Fieldwork and How Business is Done

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December 10th 2009
Published: December 10th 2009
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I’m getting into a phase of my time here in Kathmandu that I’ll call ‘general fieldwork.’ My days have developed a strange sort of consistency; they are never scheduled more than 24 hours ahead of time, but they generally involve some combination of lessons, gigs, teaching, interviews, hanging out with Nepali friends, or going to concerts. This past week in particular has been heavy on the concerts. Day to day I’m getting a deeper understanding of the music education culture here, but it’s no longer by exciting new discoveries or experiences. Maybe it’s a comparable situation for astronauts in the international space station. They know they are in a fantastic place, and that it’s really the experience of a lifetime, and many things had to come together to make it happen, and they’re doing good work for the benefit of science and humanity, but after three months in the space station I’ll bet things settle down and everyday things become less exciting and novel.

A few things from the past days merit some describing.

First, I went to a big parents’ day performance at one of the larger higher secondary schools in the city. It featured a long string of music, dance, and drama performances by students of all ages, student announcers between acts, and a performance by Japanese guests who had been working at the school for a few months. This is nothing different from what you would find in the States, but the mere reality that the administration arranged for arts performances to showcase the school for the parents supports the notion that arts and music should be taught in schools. Parents didn’t come to see their children work out equations on a big chalkboard, or to dissect a frog on stage. They came to see their kids showcase performance skills that are significant in their culture and learnable in schools. More learnable in schools, in some cases, than they would be at home. Schools have the resources to provide instruments, good teachers, and a classroom full of students learning the same things. The music they performed at this parents’ day was done in a style that completely comes from the school environment, and resembles nothing in popular performance culture or traditional folk culture. The melodies of their performance came from folk songs from all over Nepal, strung together end to end in a way that sounds nothing like what you would here in any of these various places. For instruments they used madals, dhimes, cymbals, guitars, a bass guitar, and pianicas. Madals, dhimes, and these particular cymbals come from the folk Nepali tradition, but not played by a group of 20 people at the same time, as was the case here. Guitars and bass guitars are a pure western import, and I’m sure they were included because they’re available and the students want to play them. Guitars are all over the place now, and a large part of Nepali modern and popular music is played on guitars. The pianicas are a Japanese introduction, and I think they represent a really interesting phenomenon for music teaching all over the city that came from a plan by the Japanese embassy. First of all, pianicas are very similar to harmoniums. They are both played by one hand on a small piano keyboard, and they both produce a metallic reedy sound like a harmonica. The big difference is that pianicas are activated by blowing into a tube that goes through the keyboard, and harmoniums are pumped by a bellows. Harmoniums have been a part of music in Nepal for a long time—they traditionally accompany classical music performances—so they paved the way for the acceptance of the pianica. Pianicas are Japanese made, and very cheap, so a Japanese guy hatched a plan to donate a large number of pianicas to schools all around the city, then host a music competition to award the school that could best integrate the pianica into a folk music performance. Many schools participated, and what I’ve seen since then is a standard school performance model that includes madals and other drums on rhythm, guitars on harmony, and pianicas on melody. These melodies would normally be sung, but in the context of an instrumental performance (the idea of the purely instrumental band or orchestra is probably also a western import), the pianicas have taken over the job of playing the melody. So, these schools combine strange instruments, a strange performance group size and format, and a strange arrangement of melodies to construct a performance of ‘traditional’ Nepali music. This is neither good nor evil nor laudable nor regrettable, but rather incredibly interesting. It’s unlike any performance style that sprung from tradition or popular entertainment, but it completely fits with the situation faced by music teachers in these various schools. They have many students at one time, and they should include all of them, so they form the large ‘orchestra’ size group. They want to teach their students about music from many different parts of the country, so they include all of these various melodies. They need to keep their students motivated (students have the power to switch electives any time during the year), so they give some of them guitars. Of course they accept donated instruments from the Japanese embassy, and in an effort to promote their schools, students, and jobs they participate in the embassy contest. Music contests in general are popular from what I’ve seen, and I’m contemplating sponsoring one myself in the coming spring. The pianicas happen to fit a need for melody in the hailed instrumental-only music format, and they naturally lead the students to succeed on harmonium, and they’re available, so now they too are accepted and incorporated into regular school teaching and performance. There still isn’t a recognized ‘standard’ school format—this thing looks to be easily changeable—so if I have any representatives from instrument manufacturers or cultural envoys among my readers you need only to provide means and incentives if you want to influence arts education here in Kathmandu.

