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March 16th 2010
Published: March 16th 2010
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February is usually my lucky month. In the past it’s been a time for conferences and meeting people and exploring new ideas; in Texas it’s when the weather is most unpredictable, sometimes with snowfall and sometimes with beautiful 75 degree sunshine; and it’s the month when I started dating the lady who I’m soon to marry. This February in Kathmandu, however, has fallen far short of my usual February standard, and in many ways it’s been the most trial-ridden month of my Fulbright time so far.

The month started extremely well—I went to a fantastic folk festival in a remote Nepali village and played music and lived with the townspeople for three days. I was the only foreigner there, and as such I was treated like a celebrity (for better or for worse). Those days were filled with mountains, music, daal bhat, and forced refills of ‘kodoko raksi’ (millet wine). My Nepali language skills improved—I had no choice—and I had the special privilege of being a part of the first folk festival of its kind in the area. It was magical to see enjoyment on the faces of these hardworking Nepali farmers, usually resigned to planting, tending, and harvesting their high-altitude terraced land for any food it can provide them, taking care of buffalo, goats, and donkeys, caring for families, and carrying contaminated water up the hill by hand in large metal pitchers from the lower-altitude streams and boiling it over smoky wood fires for drinking and cooking. This festival was a rare musical break from the daily toil, and feelings of satisfaction, appreciation, and joy were everywhere to be felt.

Immediately after the festival in the village was a big music invitational clinic called ‘SAISA music’ at the Lincoln School—the American curriculum international school in Kathmandu. Another incredible locus of music activity, this festive event brought together students from international schools around south Asia for a whirlwind weekend of honor band, orchestra, and choir rehearsals, solo and ensemble performances, jazz groups for the area’s jazzers, and fun things like dances and fieldtrips. The band included more than 100 students from schools in Delhi, Karachi, Murree, Mumbai, Chennai, Dhaka, Muscat, and Kathmandu; it rehearsed for hours on difficult standard band literature under the direction of music teachers at these various schools; and ultimately—less than three days after it began—gave an amazing public concert for parents and community. The same happened for the choir and orchestra, but I was mostly interested in the band. I had no official position in the event, but I quickly made friends and helped out where I could. It was the closest thing to being in a music classroom in the States that I’ve experienced during my time here. I invited many of my Nepali music teacher friends to come see the concert, and was pleased to escort many of them inside when they arrived. It was an excellent celebration of music education, it introduced me to the community of international music teachers in this area, and it brought me together with more musically-inclined expats in Kathmandu.

These two experiences, happening within days of each other, had the effect of putting me into an anchor-less daze of thought about the place, purpose, and ideal organization for music education in Nepal. In the first instance—the folk festival and folk musicians—there is no structure at all (as would be considered in the West), but the result emanates directly from and is a pure product of traditional Nepali culture. Such music can’t be found anywhere else, and, more importantly, won’t be produced naturally from anywhere else. It’s taught by listening and experimenting, stemming from elders and family members in the villages singing a known repertoire in a pervasive style, giving rise to new performers of the repertoire and style simply because that’s what is. I asked some of the folk musicians I performed with how they learned music, and they said, ‘I didn’t learn music. I’m Nepali and I sing, so this is what I sing.’ It doesn’t need to be taught in Western-style schools in the villages because nothing important to day-to-day living is taught in the Western-style schools. Western-style schools are an import, and though the education coming from them can be of immense help in the Western-dominated global economic society, its style doesn’t fit with the tradition here. With such a natural and traditional form of music education working as it always has, who am I, a foreigner, to come in and impose my own ideas and processes and values and try to ‘improve’ something that isn’t mine? Suffice it to say that I’m not. Not in the villages, anyway. On the drive home from the festival my mind filled with ideas about how to draw popular attention to the amazing things going on in folk music, and about how to promote folk music education in Kathmandu—my chosen theatre of action.

Kathmandu, however, finds itself much harder in the grip of Western values and influences. Things Western are idealized and pursued by the big men decision-makers in the city, and the ‘West is best’ attitude has made it to many of the working middle-class citizens. Western forms of school, government, and business are already the accepted ‘ideal,’ and these organizations can be seen strewn about the city in various stages of Western success. A big problem with this, however, is that decision-makers, school directors, entrepreneurs, government officials, often have no idea about the processes involved in creating, supporting, and sustaining Western-style organizations of these types. All they know are the outcomes—the facades, public-faces, appearances, images on TV and in the newspapers, and what they can gather from friends exposed to the same influences as themselves—that these organizations are supposed to produce. These Western outcomes are desired, but they don’t come naturally from the culture and values of traditional Nepal. The result often becomes a stark, unavoidable compromise that strips the value and efficacy from both systems.

The impetus for adopting Western lifestyles, government, economy, and education is apparent and understandable. In the world we live in today the West controls a ridiculous percentage of wealth, resources, and global influence. Western communication, discourse, discussion, policy, supply, technology, business, etc. reaches around the globe, and tapping into that discussion increases the potential for influence and wealth to anyone who can do it. Nepali culture and village life, then, is great for villages, but those who want to be part of the global community need to learn the rules, speak the language, and follow the forms of that community. At the moment the rules and forms are Western, and the language is English—all things that Nepal traditionally is not. Nepal isn’t the only country in this situation, and I’m sure many of the same appearances can be viewed in other countries as well.

