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February 9th 2010
Published: February 9th 2010
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Some really great, exciting things have happened in the last two weeks: I went to a village and participated in a folk festival, and I helped out at the South Asia International Schools honor music clinic, meeting music teachers and students from all over the subcontinent. Those will be the subjects of the next posts. This one will be the script of a 15 minute midterm presentation/project summary I gave at the Fulbright office as per grant requirements. It's a great, if incomplete, overview of the things I've been doing here and the things that I've noticed. Some of it may look familiar. Here it is:

Good evening. My topic of research is music education in Kathmandu, and over the past 5 months I’ve been going to music schools, grade schools which teach music, private instructors, and universities, taking classes and giving classes, and doing interviews to find out about the different systems of music education available for this city’s students.

Music learning and the institution-based system of education qualifications do not really need each other. Musicians are judged primarily on performance skill, and this skill comes from hours of practice regardless of where the practice takes place, so musicians don’t necessarily need school to be good musicians. On the other side, schools can offer their qualifications (diplomas, SLC prep) without offering any music instruction. The place where this overlaps is music teaching—teachers generally do require qualifications, and they’re also expected to be good musicians.

Obviously music is an important thing. It’s an enormous part of culture, identity, history, human expression, emotion; it helps people relax, think clearly, inspires creativity, etc.

All of these things are well documented by ethnomusicologists and music education advocates, and most everybody will recognize at some gut level the importance of music. Music also can be a lucrative profession for those who manage to be recognized and gain some level of popularity.

Opposing this, however, is the realization that a developing country like Nepal has a lot of engineering, technical, and social problems that need to be addressed, and many would argue that it’s more important for their students to be studying math, science, and social studies so that they can increase the power grid, clean up the pollution, fix the roads, and treat the sick people, than it is for them to study music and make people momentarily happy.

But, a successful system of music education can be of great benefit to a country. It can stimulate economic growth, giving jobs to music teachers and providing students with wider and better opportunities to learn skills applicable in the music industry.

It also creates demand for music education support providers, like instrument manufacturers, dealerships, and repair shops, sheet music dealers, composers for school music programs, concert and program venues, fund-raisers, etc.

Good music education can raise the level of musicianship in the entire country, allowing for increased participation in the global music community. Small war-torn countries like Venezuela and Lebanon have achieved this with great success, and now they export their own music to a worldwide audience.

More importantly, good music education can strengthen Nepal’s distinct music culture by spreading it to more students, giving children more opportunities to participate, and stimulating wider interest in Nepal’s unique musical offerings. Finally, Nepal has recently suffered years of civil conflict, and music can help create a climate of peace and reconstruction by demonstrating values of cooperation, dedication, discipline, and sharing in a meaningful way.

This leads to the question: where does music education fit? Not only this, but since music education obviously does fit somewhere, what forms does it take? Finally, what can I do to help it grow?

First, music education seems to be present in 3 fairly easily divisible forms: classical music education, music in private music schools, and music in private grade schools. The first is the system of Eastern classical music education—tabla, sitar, sarod, vocal, etc. This is the most practiced, most organized, and most advanced type of music education in the city. It comes from generations of refinement passed from teacher to student, or guru to shishya, and the product, classical music performance, is esteemed as high art and is supported to some regular extent in this city.

Classical music is ideally taught directly one-to-one by an esteemed guru to his student. This is traditionally done in the guru’s home, and even more traditionally the student lives with the guru and serves him in other aspects of living, known as the ‘guru-shishya parampara’. This is still around in Kathmandu, but classical teaching is increasingly moving toward the regular private lesson model that we’re familiar with in the West. This type of classical music teaching—guru-shishya or private lessons—is the most effective at producing professional classical musicians, and it falls completely outside of the institutional setting. It’s more like a guild than anything, and the gurus use their own prestige to get gigs for their students. The students thus become prestigious, and the system continues.

The pedagogical methods for this style of music are complex and surprisingly unified. There is a system of scales, called raags, a form for performance—alap, kriti, improvisation, cut time, more improvisation, more cut time, question-answer, and tihai. Teachers pass on the raags, the taan (improvisational style), the kritis (composed melodies within the raags), tihai (triple ending), and form. These are well-known from teacher to teacher, and two classical musicians can perform a show with each other with minimal rehearsal if they both know the raag and kriti to be played. Tabla also has its system of performance and teaching, and it was illustrated to me in a powerful way at a recent memorial concert for a legendary tabla player who died 5 years ago unexpectedly from a brain tumor. 6 of his previous tabla students gave a 20 minute performance, at the same time, playing exactly the same thing. No notation; they just all knew the compositions to be played and looked around at each other to communicate. I was blown away. In the past 6 months I’ve been taking tabla lessons with the premier guru of Nepal, and classical style instruction on clarinet by the premier sitar guru of Nepal.

Classical music is also taught in the universities, and is the only form of music education available at university. The university is ridden with problems, however, and most university music students I’ve spoken with say that university study is not enough to be a good musician—supplemental instruction is a must. The curriculum at university hasn’t changed in 40 years, there are very few university performance opportunities, instruments are taught in classes, classes are frequently disturbed by political demonstrating, and the highest level attainable, until this year, has been the bachelor. Strangely enough, in an interview with one of the university officials, she said that when they hire music teachers they look for masters level or higher. That said, some very good musicians teach at the university, so it’s a place to go to make connections with potential private teachers. My sitar guru works at a university, then hand-selects a studio to teach at his house.

Classical music can also be taught in one of the many small private music schools scattered around the city—the next big division of music instruction in Kathmandu.

This city is home to many small private music schools—a lot of them family-run businesses which employ a few specialized teachers, generally in classical, Nepali folk, or popular Western music genres. These are the 3 main music genres available in the city at all—Western classical music is rare. The schools will usually specialize in one of these genres.

