliated with some university?
Affiliated with Tribhuvan University.

How do you develop curriculum?
The curriculum is developed and published by the subject board for the university. It is very difficult to change, and is arranged through a complex bureaucracy (I’ll have to listen to the recording to sort it out).

How do you arrange music instruction?
Classes by instrument (some theory and composition—I’ll have to ask about that)

How do you evaluate student or run the examination?
The exams are created and administered by the exam board. Neither the students nor the teachers know what will be on the test until it is administered. It is based on the curriculum. It is administered at a different campus from where the students usually study (to prevent teachers helping their students). The music exam is divided into practical and theoretical parts. The theoretical parts are written, and the practical part is performed in front of an outside judge. The exams come at the end of each academic year.

What qualifications/characteristics do you look for when hiring music teachers?
Masters degree or higher

New Zenith English Model School:

New Zenith English Model School is a private school 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. Mr. Madal 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. Mr. Madal 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). Mr. Madal 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. The majority of students I spoke with prefer math and science as their favorite subjects. Some want to be engineers when they grow up, some computer scientists, and some environmental scientists. None responded that they want to be musicians.

National Pioneer Academy:

NPA is also a private English-medium school that teaches grades 1-10, with an enrollment of about 400-500 students. Speaking with the principal, I found that his school is very young, and he is not satisfied with its current facilities. Being so young, it hasn’t established any kind of reputation for itself, so he can’t be picky about the students he accepts. Being so small, it doesn’t earn very much money, so he can’t afford to hire the best, most established teachers. Naturally the principal is very worried about the upcoming SLC government tests. The school teaches government curriculum, but it is an English-medium school, making it more desirable than Nepali-medium government schools. In all my private school interviews so far I’ve heard only bad things about government schools—they don’t have enough money for anything, they teach in Nepali, the teachers don’t work hard, etc. I am now very interested in visiting a government school. When asked about music, the answer was fairly predictable: “we can’t afford to hire a regular part-time music teacher.” He told me that sometimes before parents’ day he’ll hire a teacher to come in for a month to teach the kids songs for a program, but he can only hire new and unknown music teachers—well-known established ones are too expensive. Students at this school generally need to learn music elsewhere. This does happen, however—the school runs a small hostel for out-of-town students and orphans, and the students at the hostel all know a repertoire of Nepali folk tunes and dances (they sang and danced and had a great time while I was there), and some helpers at the school who are my age told me that they knew the same songs and dances when they were young. The students at the hostel learned informally from older students during free time after school, and from volunteers and chaperones. The principal told me also that there is an Education Board that oversees the operation of all the schools in Kathmandu, public and private, and has the power to shut schools down when they don’t meet certain criteria. He wasn’t clear about what the criteria are, but I’ll be able to ask again in the future. He advertises his school locally (in the neighborhood), but he can’t put out a city-wide ad because it’s expensive, and because he can’t provide services for kids across town (like buses). During my visit to the school and hostel the principal and his wife were the only administrators that I was ever aware of—they seemingly oversee the all of the school’s operations by themselves, and they live in the hostel and take care of the hostel kids by themselves.

Schools and institutions to visit in the future:

DoReMi Music School
Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory
Kathmandu University Department of Music
Whitefield Higher Secondary School
Lalit Kala Campus, Tribhuvan University
Alliance Academy
Government schools
Education Board
Ministry of Education
Gurukul Fine Arts School

Thoughts, Observations, Conclusions:

Formal Education
The formal grade-school education system here is held accountable by the SLC test and the government board that administers it. Students take it in 10th grade, and afterward they are free to go to +2 certificate level study, university bachelor’s study, master’s study, and higher and higher, or they are free to get vocational education and start working. This is similar in Texas, where students must pass the 11th grade TAKS test before they are allowed to graduate from high school. The problem with the system in Kathmandu is that there is only government curriculum available for those subjects which are tested on the SLC, and the public schools are only supported enough to teach those subjects. Everything else is proprietary to the schools and their teachers. This contrasts with the system in Texas, which has a prescribed curriculum for extra-curricular activities, and methods in place for students to prove their extra-curricular skills before a state-wide standard. Because music, being an extra-curricular activity, is not prescribed for schools, and schools are not held accountable at all for their students’ musical performance, and there is no standard music curriculum, many schools don’t teach music at all, and there is no organization or unity among the schools and teachers that do teach music. As a result, the universities in Nepal which offer music as a major subject largely expect their students to begin university study as musical beginners. It stands to reason that the amount of music majors, and the amount of music majors which go on to become professional musicians, could be increased if students get more reliable music instruction in grade school and start as intermediate musicians or higher at university.