Western pressures and incentives considered, it’s not so easy for a whole population to change ways of life and systems of values, and the mix in Kathmandu can be seen in rich detail by looking at the culture of music. Five genres of music are widespread in the city—Eastern classical music, Nepali folk music, Nepali modern music, Western popular music, and Bollywood film music (Hindi pop). Young, hip musicians play guitar and sing Western tunes in English, but they command a repertoire including popular Nepali rock music and Hindi film music as well. There are a few Nepali modern groups who have risen to fame in the country over the past 20 years, and they are steadily building a repertoire of Nepali music in Western form. These tunes, you can imagine, are incredibly popular among the wealthy, ambitious youth. There are also (generally) older, more traditional artists who perform Nepali folk music, but in a studio-standard style. The inspiration, melodies, lyrics, languages, and forms come from the villages, but they are recorded in studios in the city, and the music is then played throughout the country on the radio. These performers may live modern, Western lives in Kathmandu, but their music is traditional and their consumers are often villagers, grunt-workers in the city, and migrant workers in other countries looking for tastes of home. Often these performers are incredibly successful, and their music valued as home comfort among many Nepalis from many castes and ethnic groups. In a city that is moving increasingly away from home culture, home anchors like traditional music become intensely meaningful. Taking an intermediary stage between traditional and fully Western cultures, and occupying a huge place in general entertainment is Hindi pop music, generally coming from Bollywood film soundtracks. India dominates the popular film and TV industry in Nepal; cinemas show Indian movies, Indian film celebrities are discussed daily in the newspapers, and the music from the latest release is inevitably heard in the grocery stores, whistled and hummed by people of all ages on public transportation, and sold in bulk by bootleggers on the street. It’s available, it’s hip, and it’s from a similar culture with similar-looking people. Classical music isn’t popular anywhere—in the West or the East—but somehow both cultures have it, and they have communities of patrons and performers intensely devoted to keeping the styles alive. It’s considered ‘higher’ music everywhere; more meaningful, significant, rich, and worthy of serious study than ‘lesser’ popular music. In Kathmandu there’s a vibrant community of Eastern classical music aficionados, and these guys keep an equally vibrant community of performers and students employed and thriving. There are regularly scheduled classical music performances at various temples around town, and many special events which call for the sweet sounds of tabla, tampura, and melodic raag soloist. Though it’s the product of highly trained specialists and usually confined to performances for rich patrons, and though it came from a different evolutionary process originating in India, this music is valued highly in Nepal and generally regarded proudly as being a firm pillar of Nepali fine art. Finally, there’s a large group of Western-looking Nepali musicians—those who want to study in the States or Europe, or who want to join the Western-dominated global community of musicians. These guys study jazz guitar, or piano, or drum-set, or form garage bands and play classic rock covers. They congregate at the private music schools which offer the scarce resources and only teachers for Western styles of music, they watch youtube videos and listen to Western recordings online, and they share pdf files of western method books and song books by passing around thumb drives. These guys are young, and their ranks are growing.

So, with all of this music going around, and these competing traditional vs. Western values, where’s the music education? What is it now, and what should it be? The youth most interested in getting a music education want Western music, though there are the fewest resources and qualified teachers for such music. The teachers in schools generally know either Nepali folk music or Eastern classical music. The principals and directors of schools have little or no interest at all in music. Universities offer Eastern classical music, though their courses of study are highly criticized. Professional folk musicians ‘don’t learn.’

I need to focus a little bit more on professional folk musicians. In a recent conversation with the husband of one incredibly successful folk singer, I learned that folk musicians are never from Kathmandu. They are all from the villages—they learn by listening and repeating and learning songs and melodies from elders and the radio and practice on their own during chores and play musical games with their peers and realize, finally, that they’re quite good at it. All of the really popular folk singers in Nepal, with recording credentials in the thousands of songs, with tours to 25 or more countries, with a multitude of gigs and festival performance opportunities sponsored by the Nepali government, with a large and devout radio audience, all of these singers are from villages. Folk singers don’t come from Kathmandu, the husband said. Strangely enough, people migrate to Kathmandu all the time in search of new opportunities and wealth and education. Those born in Kathmandu who want to be popular singers seem to need to do the opposite. What will happen in the next generations, I wonder? Also, according to the husband, folk singers—popular as they are—can only sing folk music. They have no formal music education, and they need not even speak English. Give them a tabla and tampura and they will be lost. Give them a sheet of notated music and they will be lost. Ask them to sing a scale and they will be lost. Give them a flute, madal, and a dohori tune, however, and they’ll soar. These uneducated folk musicians are some of the most successful musicians in Nepal—trumping the rockers even—and those who go through the time, patience, practice, and effort to get a rounded formal music education, in classical, western, or any style, from public schools or private institutions, struggle to make a living. That’s just how the system goes right now—those ‘learning’ music outside of Kathmandu have better chances for financial success.

Back to the second experience in February, the SAISA conference re-illustrated to me the depth and richness of the general American music education curriculum. Students learn notation, instrumental technique, theory—rhythm, harmony, melody, form as distinct concepts—history, a diverse repertoire, large ensemble participation, etc. In schools they can prepare themselves to seriously join the ranks of performing musicians. Teachers are highly educated both in the processes of music making (they can perform themselves), and in the specialized processes of music teaching—rehearsing, lesson planning, following curriculum, managing programs, and organizing and structuring a year of learning that can build in successive years. Surely Nepali students could benefit from such an education?