Speaking of cultural envoys influencing education here, the same parents’ day program included a performance of traditional Japanese thaiko drumming. A contingent from a Japanese cultural group had been working in this school for the past months teaching Japanese culture. They were skilled thaiko performers themselves, and with their own drums they taught a class of Nepali students the techniques and style of this traditional Japanese art form. I don’t know the details of their arrangement with the school, but at the performance they were treated like star celebrities. I found out later that they also work in three other schools, and their operation is growing. My Nepali music teacher friend is disgusted with the situation: “You see the state of our schools? With enough interest and donors you can sell your own culture to be taught here. We don’t teach our own, but we welcome everybody else’s.” He’s right—people seem to go wild for free instruction from foreigners. They can teach anything. I’m doing it myself—teaching western notation—and I’ve only been welcomed graciously and encouraged. I like to think that my work is different; I’m not selling my culture, I’m teaching only a language that can enable Nepali musicians to communicate better with the rest of the world. Nepali musicians can use notation to develop and preserve their own music traditions. The Japanese, both with this thaiko group and the pianica scheme, seem to really be capitalizing on this situation to support education and impress it with Japanese influence.

Possible though it is to donate and support education from the outside, the situation faced by regular Nepali teachers in their classrooms is far from ideal. In my own music classroom on a good day I’m plagued with faulty electricity, booming noise pollution from surrounding classrooms, a whiteboard with no good markers, and kids coming in late like it’s no big deal. My students are motivated, and they learn when I teach them, but if they didn’t want to come to class they wouldn’t face institutional penalties. Also, as mentioned above, students can change their elective classes whenever they want. As an elective teacher I don’t have much to hold over the students to externally motivate them to work hard. In the US teachers give grades. If a student doesn’t work hard and develop his talents, he gets a bad grade. Here he can just change classes. There is a system of marks here for grades, but I’m not very familiar with it, and it doesn’t seem to apply to non-tested subjects. Tested subjects here are Nepali, English, Science, Social Science, Math, and Technology, and those are the only subjects that schools are held accountable for teaching. There aren’t even curriculums for non-tested subjects, or if there are there’s no way to know. Music teaching is something that requires resources like instruments, practice space, and performance time to teach well, and this can pose a problem for schools which are hesitant to spend money, their music teachers, and ultimately their students who want to learn music. Government schools have a bad reputation in Kathmandu, and they have largely been abandoned by the middle class. As a result, private schools have come to teach more than half of the city’s students, and they are run like the private businesses they are. It’s a huge testament to the power and importance of music that it’s taught at all in this educational environment. Music is, in fact, taught in some grade-schools, the students in these schools are eager to learn and often very talented, and the principals of these schools understand the value of music instruction. I teach at one such school.

Another big problem that I’ve been facing as a school teacher over the past weeks regards holidays and bandas (strikes). Every other day seems to be a holiday, no school, and scattered throughout the remaining school days we’ve started to get politically-inspired city-wide strikes, also cancelling school. I experienced a deep-seated feeling of frustration and despair yesterday at the end of my class. The students were performing admirably—in one hour they learned whole, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes; rhythmic solfege (1 + 2 e + a 3 + 4); and time signatures—and I dismissed them with the promise that the next day we would continue to sing and do some more rhythms. On the way out one of the students stopped me and said, “Bholi bandai chha,” meaning ‘tomorrow there will be a big strike.’ He went on to tell me that school would be closed. The day before this was a holiday, and the day after, Friday, would be another holiday. When do these kids learn? In school? Maybe—for 3 days a week. More importantly, what are they learning? They’re learning to strike. This will be the ‘strike’ generation of Nepali kids. Strikes are called often, for political reasons, and they do nothing more than make the working people suffer and the already strained government less efficient. If a strike is politically motivated, how is shutting down the city’s operations going to fix the political problem. How will preventing people from working work toward a solution? Finally, my first question: How will students learn if they can’t go to school? My “Bholi bandai chha” student didn’t look at all happy about the strike, despite the resultant day off from school. Maybe he’s also frustrated that he’s being prevented from learning. His face looked like that of an injured star football player watching the rest of his team lose. Bandas are common and severe, and they’ve come to the point where the rumor of a banda is enough to prevent people from going to work or school. If a banda is happening and somebody does try to open their shop, they can be beaten for it. If a road is closed during a banda and people try to drive on it, their vehicle can be set on fire. I heard the opinion last night that bandas are an improvement over what used to be the case 5 or 6 years ago with guns firing in the streets, but even so, there’s a long way to go from here.

