Posted by Saskia Rao-de Haas, New Delhi
These past months have been a huge challenge to the entire world. Countless people have had to press a reboot button, facing hardships beyond imagination. These times have taught me that challenges offer us a deeper insight into our lives and make me feel a great sense of gratitude for all that is well.
The last concert I performed was on my birthday, the 10th of March, in a crowded temple in Amritsar for a Holi-themed classical music festival. It was an enjoyable concert filled with a large, enthusiastic audience. With my first note, ‘wah’ sounded from one of the famous Wadali brothers from the front row. It was a wonderful evening. Little did I realise that this would be the last applause I received for a long time.
We are a family of musicians and we breathe through music. Our son Ishaan would feel restless when we would not travel for some time even as a 3 year-old and would ask when we’d go on an airplane again! He is 15 years old now and growing as a pianist. Our home is always filled with music with at least one of us practicing at all times. But an artist needs an audience as well.
Unfortunately, the ways to describe a good audience in normal times sounds like a potential Coronavirus hotspot: ‘a packed audience’, ‘people sitting in the aisles’, ‘the auditorium filled to the brim’. Not possible right now. All concerts are cancelled for the foreseeable and perhaps not-so-foreseeable future. So, like everyone else, we too are at home.
Practice is always wonderful and our way to strengthen ourselves. All three of us start our day practicing for at least 3 hours, Ishaan usually longer. After a good practice, we are ready for everything else. The crushing reality of the outside world can enter our home through the filter of our computer screen.
Apart from performing, Shubhendra and I run a music education curriculum to connect children with Indian classical music in a fun and meaningful way. When we are not practicing music or performing, we work on this. We are passionate about bringing music, especially classical music, to children, so they can benefit from having music in their lives the way we and Ishaan did. I have written books and created an intensive teacher training program as well as lesson plans to introduce a new, fresh approach to art education. The feedback has been very rewarding. The responses I receive from parents and children makes all the hard work worth it! The Sangeet4All program runs in 18 schools in the NCR, Gujarat and Punjab to the great satisfaction of parents, teachers and schools alike.
After I returned from my concert in Amritsar and realised that the virus could change the way we teach music for some time, I created online lesson plans for all the schools and now the Sangeet4All team can teach an entire music program online! Sure, the online medium has its own drawbacks— you cannot sing at the same time at different locations because of the slight delay on any platform, but listening skills, musical mindfulness, concept building and musical storytelling are super effective. At this time, we have to look at the positives and CAN’S rather than the negatives and CANNOT’S. It takes all our effort to take along schools with us, since it is new to them too and they rather focus on maths, science and English—the ‘real’ subjects, over some frivolous music activities. I feel this is a huge mistake.
It is music, especially our classical music-based program that gives children not only peace of mind, but gives a window to all learning. The Greek philosopher Plato said it perfectly: ‘Teach children music, mathematics and philosophy. But most of all music, because the patterns in music are the key to all learning’. This is true. I can teach a child maths, English, physics, social science, Hindi and dance through music. Music contains all of that. With more effective brain scanning since the last 20 or so years, neurologists have realised that music is ‘the best brain workout’ available to human kind (‘This is your brain on music’, Daniel J. Levitin, 2008).
Unfortunately, arts education is often misunderstood and neglected as a subject. It is laudable that music is supposed to finally be a part of the curriculum in schools, but sadly most schools have no idea of what to do in terms of curriculum planning. That is where we come in: music education and arts integration! It is a continuing job to ensure that more and more children have access to their musical cultural heritage and to convince policy makers to do it in a structured, well-planned manner.
So there we are. No concerts. Schools closed. Something needed to happen! We needed to rethink our lives, press some reboot buttons and take the leap of faith that all will be well again in some time. We firmly believe in the principle ‘as you sow so shall you reap’ and decided to help others who were in far, far more difficult circumstances than we are. We decided to organise a benefit concert for health workers and migrant workers. Thanks to the support of all the artists that performed, we were able to raise a good amount of money for them. Apart from that, we engage with many other wonderful initiatives that artists and organisations take to help the world around us. It is heart warming to see this and we participate almost daily.
With our Sangeet4All Facebook page, we have organized an online music competition for children and over 50 children have already posted their talent. There are some brilliant young singers and some budding musicians who display a lot of enthusiasm, but most of all: they all love music. It is wonderful to see them enjoy their music. These children embody the thought that Shubhendra and I always kept as our leading theme: music is the birthright of every child.
In the same spirit, we now start an online music summer camp. We offer a free demo class on the 27th of May so parents and children can experience what they are signing up for. Our team is ready to ensure a wonderful summer for all the children that sign up and share the screen to learn about the musical adventures in the Land of the Ragas of Surya, Azim and Urvashi, the main characters of the books. When that musical imagination takes flight, we go back to a simpler reality of childlike innocence. This kind of peace is something we all can use.
So, I have learned many lessons and continue to learn from these challenging times. An artist without audience is forced to introspect and find that audience within oneself.
To find out more about the Sangeet4All music classes and sign up for your free class: write to admin@sangeet4all.
Saskia Rao-de Haas is a world-renowned virtuoso cellist, composer, cultural entrepreneur and educationalist from the Netherlands. She is known as a master performer of Indian classical music and is the creator of a new instrument: the Indian cello. She created the first complete music curriculum for Indian music, Sangeet4All, and over 50,000 children have already benefitted from this. She is the recipient of multiple awards for her trailblazing work in music. She is married to sitar maestro Shubhendra Rao and they have a 15 year old son Ishaan who is already a pianist in his own right.
Cover image credit: Saskia Rao-de Haas
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