A big problem is that not only is the style (genre) of music taught this way Western, but the process of teaching it is Western as well. Is it possible to teach Nepali and Eastern Classical music in this structured way? Probably, but why do it? Eastern classical and Nepali music have evolved with their own ways of teaching. Why not just leave them be? Is it worth it, or will it ever be effective to teach different styles using the Western system? My answer, right now, is that it’s worth a try. Here’s why:

The whole system of education is moving toward the Western model (again, for better or worse), and it’s taking music with it. Students spending all day in Western-looking schools don’t have the time among all of their new-found schoolwork, homework, and housework to learn traditional or classical music in the same way as their parents did. A school student can’t just pack up and spend years living with a sitar guru. A city kid doesn’t go out to the fields and do chores with his father and grandfather, learning songs and melodies as the work progresses. A city kid’s Gurung grandfather might teach him completely different songs from his best friend and neighbor’s Sherpa grandfather, mixing and straining once-solid repertoires. Where is a contemporary city kid to learn music? He has little choice but in his West-moving school. Schools that strive to be Western will set up a situation for their music classes and teachers that, at least in form, can best be taken advantage of with a Western style of teaching.

This situation is riddled with problems and inconveniences. First, a lot of the teachers in the current Western-form schools didn’t learn music in this environment, so they can’t draw on their own learning experiences when formulating teaching strategies. Not only can’t they use their own experience, they have nowhere to go for outside advice or resources for adapting to this situation. Where math, science, and English classes are structured by experts with curricula and syllabi, music classes are largely ignored. Music teachers—or, more accurately, musicians who have jobs teaching—are left to themselves to teach within a foreign system without any kind of outside help or structure. They are asked to teach ‘music’—nothing more specific—and expected only to produce performances that will impress parents at the school’s annual ‘Parents’ Day’ extravaganza. Music is not currently considered by a school’s decision-makers to be worth any more of their time or energy than that. Music teaching is not considered a career profession. At many schools the teachers are only part-time workers, and many such teachers consider themselves performers who teach at schools for supplemental income. Since expectations are so low, and resources are so scarce even for the motivated teacher, there’s a general apathy among teachers toward the abysmal standards displayed in school music programs. School music programs, being an unprecedented thing in this culture, have no historical standards to look up to. Many teachers and principals simply have no idea of the potential of Western-style school music programs, something that we experience all the time in the actual West. The victim is the music student. The student with talent who wants to learn and develop his skill. He currently has no outlet at the average Nepali Western-model school, even if he opts to take optional music classes.

In effect, the Western model not only is moving in on the time and influence during which kids would have learned according to Eastern models, it isn’t replacing this time with anything of musical substance. Students go to school (and don’t learn at home or with a guru), and they don’t get anything worthwhile musically from school. The problem, as illustrated above, lies in many ways with the implementation of the system, and the failure of decision-makers to think through the situation facing their music classes.

A very large difference between Western music classes and music classes in Western Nepali schools is organization. Western music classes have curricula and syllabi, yearly structure, published goals, researched teaching methods, resource-rich classrooms, and a strong background of teacher education. Nepali schools have individual part-time music teachers with no teacher education, no structure, no goals, and no resources. They may be fantastic musicians, and they may know hundreds of ragas and folk rhythms, but they have no training in classroom teaching. The subject may not be Western, but the educational setting is, and working in a foreign setting—especially an ill-equipped foreign setting—presents the teacher with a multitude of problems to solve before any meaningful teaching can take place. Some of the problems: What genre of music should I teach? Should I teach performance only, or theoretical concepts as well? What should I expect from my students at the end of the year? These, and many many other questions, can only be answered within the scope of the teacher’s own musical knowledge and ideas of structure. Every teacher ultimately ‘creates a program’ completely unique to himself. The teaching that a student receives from one teacher will be dependent solely on that teacher’s own musical experience (necessarily learned in a setting outside of the Western-model school), and will be different by definition from the teaching another student receives from a different teacher. Even if individual features of the subject material are the same—if both students learn ‘bhopali raag’ from different teachers—they may not necessarily learn anything else that’s the same. Or they may. There’s no way to know.

These reasons and more illustrate the need for a more developed approach to music education in schools. Schools strive to be Western in appearance and outcome, but at the current time they are not providing for the processes (specific to music) necessary to achieve efficient and substantive learning. As much of a cultural tear it is to teach Eastern music in a Western setting, the decision to embrace Western settings has already been made in Kathmandu. The most productive course of action appears to be to provide music teachers with the training and resources they need to cope with such a foreign environment.

The most obvious solution is to start a music teacher training program specifically focusing on techniques for classroom teaching—structuring lessons, working with groups of children, etc. This program could effectively address the current disconnect between subject and setting, but to work it needs to overcome the apathy factor. Teachers need to care enough about teaching to embrace additional training, and school employers need to value music education enough to invest in training for their teachers and to hire trained teachers—who will inevitably cost more—over untrained teachers. In other words, the first step to solving the current ills of music education in Kathmandu is to seriously consider them a problem worth solving. Music education advocates worldwide take on the apathy adversary, with varying degrees of success.

