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Published: October 24th 2009
I’ve spoken with a lot of people here in Kathmandu over the past week about music education opportunities for advanced western music, and I hear nothing but frustration from teachers, students, and administrators. First, quality western instruments are very hard to find, and even harder to afford. More importantly, though, there is a general lack of advanced western music teachers. Nepal has only one Ph.D. holder in music, and he is an incredible eastern classical musician. I know many students who are hungry to learn about western music; they’ve studied as much as they could on their own, learning from CD’s, the internet, videos, amateur music teachers, and they’ve come to a point where they believe they’ve exhausted their available resources. Unfortunately, though, this point is far behind the world standard that they would like to work up to. I spoke for a long time with an incredibly smart, talented, young, and motivated Nepali jazz musician; it is his dream to go to a western university to study jazz composition. He plays guitar, flute, saxophone, drums, and he sings and writes music. We spoke about music history and prominent composers, and he was able to match my knowledge, era for era and composition for composition, having studied only on the internet. He said there is nowhere in Nepal to study any sort of academic music—music history, theory, or musicology—it is only possible to study performance, and only in eastern classical and Nepali folk music. Given the chance, this guy could really excel in western music. Similarly, I met a drummer who literally begs any western jazz drummer he meets to give him lessons, if only for a short time. He teaches Nepali music in high schools, and he has learned tabla and classical music from advanced teachers, but he is only just beginning on drum set, and he doesn’t know where to go to learn. I sat in on a gig with a Nepali jazz band, and they asked me afterward if I could come to their practices and teach them how to rehearse—none of them had any experience in combo rehearsal. They are all solid musicians with tons of potential, but they are all struggling to find experienced, advanced western music teachers to guide them.
-“But Nepali music education is available; shouldn’t they learn and play Nepali music?”
They already know Nepali music, and they want to grow as musicians and learn other styles. They are very ambitious, and want to be able to tap into and communicate with the worldwide community of musicians. For this, western music is extremely useful. The hopeful jazz composer was really excited about my project when he heard about it—so much so that he is a little bit afraid to hope for anything in an effort to protect himself from bitter disappointment. He is anxious about my 10 month time limit, and he is afraid that I’ll leave Nepal and never come back. I quote: “Nepal is a difficult place to dream.” He told me that we are both young, and that if I really want to do a good life’s work, and make something of myself, and do something real for music education, I should stay in Nepal and make a quality music school. He said it would be hard, and I would have to aggressively fight walls and barriers and bureaucracies and seeming impossibilities, but it would be worth it to provide a real option for students to learn western music. He said he would do anything in his power to help me, inside or outside of the Kathmandu Valley. I asked him if he thought there would be students to support such a school, and said, “Look around—all of these so called ‘private music schools’ would go out of business! Give students a real option, and they’ll flock to it! That should be the least of your worries.”
I spoke also with the director of an eminent music school here, and he told me of some of the institutional problems facing music schools. His school offers western music instruction, but he has a very hard time finding teachers. His vision is to bring in foreign teachers for a short time, have Nepali musicians shadow these teachers to learn music pedagogy (very different from music performance), and eventually run the school with all Nepali teachers. There is currently little or no institutionalized music teacher education (at least none that is widely recognized), and many music schools resort to hiring performers with no idea how to teach. This leads to guitar performers teaching students about tri-tone substitutions before they even know their major and minor scales. Another institutional problem is that in order to offer a degree in music, his school must be affiliated with a university. He said he’s tried to meet with universities to work out an affiliation, but the universities demanded grease money before they would agree to even hold a meeting. I told him that his school would be a perfect place for a US university to affiliate with, and maybe hold a study abroad program for music education students. That way he would get US music education students to come in, advanced players armed with ideas about lesson planning and following curriculum, give them international experience in practical music teaching, provide a standard for Nepali music teachers to learn and follow, and have a university affiliation for credibility. He said that it would be wonderful, but the system operates as a franchise—he would have to pay the Nepali government for a foreign affiliation, and he would have to pay the foreign university for their services. “Where will I get that money?” he said. I always thought it was the US study abroad students who had to pay for it, tuition plus study abroad program fees, but I guess there is more to it than that. This director also has a hard time raising money for the school because it is classified as a private institution—not a non-profit or NGO. This makes it difficult for him to get grants for arts education, or government support money, or foreign support money. He has great facilities—a performance hall, a recording studio, soundproof practice rooms, an ensemble room—but his main problems are a lack of official recognition, quality instrument availability, and enough advanced teachers. His dream is to do something in Nepal like Abreu did in Venezuela with El Sistema; he wants to take kids off the streets and give them instruments and training—tools for making a self-sufficient living. Again he has problems with instruments and teachers, but he also has a hard time getting the street kids—they are out making money for underground businessmen.
I think a feasible thing for me to do here is to get a music educator’s association going. I need to get in touch with TMEA and MENC to get a better idea of how these things go, but I think a forum for music teachers to communicate and grow in their profession would be an excellent resource. With enough support, the association could host workshops by Nepali education specialists, and maybe even offer a professional development course that could be recognized by employers. An official at a university which offers a music degree told me that they only hire teachers with master’s level qualifications, but no university in Nepal offers master’s qualifications in music! Potential hires have to study abroad before they even have a chance. The schools that offer bachelor’s qualifications in music do so in music performance rather than education—I haven’t found a music education program yet. A recognized teacher education program for music teachers could go a long way in raising the standard of music teaching here. The association could have sections for teachers of Nepali music, classical music, and western music, and the association could, maybe, if the stars align, sponsor or come up with wide-ranging curriculum in these areas for Kathmandu. This is pretty ambitious—I’ll see what I can do, and I welcome any comments, suggestions, or other support from my professional audience.
In other news, I’ve been gigging around town—some with an American country guitar player and singer, some with a Nepali classical and fusion group, and some with the Nepali jazz band mentioned earlier—and most nights I find myself up late at restaurants eating daal bhat with the band after the show. I meet people and learn things all the time, but each time I do I realize how much I really don’t know. Today I bought a professional, classical sarangi. It sounds fantastic—just like a concert violin, and the man who made it is teaching me how to play.
On Thursday of this week, October 30, I will be flying to Solukhumbu to participate in a big festival in Tengboche. Solu Khumbu is the area of Nepal that houses Mt. Everest, Lhotse, and the famous Sherpa people. Sir Edmund Hillary frequented the Khumbu, climbed its mountains, and built schools for its people. Tengboche is a Buddhist monastery town at an elevation of 12,687 feet in the shadows of Mts Everest, Tawache, Nuptse, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and Thamserku. I’ll have to walk there from the airport at Lukla—a three day venture with a day’s rest for acclimatization. The festival is called Mani Rimdu, and it features blessings from the monastery Abbott, music, and festive mask dance-dramas. I am very excited about this chance to see another part of Nepal, and I’ll write about it when I return on November 9th. With pictures.
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