Saturday, 25 June 2016

Violin classes

By Vio

I started learning Western violin in Scotland in October 2004. Since April 2008, however, I have been learning north Indian (Hindustani) classical violin from Pt. Sukhdev Mishra in Varanasi. I started teaching (Indian) violin privately in Varanasi in 2011.


In July 2012, I started teaching violin in Khajuraho in exchange for free classes I took with one of the only music teachers in the town. For two years I learnt Bundeli folk music with him and taught violin to his son in return. After two years though, my student stopped learning with me because he moved to another city for his studies. In the end I also felt he had been learning violin more because his father had wanted him to than because he himself had wanted to...

It's difficult to find people interested in learning Indian classical music in Khajuraho. People are just interested in Bollywood music, because they don't have the ear to understand such inaccessible, obscure music as Indian classical music - even though it is their cultural heritage! And Many people see music as a useless (non-lucrative) skill, especially in the most modest families who struggle to make a living. If they do have the time, leisure, money, and open-mindedness to learn music, they will learn something more accessible or popular like harmonium, vocal, tabla, or dance. Violin is obscure, it's a difficult instrument, and obviously it's also unavailable for purchase in Khajuraho...

Since 2012 two or three more children/adults have shown an interest in taking classes with me, but often they underestimate the personal investement it takes to learn violin. Parents will ask "How long will it take to complete it?" or whenever I tell them a (reasonable) fee for private classes, it is too much for them. And anyway, when the children do try my violin it seems far too difficult for them and that's that. It just seems people here don't value culture enough to be interested in something new and "non-lucrative" like violin!

My student's story

And yet, in October 2012, I met my most diligent student, one of our distant relatives, during a family event. Some of our family members had wanted me to play violin and so I did. Ajay* (who was 12 at the time) was amazed and wanted to try the violin, clearly showing a genuine interest in the instrument. When he did try it out I felt some real sensitivity in the boy, so I told him I could teach him, and a few days later I gave him a taster class. It took a few months for him to start taking regular classes with me, because at the time I was spending a lot of time in Varanasi, and he was also shy with me at first. But I really wanted to teach that kid, and I started to think of him as my little challenge. Not only did I have to teach him violin from scratch, but also unlike the teacher's son, he had absolutely no background in music. He could hardly sing in tune, and like many people here, he had no idea how to move up and down in his own voice range, confusing going up in pitch and going up in volume! But he really wanted to learn and was very curious, and I knew he had the seed of an artist in him. So I wanted to open up his world to music, even more so because I also knew he had a difficult background and an alcoholic father...

When our classes did pick up, after one of my monthly trips to Varanasi, Ajay told me that while I had been away he had been practising "violin" on a wooden stick! And when he actually picked my instrument again it wasn't like the last time's mess - I found he had actually made some progress!! I was amazed. He surprised me at every class, with his initiative, with his relevant questions, with his concentration, with his dedication, with how quickly he grabbed things. In the beginning, because he didn't have a violin, I would record myself playing and singing his exercises so he could put the files into his phone, regularly listen to them and at least practise singing in his own time. Soon, though, it became obvious that I needed to find him a violin... I didn't want to buy him one, because I knew I had to be cautious and not over-generous. In India people can be very jealous and gossipy, and I didn't want his family to think I was doing too much...

A violin for Ajay

Finally I came up with a good idea: My first student had started learning on a super-cheap 1500-rupee violin his father had bought him from Bhopal, and after one year I had brought him back a 4000-rupee violin from Varanasi, which his father had bought from me. So why didn't I simply buy the teacher's son's first violin, which was kept useless in its dusty bag? This took a bit of convincing from his father, but eventually he agreed to sell it to me for 1000 rupees (less than €15!), and Ajay managed to pay me back in a few installments from his modest earnings as a henna tattoo designer.

The violin sounded pretty bad and it looked very cheap, but it was much better than nothing. The violin's bag was completely ripped and its zip was ruined, but I hadn't thrown the old cover of my own violin case, so I was happy to find it some new use: to be a double crappy-case for Ajay's violin! I was over-excited! This rubbish violin was gold for a poor kid in the heart of India! The violin's lower strings were difficult to play because the bridge was of really terrible quality, but with a knife I made a new indent for the G string, and when I tried the violin again it sounded better! Ajay was really happy with his new instrument...

A few weeks later my friends Jérôme and Marie-Christine Chaumié from the Partage et Culture Sarasvati association were coming to India, so I asked them if Jérôme (who is a violin teacher in France) might be able to find a good violin case. They did have some spare ones at his music school, so they brought one with them for my student. Luckily a French bridge was still kept in the case, so I replaced the poor-quality one. Since then Ajay's violin has been sounding a lot better, and it has a solid case!

Ajay's skills

Since he's had his own instrument, Ajay has been making steady progress on the violin. Today he sings in tune, his ear is getting finer and finer, he's getting really good at the Indian "sliding" technique, and he has developed a real interest in Indian classical music (his school friends tell him he's mad to listen to such weird music)! He has played quite a few bhajan (devotional song) concerts with - and without - me in Khajuraho, and he really loves it. Our first concert took place in June 2014 on the Brahma Temple terrace at the occasion of a Blue Bank event (check-out our EcoFriendly Promise section for more information).

Shubhendra & Saskia Rao Foundation

In August 2014, the New-Delhi-based Dutch-Indian couple of world-renown musicians Saskia (Indian cello) and Pt. Shubhendra Rao (sitarist and disciple of Pt. Ravi Shankar) inaugurated their Shubhendra & Saskia Rao Foundation, with the objective "to promote [Indian] classical music, not in an isolated and elitist way, but by connecting it to today's world" and to "empower and uplift people through music". To read more about their vision, mission and objectives, click here.

As an adept of their music, I had wished to meet them for years. In September 2014 they wrote about a music teacher training programme on the internet so I contacted them to tell them I was interested. Within two weeks they invited me to come to Delhi and I attended two classes with Saskia to see how they worked with children...

On the following 14th November, for Children's day, I went back to Delhi with Ajay and we accompanied a few songs of their "Music4All Choir" concert, at the Amphitheatre Open Plaza at CITIWALK in Saket! In March 2015, we returned to Delhi again to see Saskia and Shubhendra in concert, and Ajay accompanied another of their Music4All's children's concerts in the Habitat Centre, on his own this time! Saskia Rao has also given some classes to Ajay, and the famous couple are very impressed by his fast progress and talent...

*The child's name has been changed to protect his identity.


More about the teacher

For more information about my musical background and my teaching skills, please visit my website, especially:

  • My bio,
  • Violin teaching
  • My performances,
  • Some mp3s.
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