This is where I find myself now, and the reasoning described above outlines the course of my thoughts throughout the month. I have conceived the plans and gathered the informational resources necessary to make a teacher training program here, and I am coming face to face with the apathy of decision-makers toward implementing and embracing such a program.

So, with all of this thinking and such, where have February’s trials been? The answer lies in my stomach—particularly in the parasites who took residence there. The day after the big SAISA music festival at the Lincoln School I became very sick. I had burps that smelt and tasted atrocious, painful bloating, and a host of other unpleasant gastro-intestinal symptoms.

I had to give a midterm presentation the day after the onset of my symptoms to the Fulbright community about my activities thus far. I suspended my usual schedule of gigs and classes to focus on writing and giving the presentation, then promptly crashed and spent the entire next day in bed. The sickness lasted for a full week, then disappeared for a week, then came back again. At the moment of writing I feel sick. The worst symptom is a malaise—a general lack of energy and motivation to do anything. When I’m lounging around because of the sickness I feel like I’m wasting my time, and more than anything I despise time wasting. After the first onset I decided to give it a few days and see if it would go away by itself. It didn’t. I then went to the doctor and spent $76 for a diagnosis of diarrhea with parasites and some pills to kill them. I took the pills, and, this being about the 1 week point, the sickness went away. Fine. I had an incredibly productive week of being well. Then on Thursday of that incredibly productive week the disgusting burps came back, and I knew I was in for another round of the same miserable lethargic suffering. Rather than go back to the clinic for the same diagnosis and the same $76 bill, I went to the corner pharmacy and bought the same medicine as before for $0.50, took it, and didn’t get much better. The burps went away, but the lethargy and stomachaches stayed. After some research I saw that my symptoms might be caused by celiac disease—an autoimmune that I’m at high risk for—and that the parasites from the week before could very well have triggered it. The only treatment for celiac is a gluten-free diet, so I ate a lot of gluten to see what would happen. I felt terrible after every meal. Then I eliminated gluten, and I seem to be getting better. That’s where I am now. This sickness has occupied my thoughts and obstructed my actions for most of the month, beginning on February 9th and continuing to the present. Also, while I was sick the first time, my bike was stolen, further limiting my mobility.

While sick at home I was able to think and write, and for days I constructed write-ups for the SAISA weekend, my presentation, and elaborate plans for how to spend my remaining few months here. Writing, here, for me, is intensely important. When my Fulbright is over, what will I take with me? My experiences, stories, friends and contacts, and, most solidly, my writings. For this to happen I need to devote time to writing clearly and thoroughly; after all, the same thoughts may not occur to me after time, or in different surroundings. When something amazing happens I need to write it while it’s fresh so that I can always go back and experience it with the same freshness. In the past I would have an amazing experience, then tell my friends all about it, and then not think about it any more. During this period of not thinking it would fade, and I would forget details, relying on my friends to remember them. I realized how silly this is—if I can’t remember my own stories, why would my friends? The best thing to do is to tell them to myself, in writing, so that I can forget them with confidence.

Some special days—Nepali holidays—happened in February, and I made a brave effort to celebrate them as best I could. The first was called Shiva Ratri, and it happened on February 12. It was the night that Shiva was supposed to visit the city, particularly the big temple complex of Pashupatinath. Pashupati, therefore, filled up during the days leading up to Shiva Ratri with Babas and Saddhus and various Hindu holy men from all over Nepal and India. They were easily recognizable by their long, twisting dredlocks in beehives above their heads, their yellow and white robes, dirty hands, big wooden walking sticks with beads, robe-fabric carrying bags slung over their shoulders, skinny, wobbly frames, tattered sandals, and powder on their faces. Some painted their faces brightly, like clowns, and targeted tourists to give them tikas and demand money. Others were more subdued, faces splotched with dull colors in ill-defined shapes, and their attention always looked to be elsewhere. On the day of Shiva Ratri the roads around Pashupatinath closed, and it became a pilgrimage site for lay people. People stood in winding, crowded lines for hours to gain entry to the complex to make puja and receive a blessing. The sides of the roads were crowded with vendors selling puja accoutrements—yellow flowers, tika powder, beads, fruits, pictures of gods and avatars, tracts by Sai Baba, and various forms of fried dough. Shiva is known to be more accessible when the pilgrim is under the influence of marijuana, so various holy men took it upon themselves to sell smokes and food concoctions on the streets to pilgrims with this in mind. The vendors crowded the pilgrim lines on the narrow streets, and the people passing between were forced to swim and push their way through to continue moving toward wherever their destinations would be. It was a cold, cloudy, drizzly day, lending a forced, almost fatalistic hardship quality to the whole proceedings. I went with friends, watched for a little bit, decided not to get in line, talked with a Baba from India, then left, glad that I went, and glad that I didn’t stay.

Since Shiva was supposed to arrive at midnight, the festivities only increased as the day and night wore on. People in their homes made big fires on their roofs to attract him, and they celebrated by dancing, saying prayers, and eating traditional snacks (and sometimes drugs). Little kids blocked off roads with little pieces of rope during the day, demanding a donation from passersby so that they could buy wood to burn for Shiva at night. That night I went to the home of a friend of mine, enjoyed the fire on his roof, ate Shiva snacks prepared by his devout Hindu Nepali wife, and generally had a relaxing time. From there I went to a restaurant/music venue owned by friends to meet another Fulbrighter and watch a special Shiva Ratri concert played by a big Nepali rock star. The music was fantastic, but after half an hour I fell violently sick and had to be walked home by my friend. Shiva, apparently, is no friend of mine.