Here I’ll type up a recent brainstorm that I did in a restaurant a few days ago as I was waiting for my chicken thukpa (soup). I’m including it more for my own future reference, but you may find it interesting as well. If you’re familiar enough with the culture here to correct me or argue with me about these ideas, please do.

Classical Music Education (Eastern): Still guru-based in many schools; gurus give their students performance opportunities; guild-like; classical is taught in universities; carries with it the culture of discipline that keeps standards high; many players, many enthusiasts; art music from this area/culture.

Popular Music Education: Self-taught from recordings; some informal training; help from friends; garage-type start-up bands; gigs in restaurants; middle-class students in 9-12 grade; many publicized contests for pop/modern bands; market in Thamel; easy recording studios; minimal advertising for pop schools.

Small Private Music School Education: Very small operations; 3-5-10-15 teachers; operates among friends; no advertising; teachers are performers who supplement income from students; scattered around the city; represents tradition of teaching music from the house.

The way business is done here:
Business in Kathmandu works primarily through networks of friends. This is very different from the US, where businesses are impersonal sources of goods or services, and it has broad implications for the overall economy. Let me describe the situation further: here there are no phone books. There are many phones, and many businesses, but no phone books. Addresses also are few and inconsistent. It’s not a big problem for people here, though, because they’ve never gone to resources like phone books or addresses to find things they need, they ask their families and friends. I’m convinced that there are many little economic eco-systems here in Kathmandu that are entirely contained within constantly changing networks of families and friends, and that that’s precisely the way they started. If somebody needs a plumber, they go to their family and friends for references. They don’t even think about looking up ‘plumbers’ in a resource book and making a cold call. As a result, advertising is fairly limited, and many different businesses exist doing the exact same things and barely getting by. It’s a daunting feeling to not have a reference; these businesses range greatly in quality and price, and it’s very hard to know either until after the transaction is concluded. Another example: travel agencies. Every other office in Thamel is a travel agency, all providing the same ‘rafting, climbing, trekking, safaris, international and domestic flights, India train booking, Tibet package’ as every other agency. If I had to choose a travel agency without a good reference I would be completely lost. Literally, there must be 500 offices. Lucky for me my teachers are well connected within their friend/family based economies, and I get references for almost anything I need. Prices aren’t set here, either, and if you don’t have a connection you’re asking to be ripped off—especially foreigners, but Nepalis too. This situation is changing a little bit with the increased influence from western companies and economic models, but it’s a long and unorganized process and a little bit like the clichéd ‘square peg in the round hole.’ Some things are heavily advertised—mostly products, like Coke, Pepsi, alcohol, cigarettes, shampoo—but also things like schools, international education agencies, and study abroad programs. These things maybe are recent enough that they don’t fit into the traditional friend/family model, or else they’re just the first to explore the new advertising arena. In this transitory time business cards have caught on wildly. They’re still personal—you have to get a business card in person from the business, a friend, or a family member—but they shortcut the relationship building time with a business and serve as a kind of advertising.