Effect on Music Teaching
Because music is a non-standard subject in schools, and only a small percentage of schools offer music education, and music teachers are only part-time workers, students do not begin music study with the intention to become school music teachers. The music education industry is very small in Kathmandu. An effect of so few music teachers is that many students do not learn music in school, as described above. It’s my opinion that if more schools offered formal music instruction, and the music instruction was intended to prepare students for university study, then there would be more jobs available for music teachers, and more students would be able to consider music teaching as a viable career. This would increase both the level of music students, music teachers, and professional musicians, as more students could study and excel in university level music. There are some obstacles in the way of this sequence, however, the principle one being money. More music and music teachers would require a big investment by the government and by private school owners, and the effects would not be felt for an extended time. Another obstacle is one of curriculum; until schools are held accountable for subjects other than the tested ones, there will be little incentive to improve these extra subjects. Despite this, I believe that significant improvement in music education, and in other extra subjects like athletics, art, and drama, is an attainable goal.

Music Education Outside of Schools
Dedicated music students of all ages have a range of options for music learning outside of the formal education system. There are private lesson teachers readily available for any mode of Eastern classical music, Nepali folk music, and guitar music. There are some private music schools around town which teach classical, Nepali, and pop music, and some offer credentials similar to those at Indian music schools. For the very serious student there are gurus to teach classical music, and credibility comes from the guru and his teaching lineage. These forms of music teaching can produce very successful, well-trained musicians, but they are expensive, and are only available to those who can pay private teachers, maintain expensive instruments, and set aside enough time for private practice. I know very little about private music schools at this time, and this will be a point of focus in the months ahead. These methods are great for students who have made that commitment to music learning, but not good for the student who doesn’t yet know what he wants, and only wants to try music to see its effect. Music education is also available in families. A student with musician parents is much better-off musically than one with non-musician parents.

Student Attitudes
Despite all of the good reasons to forsake music for more secure subjects, there will perpetually be music students, in every place and time. Why? Some of the musicians I’ve spoken with here got into music when they were very young. One noticed that he was drawn to music events as a kid, so he made it known that he wanted to go to a grade school that offered music and dancing. He continued to enjoy it, so he went to university, continued to study, and through other opportunities in the arts came to be a leading actor in the blossoming Nepali film industry. Students know that there are musicians out there making money, and that these musicians get to have fun every day instead of going to a regular 9-5 job. They also know that musicians get chances to tour other countries, and that some can become quite wealthy. Guys know that musicians attract girls—especially guitar musicians. Students can name more musicians off the top of their heads than they can regular office workers, scientists, doctors, etc.

Opportunities for Professional Musicians in Kathmandu
The most successful professional musicians in Kathmandu that I’ve encountered so far have been university music professors who also perform. There are a few regular venues for classical musicians, but I don’t know how much they pay. The most condensed area of music performance is Thamel, the tourist area, but most of the professional musicians I’ve spoken with avoid it. It’s not for musicians, they say, it’s for cover bands. Some high-end venues sponsor culture shows, like the Russian Culture Center and the Radisson Hotel. Some nice restaurants outside of Thamel also host regular gigs, and presumably support their musicians fairly well. I haven’t seen any big-market music promotion going on, and I haven’t heard of any music superstars in the city. Music people listen to (based on my experience) tends to be Nepali lok geet (folk songs) and Hindi movie songs, and I haven’t come across any lok geet singer celebrities (not to say that there are none—I’ve only been here 6 weeks). There are some bands and recording artists who have risen to popularity, including Kutumba, Anil Shahi, and 1974 AD, but I haven’t seen any packed concerts or races to get tickets. Celebrity roles tend to be filled by Bollywood actors and singers. There are opportunities for professionals here, but not to the same extent that professionals have in the US.