The other big holiday during February was Holi, celebrated on Sunday, February 28, during my second bout of stomach problems. I again made a valiant effort to celebrate, and this time was much more successful. Holi is generally known to be the holiday of throwing paint and water on people. The streets turn into water balloon and squirt gun battle-grounds, and nobody is spared. Excitement vibrated through the air on the days leading up to Holi, shops stocked up on water flinging devices and colored powder, school children cut class to prepare themselves for the onslaught, and sometimes surprise attacks burst forth, showering unpleasant surprises on unprepared pedestrians. The day of Holi itself saw prowling gangs of war-painted school boys, older boys leading the way and younger boys trailing behind loaded down with little clear bags of water to pummel any enemy gang encountered by chance on the winding streets. I witnessed an epic battle between such a gang on the street and their formidable opponents, a couple of expat girls hurling water bombs from the fortified position on the roof of their house.

I celebrated Holi with a group of Nepali friends in the parking lot of the same restaurant/music venue I patronized during Shiva Ratri. My friends who own the place are wealthy, popular, and young, so they organized a grand party with a DJ, bar, fried chicken, sprinklers, water buckets, piles and piles of paint powder, and a guest list of 50 or so similarly young, energetic, and fun-loving Nepali friends. We had a grand time—filling up buckets with water, sneaking up behind our victims and completely drenching them from head to foot, throwing colored powder in the air and smearing it all over our damp friends’ faces, getting drenched ourselves by friends with similar intentions, dancing to the pulsing rhythms coming from the enormous sound system, and generally enjoying a free-for-all ‘Holi’day battle-dance. The weather was perfect—sunny and warm—and I was taken back to summer water fights in Texas. As the party wore on people became more and more colored, obviously, but the color would stick, then get wet, then dry and harden, then more color would be applied, get wet, harden, and continually layer in this way until everybody matched in a kind of orangy pink with dark purple and yellow highlights. The color of my formerly white ‘Jazzmandu’ T-shirt will forever evidence these wild Holi festivities.

I mentioned above that I had an incredibly productive week, and I think it deserves some description. One of the highlights of this week (and weeks leading up to it) was my participation in the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory Big Band—a jazz band made up of Nepali guys and a few expats. I played (and still play) 2nd alto sax with the group, the former Nepali Army band general plays 1st alto, a French expat plays 1st tenor sax, a German expat plays 2nd tenor, three Nepali military band players play the trumpet parts, another Nepali soldier plays trombone, and the rhythm section is made up of Nepali KJC students. The Spanish director of KJC is the director of the band. We started rehearsing in mid-January, generally playing very easy beginning-jazz-band repertoire in the pursuit of becoming comfortable in the group and getting practice reading music (especially important for the Nepali horn players). These guys can read music now, but not with the fluency that we expect in the West. They can read notes, articulations, and dynamics, but will only perform two of these at a time. Consequently we spent a lot of time during rehearsal drilling articulations and dynamics. I am incredibly impressed with the Nepali players in the band—they are playing foreign instruments with very little instruction or support, reading music in a music language that’s not their own, and keeping up well enough to get the band moving. Though the director and the music is Western, the majority of players are Nepali, and we’re all making it work. This is the only big band in Nepal that I know of, and there’s a pretty good chance that I know of all of them.

The guys in this big band, and especially the rhythm section, are part of the group of Nepali musicians described above who have chosen Western music as their own and really want to excel in that form. They play guitar, bass guitar, and drums, and they spend hours and hours practicing jazz heads, jazz solos, Western scales, different harmonic patterns, and group themselves in different combinations to do Western gigs. KJC is a hub of Western-looking Nepali performers. It should be—its director is Western. The school teaches private lessons in Western instruments, Western theory classes, and coaches Western performing groups. There is a fairly large group of Nepali students and musicians who make up this KJC community, and it seems to be a unique thing in the city. The good KJC musicians are kind of like a musical elite with a Western focus. They have constant contact with expats, and they get many opportunities to play for dignitaries and interact with higher-ups because of connections from the Spanish director. He represents the acceptable white musician in Kathmandu, and as such moves in embassy circles and maintains a global contact network. He makes organizations, raises funds, plays charity concerts, organizes events for well-to-do expat groups, and generally works the system for music. It’s incredible to watch. Kathmandu is lucky that he’s such a committed musician and teacher; he could very easily rely on his network of donors, do a few concerts a year, and check out for the rest of the time. Instead he organizes events and special guests for his students, teaches classes, makes his facilities available for other music groups, and generally prioritizes music learning and sharing.