These private schools are an attestation to the demand for music education—they are completely market-driven, relying on tuition from interested students to keep running.

The curriculums or courses of study at these schools are all proprietary, as are the qualifications they can offer their students. They advertise very little, and primarily rely on word-of-mouth advertising within networks of friends and family. The quality of teaching at these places can vary widely. Some of these have gained a level of prestige, like the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory, Nepal Music Center, Do Re Mi school, etc., but many of them are just small one-to-two room places where anything can happen.

Some advantages of going to one of these places are that it can connect students with other students who have similar interests, and it can be a place to find a suitable private-lesson teacher. If I’m taking a walk down random city streets there’s a good chance that I’ll come across one of these schools.

The third division of music education in the city, and the one that I’ve come to focus on the most, is music teaching in Nepali private higher secondary schools. A majority of students in Kathmandu attend these schools (as opposed to public schools), and they can be found all over the place. They usually teach class 1-10, and some of them—a minority, I’m told—include music on the menu as an extra-curricular activity. The music taught in these schools is generally Nepali folk music, and it’s generally performance oriented (Parents’ Day oriented) and taught by rote. Music teachers generally work part-time at each school, and many work at 5 or more different schools in order to make a living.

There is no widely used curriculum for music in the city, and there are no standards for music learning for each class level, and there is absolutely no accountability for music learning on either the teachers or the students, and the decision to include music in school at all resides completely on the whims of the school directors. Needless to say, the quality of music teaching in schools varies incredibly widely. Because of this, students who want to do music in university generally start as beginners—far behind their peers in other countries.

I’ve spoken at length with music teachers who work at these schools, and most of them are frustrated at the lack of support available to them. Many of them want to teach a high level of music, but they only get something like 1-2 hours a week in front of classes of 30 kids, with insufficient instruments, books, and in this season electricity.

Principles want to see good parents’ day performances, so the teachers end up using this time to drill kids on songs and rhythms that they already know—totally precluding the possibility of any learning. Performances are often plagued with management problems, so these many times aren’t positive experiences for the students.

A funny thing has happened in terms of standard performance group—since classes are big, and instruments are desirable but expensive, a hybrid group of many folk drums for rhythm, a guitar or two for harmony, and a line of Japanese blown, handheld keyboard instruments (called pianicas) for melody have come to define the performance group. This is unlike anything found in the professional world, designed completely for the situation facing school music classes. Folk drums are cheap, and great for teaching culture. Usually there are some students who play guitar on their own. Pianicas have entered the group because a Japanese company, through the embassy, donated a bunch of them to schools and then sponsored a performance contest to see which school could incorporate it best into folk music performance. They’re cheap, and they’re similar to the harmonium, and they fill the melody role, so they stuck. Performances are generally strings of folk tunes from all over Nepal played one after another without pause, again something not found ‘in the wild’.

So, with all of this, I’ve identified three big obstacles that are holding back the growth of school music education in this city. The first is the lack of educated teachers. Why can a school in the states host a choir capable of performing full concerts with harmony and variation drawing on many different styles and eras, but a Nepali school can’t? It’s not money, directly—it’s because these schools have teachers who know what they’re doing. There are no opportunities for music teacher training in Kathmandu, or the rest of Nepal, and the effects are apparent.

To address this I recently taught a month-long workshop to a group of 10 Nepali music teachers covering things like lesson planning, curriculum, music notation, and techniques for how to teach distinct musical concepts—rhythm, melody, and harmony—in addition to the standard folk songs. I’ve also been working with the director of the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory to put together a project proposal to set up a 2-year teacher training course for music teachers. It will include classes in theory, pedagogy, history, performance, management, etc., and should be similar to the Associate’s degree in Music courses found in the West, with a focus on education. An embassy has expressed interest in funding the project, and hopefully soon it will get off the ground.

The second obstacle is a lack of communication among music teachers here. Communication is difficult as is—no addresses, poor phone networks, and limited internet and electricity for email—so many teachers are just on their own to come up with lessons, teach, figure out problems, etc. There are small groups of friends who teach music across the city, usually 5 teachers each, and each group is facing the same issues. There’s no cooperation between groups, however, and I think if they work together in larger groups they can address their problems much easier. In the states we have music teacher organizations, associations, groups, that provide many resources for their members. Here there’s nothing.

To address this I’ve started the Nepal Music Educators’ Society, which now meets every week on Saturday at 9 at the Jazz Conservatory campus, to bring teachers together to solve problems. We share books and resources, do workshops, are making a communication directory for all of the schools which include music, and will soon have a website up with further links to resources, job opening information, and more. My next step for this group is to go to the District Education Office to get a list of private higher secondary schools in the city, make a thousand phone calls to see which offer music, and putting the ones that do on a directory list.

The third obstacle is a lack of curriculum and standards for music teaching in the city. Even if teachers want to get organized, they have nothing to base it on. This is the first project that the NMES group is addressing—we’ve been brainstorming music concepts, looking at existing curriculums, and working on progressions to construct a useful resource for the city’s teachers. Soon we’ll start advertising for a curriculum workshop to bring together many music teachers to discuss these things and actually make the curriculum. Then we can work on distributing it and finding resources to support it.

That’s where I am right now. I’m focusing less on observing now and more on participating, working to address these problems. If you have any suggestions or resources that may help in any of these pursuits please let me know. Thank you.


14th February 2010

You are Amazing
Robert, you are a natural teacher. I Have loved reading and being a part of your adventure and growth. It really has been an amazing adventure. God bless you for sharing it with so many people. When do you think you will be coming home? And congratulations on your engagement. So much to look forward to. We are so proud of you. My love to you and your loved one.

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