Music schools also fit into this economic system. There are many many small music schools scattered around town, they don’t advertise, they teach a specific kind of music, and they only employ around 2-15 teachers. It seems like the thing to do in the past if you had musical knowledge and wanted to teach it was to start a small music school in your home and operate that way. People would find out about it through their family and friends, or maybe by coming to a performance by the teacher, and the school would get students that way. These schools can’t offer anything in the way of recognized official credentials, but if they have good teachers they can offer exactly what they were created to offer: musical knowledge. So, in the city right now there are maybe hundreds of tiny, tucked-away music schools, all doing the same thing for their own friend/family networks, and not advertising outside of those. They are impossible to find without prior knowledge—in my wanderings I’ve stumbled upon a few, and I’ve been escorted to a few, but I know there are many more out there. This is what I think of as the ‘hidden world’ of music education here. In the city there are also places to go to learn music that have gained large reputations, conduct many concerts/contests/programs, and advertise. Maybe they’ll sponsor a popular music contest, or battle-of-the-bands, or host a visiting guru, and they will advertise in newspapers and flyers, and people will come to these events and learn about the school. Some schools also have very famous musicians as their teachers, and they will gain their reputations that way. These schools span family/friend groups, and most musicians/music lovers on the street will have heard of them. The Nepal Music Center and the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory represent this type of school. They still can’t offer degrees, but the school reputation gives some weight to the proprietary completion certificates. This I call the ‘popular world’ of music education here. Finally, there are degree-granting universities; they teach classical music, some folk music, and some dance. They are the best places to go to get recognized officially for music study, but in some cases the curriculums haven’t changed in 40 years, study is frequently interrupted by political unrest, the classes can be large, and you can have minimal time with the teachers. On the positive side, the university teachers are often very accomplished musicians, students with similar interests can build networks among themselves, and university study can be a good first qualification before going abroad to study. Universities are not places to go to really learn western or popular music, but they can be very good for eastern classical music.

The system of friend/family advertising only, no addresses, and no phone books creates some unfortunate side effects for music education. First, it can be very difficult to find a good music school—especially if you don’t have a prior reference. Much more is at stake when looking for a music school than when looking for a travel agent. Travel agencies provide one-time services; music schools represent an enormous time and energy commitment, with expected results that are hard to quantify. It’s therefore extremely important to find a good school that you are comfortable with. If you don’t already know of a school, it can be very difficult and frustrating to find one. There are some schools that teach pop and rock music, some schools that specialize in classical vocal, tabla, etc., some that focus on folk music, but there’s no central source of information about how to find these schools. Second, and along this same line, music schools can’t find information about other music schools. There’s very little cooperation among these schools, and no standardization at all, and part of the reason is that they can’t communicate with each other if they don’t know about each other. There could be many possibilities for schools pooling their resources to host a guest concert, or to offer their students more study options, but these things will be impossible until music schools can find and communicate with each other. Third, potential music teachers can’t find schools to teach in. There are many music schools here, and many potential music teachers, but they just don’t know about each other. How do musicians find teaching jobs? Through their friends. How do schools find teachers? Through their friends. A couple of musicians asked me recently to help them find jobs because I know of more schools than they do because they work during the time that they could be looking for other/more schools. This applies not only to music schools but to grade schools as well. Finally, because schools are so disjunct from one another there isn’t a very large strong community of music teachers. There are many small strong communities of music teachers, but if they could find each other more easily they might be able to work more broadly and cooperatively toward common goals for the profession.

How can these problems be addressed? By compiling a list of music schools with brief descriptions and contact info and making it widely available. I can do that, but to do it I will have to visit every school I can find through connections and random stumblings, get them on board with the idea, and ultimately publish it with the knowledge that there are still more out there. Will I do it? Absolutely. Will it be helpful? Absolutely. Will it catch on widely? Maybe not, but there’s only one way to see.

Guru memorial concert:
This past week saw the 108th birth anniversary of a very prominent and respected music educator in Kathmandu named Pandit Ganeshlal. He’s long dead, but his numerous and successful students are still around. Some are working as professional musicians in Norway and Japan, but most are playing and teaching right here in Kathmandu. His studio included sarod players, sitar, jaltaron (xylophone-like tuned bowls played with sticks), tabla, and many vocalists. Some are the heads of music schools now, many of them teach, and many play at the various regular classical music performances around town. He was such a respected professional that this birth anniversary occasioned a showcase performance by the best of his surviving students, and a nationally televised memorial service. I just recently met this community of his students, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better. A lot of them teach in the small, unadvertised music schools discussed above, and a lot of them have some fantastic students (from what I’ve seen). It was very heartening to see so much respect and attention heaped on a music teacher, and especially on one who passed away so long ago. His statue can be visited at one very small, out of the way music school in Patan, and his portrait can be seen in many schools and performance venues. Again, this just recently came to my attention, and I’m very excited to investigate it further.


20th December 2009

Best wishes always
Hi Robert - Happy (belated) Birthday to you! We can hardly wait to hear what Christmas is like in Nepal... enjoy yourself, learn a lot, Teach a lot, and stay healthy and safe. Much love from Uncle Jim and Aunt Jini.
23rd December 2009

I think it is imperative that you make such a list. Go for it!

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