Working with him I’ve been able to observe a little bit about how the charity/donation system works, and I’m intensely frustrated by what I see. Groups and events that get money don’t necessarily represent the best interests of the community they say they work for. Groups that give money don’t necessarily give according to the merit/benefits/worth/efficiency of the proposal or cause, they give with an eye for getting something personally in return, they give according to the charisma of the asker, the setting of the request, and in accordance with some strange individual requirements. Some donor groups don’t even consider a proposal that asks for too little money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars may be committed to frivolous causes because they were requested at a nice dinner over wine. If the atmosphere is jolly the pockets may be loose, but if the atmosphere is official the pockets are likely to be protected with strict scrutiny. Also, the money is distributed not by organizations, but by specific personalities that represent such organizations. Having connections with these personalities and knowing what they like to surround themselves with can go a long way toward securing funds toward any cause. Music projects looking for funding can come up in both situations, but they seem to be most appealing when they are most frivolous. For example, in late January the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra came through Kathmandu and gave a performance at the Hyatt Hotel. The performance was free, but limited to 540 people. 800 invitations were distributed, and only those with invitations were supposed to be admitted. Those 800 invitations never left the wealthy, foreign, embassy, NGO higher-up crowd, and consequently the concert played before an audience of wealthy expats. The KJC director fought hard to get invitations for his Nepali students, and from an initial request of 20 was able to get only 6. The event was sponsored in part by the German embassy, a wealthy German patroness from Stuttgart, a wealthy Nepali business family, and some smaller organizations. It must have cost a fortune—they played in the ballroom of one of the most expensive hotels in the city, they are one of the most expensive orchestras in Europe, and there was an enormous reception afterward with food and alcohol for 540 people. Additionally, someone had to pay for the whole orchestra to fly to and lodge in Kathmandu. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the net result was one night of orchestra music for the rich elite. That much money could easily have started a music teacher training program and kept it going for five years with textbooks, foreign teachers, instruments, etc. Now it’s spent, mostly for the benefit of the rich hotel and rich airline businessmen. Why the concert and not the school? The KJC director and I have made a grant proposal for embassies to start a music teacher training program, clearly outlining the need for such a program and the multitude benefits that can come from such a program, and it has gotten nowhere. Over the months I’ve become somewhat embittered about the system.

If you are frustrated with the system in the same way that I am, and if you happen to be on the donor side of the equation, write me. I can make a teacher training program work well for a year for 300,000 Nepali rupees, or about $4,200. If this is truly too small a request, the program could expand comfortably to take advantage of $10,000 or $15,000, but any more than that could invite corruption. The money would be spent according to priorities for the students/participants; first priority would be hiring qualified teachers to teach the courses, second would be securing textbooks for the students, third would be to publicize the program and run a music education advocacy campaign in the city, and fourth would be for things that come up in relation to the above. Much of the initial creation work has already been done, supported by my Fulbright grant. All we need is money for implementation. You wouldn’t even be giving the money to me, you’d be donating it to the Nepal Music Educators’ Society (NMES), the non-profit organization which has taken up this project.

Back to the big band: the band was created both as an educational and commercial venture. The KJC director wants to expose these guys to jazz band and give them an opportunity to participate in this Western music form, thereby strengthening their playing skills and contributing to their overall music education, and he also wants it to be a gigging group. These guys, after all, have careers and families, and they can’t afford to just give up 6 hours per week on endless concertless rehearsals. On February 27 we played a concert for the new Chevrolet-sponsored ‘last-Saturday-of-the-month’ concert series at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory auditorium. We played 4 tunes, with varying success, but since the audience loved them all it turned out to be a nice performance. This concert, sponsored as it was through the director’s connections and publicized in the appropriate circles, was attended by the elite community of donor personalities responsible for the Stuttgart concert and other expat-focused affairs. It, again, was a chance for me to observe the inner workings of the donation system, and my opinions haven’t changed. These groups have so much money that they end up just throwing away! Like I said, the concert went well and the evening was pleasant enough. I, unfortunately, became very sick toward the end of the concert, and had to leave as soon as it ended.

I’ve hinted above about my involvement in making teacher education programs for music teachers, and now I can elaborate a little bit on that whole process—another part of my very productive week of not being sick. The whole thing started at an NMES meeting on February 20, one week after Shiva Ratri. The other teachers and I were in general conversation about various music education issues, and I started a thread about the lack of educational resources for music teachers and the lack of reputable qualifications for music teachers. We discussed this for awhile, and came up with the solution that two things need to happen at once—a teacher training program needs to be created to teach musicians how to teach in the Western school model, and it needs to lead to a qualification that will be recognized by the city’s employers. The program and the recognition need to both be there for it to be a success. Then one of the teachers proposed that we do it—that we make that program. It would be the only one in the city, so it would tap into a new group of people and fill a unique need, and it addresses commonly recognized problems. After more talk we pooled our resources and influence and made a game plan. KJC has the space and some of the instruments we would need to facilitate the program, and I know enough about organization to make the course plans. The teachers have connections with principals and successful musicians in the city who could endorse such a program, tapping into advertising and marketing potential. The participants for this specific program would ideally be employed music teachers sent and financially supported by their principals or school directors. That means our target audience would be principals and school directors—we would need to convince them to invest in the development of their teachers and music programs. That’s the part of the job that I can’t do myself, and, in the spirit of teamwork, the part of the job that the Nepali teachers say they can do quite easily. We ended that first meeting with a plan of action: I would create the structure for the program, the KJC director would look for funding for the program, and the teachers would put together a music education advocacy pitch for principals and directors.