Changes and their Effects in Music Education
Before music education was institutionalized some 50 years ago, it belonged to family gurus (like with the Manandhars), musician castes (like the Gandharbas), and classical gurus (like Dr. Sitar’s grandfather). This is how professional musicians were produced; students of classical gurus became classical musicians and gurus themselves, members of the musician caste traveled and played their traditional music for handouts, and regular Kathmandu citizens learned their music from family members before going on to perform other professions. Since that time music education has moved steadily into the institution-based economy. Universities started offering music majors and hiring music teachers, private music schools have opened up to train musicians in Nepali, classical, and pop music, and some grade schools started teaching Nepali culture through multi-ethnic Nepali music. At one point music was a tested subject. As the economy has moved from family-based small businesses to school qualifications-based large-scale businesses, music has been pushed to the periphery of institutional education. Music performers don’t necessarily need school qualifications to be successful, and schools no longer need to teach music to offer their qualifications. The two systems don’t really need each other, except in the area of professional music teaching.
The styles of music that are taught are changing as well. As popular music increasingly came from India and the West, music students adopted the guitar as their preferred instrument. Today there are many guitar players around Kathmandu, and it’s a normal thing for a Nepali family member to whip out his guitar and sing a Nepali folk tune at a family gathering. More recently there has been a revival in popularity for Nepali folk music, and Nepali music institutions are working to modernize old tunes to suit a new audience. Bands like Kutumba go out and collect folk tunes, then translate them into modern sounds and sell records. Cultural institutions like Nepali Sanskritik Kendra and Music Nepal go out to villages and record dances, then have professional dancers learn and re-record polished versions of them. The Nepal Tourism Board sponsors culture shows of Nepali song and dance for wide audiences. I’ve been to two culture shows, one of school students, and one of professionals, and they were both attended only by Nepalis (and me), and were wildly popular. Grade school principals now prefer their music teachers to teach Nepali music. These Nepali bands and culture performances still haven’t made it to mainstream Thamel (that I’ve seen), but I hope they are moving in that direction. Surely a good amount of tourists in Nepal would be interested in seeing professional Nepali musicians play Nepali music. The Gandharba association has made money from this, and it makes sense that other musicians would be able to make money from this as well. Given this room for professional Nepali music to expand, it also makes sense that music education can subsequently expand.

The Future of Music Education in Kathmandu
My music teacher friends are working very hard to improve the quality of music education in the city. Dr. Sitar is working to update the university music curriculum to produce more well-rounded, performance experienced, capable musicians, and through his performance group he helps to cultivate interest in Nepali classical music. Mr. Madal works over-time at many of his schools to promote his music programs, organizing after-school performances, public performances, contest performances, and other shows that increase the visibility of grade-school music. Both Dr. Sitar and Mr. Madal are frustrated in the face of the institutional hurdles they face, but they are dedicated to improving the quality of their chosen profession. They can’t be the only ones, and I’m confident that their hard work will take effect.
I believe that a pivotal step for the improvement of music and other extra-curricular education would be for the government to develop curriculum for these subjects and support them in public schools. This isn’t my own idea; I heard variations from Mr. Madal, Dr. Sitar, and Ms. Language. I don’t know when or if this will happen, and part of my future investigations will focus on this subject. Government schools now represent the minimum standard of education, and private schools necessarily must improve upon these. If the government raises the bar for non-tested subjects, it makes sense that private schools would follow suit.
In the US we have associations of music teachers that help advocate for music education, provide a forum for music teachers to share ideas, host conferences for professional networking, sponsor music competitions and all-star bands, and publicize job openings. In Kathmandu there is no music teacher association at this time, and I believe that something like this would help to organize and unify the profession. In the next months I will bring the idea to the music teachers I interact with, and I will try to host a gathering of music teachers to meet and share ideas. I don’t expect to immediately inspire a fully formed music education association, but I do expect to inspire some more professional interaction between teachers in this field.
University students uniformly expressed their disappointment at not being prepared for university music study during grade school. I think it would be a big step for grade-school music education if the goal was changed from merely informing students of their culture, to helping them prepare to develop this musical culture with further university study. Perhaps universities could develop a music entrance exam and advocate for schools to help their students prepare for it.
I think that family music education and private, outside of school education are perpetual things that may fluctuate with the success of the professional music market, but never disappear. To promote these in Kathmandu, opportunities for professional musicians need to grow in quality and quantity. As described above, I think this is happening with the revival of interest in Nepali music, and I think it can increase even more with promotion outside of Nepal. Mr. Madal plays Nepali folk music at culture shows throughout Asia, and Dr. Sitar has played Nepali classical music on tour throughout Europe. These things are happening, and I’m excited to see how they affect the future of Nepali music education.


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