During the course of the week I had a meeting with the principal at one of the private higher secondary schools I’m working at. My initial intention was only to interview him about the structure of extra-curricular classes at the school—what parts of the course organization were his own decisions, what parts were mandated by the district or ministry of education, what limits he had to work within, how he conceived the program, and other structure-based questions. After the meeting began it became clear to me that he had no interest in discussing the current music program in his school, dismissing it as a part-time thing and not a program at all. He is very interested in music, and said that years ago he tried to start a real, tested music program on his campus, but it was bogged down by bureaucratic requirements. He said that it’s very hard to start a new program—that it has to go through desks at the district and ministry level, that it can only be tentative for two years, that it has to use curriculum from a central curriculum office, and more. He also said that he would get absolutely no parental support—the parents of his students do not value music as a profession, and absolutely do not want their children to study it seriously. He himself knows how difficult a life he would be setting his students up for if he trained them to be professional musicians. Musicians are part-time workers, always, and it’s hard to justify offering a program that leads only to part-time work. As a business-man selling education in a market-based economy, he just can’t justify making a program. That said, I presented him with the situation facing music teachers as I understand it so far, and my solution of having a program specific to teacher training leading to a recognizable qualification. He lit up at the idea, and told me that it just might work. He’s interested now in making a program like that for his own campus, a program that would reach students from 14 to 16 or 18 years old, and he made plans to dialogue with his partners, investors, and a Japanese music promotion organization about making it happen. I was surprised and heartened by his interest, and I think it would be a great idea to offer a basic training in music teaching to students who are students anyway, not having to deal with issues of negotiating time around a job and family yet.

Next, I spoke later in the week with my friend and professor who is working on putting together the MA program in music at the girls’ campus of the national university, and I suggested that they also offer a class or two on teaching techniques, again outlining the problem as I saw it and how classes on teaching can create more versatile and job-ready graduates. He likes the idea, and he is in a position to implement it. At the moment we are working on securing funding for the overall program, but when it comes time to organize the course of study I’ll again push for offering education classes.

So, after one week and three meetings I have gotten people interested in offering a music teacher training program in three different settings: a private higher secondary school for pre-university students, a university for university students, and a private music school to offer professional development for already-employed music teachers.

A problem with good ideas, however, is that they tend to balloon while still in the idea stage and get too big for implementation. One good idea inspires an idea for improvement, which inspires more ideas for improvement, until the idea outgrows the available resources. This became a problem at the next NMES meeting a week later. We talked about selling the professional development program to principals and directors, and made plans to arrange a meeting with the Private English Boarding School Organization of Nepal to pitch the program. Then we thought that we had better make a really good presentation that is flashy, simple, appeals to their pocket books, and leaves them with a packet of benefits that they can take home and study. Then we thought that we should make a professional video to show them. Then we realized that we have no idea how to make a video, and that we wouldn’t be able to do it. Then the attitude became one of dejection—the idea being that if we can’t do it right (the video), then we shouldn’t do it at all. If that’s where the meeting ends (and too many meetings end there), then nothing ever happens. Fortunately for music education we were able to get back on track and make plans while considering our resources, consciously focusing only on things we can possibly do.

Another problem with good ideas, and especially good ideas that require a team effort, is that when it comes time to stop thinking and start actually working, the idea doesn’t seem so good. The status quo gets to be more and more attractive, and ideas for improvement wither under doubts that all the necessary hard work will be of any benefit, and fears that a lot of energy could be spent with nothing to show for it. If these fears root strongly enough, people give up without trying, and nothing gets done. This hasn’t happened yet within my team, but it’s always a threat.

What we can possibly do for the professional development program, with the right resources and interest, is hire an Eastern classical music teacher, a Nepali music teacher, a Western music teacher, a curriculum/lesson planning/education teacher, and a management teacher. All of these except the Western music teacher can be Nepali citizens from the beginning. We can also buy textbooks and create syllabi for the classes that these teachers are to cover. Scheduling could be a problem—no one schedule will work for everybody—but we can minimize conflict and work to make it a rewarding and substantial yet manageable program for already-employed music teachers. What we need now are resources and interest.

These are projects that, if they catch on, can really be of service to Nepali music teachers. Unfortunately for me, I only have 3 months left on the grant, and there is no possible way that they will all be up and running in only 3 months time. A big pressure I’m facing right now is finding a way to keep the projects moving when I leave, keeping the guys motivated to push the process through. Also, I’ve put a lot of time and thought into these projects, and it will be sad to leave them before they have been completed. Ideally I would be able to help from abroad, but the current state of communication in Nepal may prevent anything reliable.

In addition to working on the teacher training programs, I taught my normal school classes during my February week of good health. Every day I was at the higher secondary school attempting to teach the kids how to sing—something much harder than I had originally expected. The biggest problem is that some of the students can’t match pitch. I can’t get them to sing a melody, or even a scale, because they can’t yet listen to a single note and match it with their voice. Sometimes I can get them to gliss up and down and tell them where to stop, but then when they stop singing and re-start it will be on something different. Also, I’m trying to get them to read simple melodies from a notated page, and while they have no problem memorizing the lines and spaces of the staff, or the look of quarter, half, eighth, and sixteenth notes, or the sharp sign and the flat sign, they can’t synthesize that information into sound. They won’t understand a melody until it has been sung to them, and then they just memorize it and sing it back (the ones who can sing pitches). This is compounded by the fact that when I’m not there, that’s the way the Nepali teacher teaches melody. I want them to sing the melodies that have been notated by reading and interpreting the notation, but the teacher will do that work for them and make it nothing more than a rote exercise. I’m using ‘sa re ga ma’ to indicate pitches, but the students aren’t familiar enough with the scale to come up with ‘ga’ or ‘ma’ from a given ‘sa.’ Finally, I’m trying to slowly introduce simple harmony to them, but every time I try it becomes utter chaos. One group of students is instructed to hold a pitch while another sings the scale, but even after three or more explanations the kids will all just sing up the scale.

Discipline can sometimes be a problem in the higher secondary class. The usual punishment for misbehavior is hitting or ear-squeezing, but I won’t do that. The kids then feel like they have free reign to not listen to me, so that’s exactly what they do: not listen to me. Problems in that classroom include kids fighting with each other (pushing, hitting, pinching), talking to each other during instructions, singing the wrong thing on purpose, and generally not participating. The class meets at the end of the day, and the students aren’t used to doing anything that requires effort in music class. That’s the reason that many of them take music class. Now that I’m there trying to make them work, they are resisting. They are tired from being in class for the whole day, and I’m not letting them chill out and take a recess. The most effective thing I’ve done to keep them on track is to not let them stop singing. We’ll do scales up and down and interval exercises and split into groups and do scales and sing rote melodies. This is fine, but it doesn’t allow me to teach them the mental things about music, like interpreting notation. When I launch into an explanation of the notated page they tune out, and when I ask them to do it they have no idea. It’s getting better, but their whole understanding of ‘music class’ needs to change from something passive to something active.

I’m also teaching a university music class, taking some time from an established vocal class to teach Western notation and harmony, and it is going extremely well. The students are interested and engaged, and they already have the facility to sing, recognize pitch and intervals, and match pitch. Notation is new to them, so they don’t read music quickly yet, but they now have the mental tools to interpret a notated page and get the musical content from it. We’ve gone over rhythm, pitch, key signature, and now they are learning to read ‘Adeste Fideles’ from an SATB score. This class only meets twice a week, and I only get a half hour with them each time, but those classes were some of my favorite February moments. I have recently been offered the chance to teach Western theory to the new group of Master’s degree students in music at the university, so my student group may soon get bigger and even more engaged. We’ll see what happens.

I’m taking tabla lessons off and on, and while I was sick they were most certainly ‘off.’ When I felt well enough again in the last week of February I called my teacher to schedule some more lessons. Out of three attempted meetings, only one actually worked out. The first time we had a schedule misunderstanding, the second time I was delayed for an hour by traffic, and the final time we met and had a great lesson. I’m learning a new kayada now (composition that allows for improvisation). This teacher has also been in touch with a group of performers working on putting together a program, and I have been unofficially involved some of the time. The day I was an hour late I finally met the other guys, and sat quietly while they spoke to each other quickly in Nepali. I know the tunes they are working on, but I still don’t know what exactly my involvement with them will be. In addition to tabla I’m learning raags and compositions on my clarinet, and during one amazing February morning I had a breakthrough moment and completely understood how to play one specific raag. The tough part was that the composition started on beat ‘12’ of 16, and the improvised sections needed to finish with the statement of the melody from beats 12-16. I knew the melody, but when I was improvising I couldn’t keep track of where beat 12 would be. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds—if it were in 4/4 the cycle would last 4 measures, and I would have to start on beat ‘4’ of the third measure. I finally got it, though, and enjoyed 20 minutes of good, competent, creative back-and-forth with the sitar and tabla players I was with.

The tabla player who jams with the sitar player and I is a young guy who has been studying for over 10 years under my current teacher. He is an amazing player, and he is in high demand for classical concerts all over the city. The problem is that, good and popular as he is, his work is never secure, and he doesn’t make a whole lot of money from it. He teaches at a school a little bit part time, but that’s just to make some money. I ask him about upcoming programs, and his answers are never the same twice. He has talent, prestige, and connections, but at the moment he’s still living as a struggling, gigging, part-time musician. He’s been able to survive this way, and his future looks to be very bright, but I can’t help but think that all of the students that come out of the university music programs as proficient classical players are destined to struggle in the same way that he does. It’s no secret, really, and those who choose to be musicians generally accept from the outset that they will have to struggle and face insecure job prospects. We justify it away and make ourselves feel good with thoughts that we’re doing something that we enjoy, and that people just don’t have the same appreciation and values that we do, and that we’re contributing something unique to society, and so on. All of that aside, it’s too bad that music can’t be a more secure way of providing a living.

In summation, this whole write-up is a summation. This was my February. It’s now halfway into March.


28th March 2010

Notes on February
Dear Robert, Did you have Giardia? We have had that before in Baja. Not a nice parasite. It sounds like the same symptoms. Very nasty smelling. Michael got very very sick from it. It takes a certain antibiotic to clear it up. Next, you spoke about how the students didn't learn the same "curriculum" from different teachers. Well, that happens here in the West too. It may seem like all students learn the same thing at each grade level, but they don't. Even in the same school district it can be different. So don't let that be a deterrent. I wonder... if you got the funding, would you stay in Kathmandu and continue the work? Your dad said you applied to someplace in Hawaii for something ( I should have payed more attention). Maybe you can fill me in.It does seem a shame to get a program started and then have to leave. However, you can't change the world in a year. You have done some amazing things in your time there. I'm really proud of you. I would think that a popular musician like Bono, or someone like that who is knowledgeable about needy countries might be interested in programs like yours. I wonder how hard it would be to contact his organization for a donation? Just a thought. Anyway, love you and always thinking and praying for you. Auntie Ann

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