The importance of music education
Published in Management Next magazine, April 2013
As I waited outside the conference room, I could not get the tune of MS Subbulakshmi’s “morey toh giridhara gopala” bhajan out of my head. I tried to think of other things and focus on the newspaper in my hand. After all, it was an important day – the day of my interview for admission to the prestigious IIM Bangalore for the MBA program. After getting through the gruelling entrance exam and the competitive group discussions, this was the last hurdle remaining. But the tune would just not leave my head. I heard my name called and entered the room and sat facing the panel, fully expecting to be grilled on India’s economic policy, case study situations and strategy questions. The two tired-looking professors were going through my resume and essay. Something caught their attention and one of them said, “We’ve listened to enough theory and analysis today. Since music is such an important part of your life, why don’t you sing us what’s on your mind?” Now, that was the last thing I was expecting, but the earworm came in handy, and taking a deep breath, I broke into the Mira bhajan, knowing that a lot rested on my rendition. As I saw them close their eyes and sway with the melody, I relaxed, knowing that the battle was won. I literally entered the MBA program on a song!
I’m often asked why it is so important for young people to be exposed to music, just the way that I was. And I recount the above incident to illustrate how, if nothing else, being involved seriously in the arts has helped differentiate me from my peers on many occasions, and standing apart from a crowd is a necessity in today’s competitive world. Of course, this is just one of the many ways that music has enriched my life and I continue to learn and grow every day because of my deep connection with the arts.
Things today are a little different from when I was a primary school student. I see parents and schools increasingly realizing the importance of a holistic all-round education. However, what is a little disconcerting is that most parents view extracurricular activities such as the arts and sports as a bullet-point on a resume, or a collection of certificates in a file; necessary milestones in a child’s journey. Seldom do I find a deeper understanding of the value that an exposure to the arts in general and music in particular can add to one’s life. Let me elaborate a little.
Were one to look at an immediate cause-and-effect benefit, there is a significant body of research work that indicates that learning music has a direct effect on cognitive skills. We learn songs, recognize patterns, keep count, and remember lyrics, all in the course of our music lessons. And these skills once developed are equally applicable to math, science and music. Even the most basic of musical tasks – matching one’s voice or instrument to the pitch of a tanpura or a note played on the piano requires one to pay close attention, listen and reproduce the tone. Many of us have experienced the discipline and hard work that goes into developing skill in an art form. It requires hours of dedicated practice, maintaining a disciplined practice and class schedule and revising what was taught in class. Again, these are values that we will carry with us throughout. At a slightly more abstract level is the development of creativity through music, especially in the classical music forms. We are taught to improvise on a scale (raga) through combinations of notes, resulting in free flowing aalap or swara patterns. As classical musicians, being creative is something that we do every time we practice or perform. Music also provides an outlet for self-expression. Even when I was a child, singing instantly made me happy and calmed my mind. In school, as part of choirs and group songs, children subconsciously learn to work in groups and to listen to other members in the group- essential skills in today’s corporate world. In fact, every concert presented by a professional musician is a team effort where individual success and group success are deeply intertwined.
However, looking at music only at a level of “what’s in it for me” would be to do the arts a gross injustice. Every child need not take to the arts from the view of being a performing musician. Similarly, the benefits of music do not accrue only to those children who possess a talent or knack for the art. As we grow older and the pressures start to build, just having the ability to appreciate and experience beauty can bring immense value to our lives. The ability to take in the nuances of an intricate sculpture or a wildly creative painting, the ability to close ones eyes and enjoy a three hour classical music concert without getting restless brings joy that cannot be explained. This joy goes beyond the mere diversion that watching a masala movie provides. Whenever I am moved to tears by a soulful piece of music, or a brilliant piece of dance, I am just so thankful that I’m able to experience such beauty that perhaps others don’t even realize. It adds meaning to life in a million little ways. When we become parents, we also realize that the arts and music are vehicles to pass down our culture and our values to our children. While the need for this cultural reinforcement may be more immediately felt by those who live in foreign countries, it is equally true that people living in urbanized India are slowly losing connect with any sort of culture, save the pop culture from films.
While traditionally it has been the parents who have been responsible for exposing children to the arts, the schools have an increasingly important role to play in providing the atmosphere for kids to develop affinity towards the arts. Yes, having a well-defined arts curriculum and trained teachers for music and dance in the faculty are important. But there is much more that the school can do. Regular interactions with artists can bring the arts much closer. An example that comes to mind is the Vani Schools administration in Bangalore, where artists are invited often as guests to the school for functions, and cultural performances by students and professionals are a regular feature in the school calendar. SPIC MACAY is a long-running arts promotional program that gives children the opportunity to interact with legendary artists of the country. Every school would have children whose parents are either amateur or professional artists, who would I’m sure be willing to spare some time occasionally to interact with children. Time is always a constraint in packed school calendars and the pressure to finish portions is universal, but given the larger responsibility of schools in shaping a child’s future, I’m sure there are ways of accommodating some time for the arts.
Finally, the biggest thing that a music education can provide is the inspiration to dream big. Sample this – a young boy aged ten from a modest family in Dharwad ran away from home, worked for three years as a servant in wealthy people’s homes and slept on railway platforms all over North India, all in search of a guru to teach him music. He went on to become one of India’s most beloved musicians and a Bharat Ratna – the immortal Bhimsen Joshi. Children today need inspiration that they can achieve whatever they set their minds on, through dedication and hard work. It is precisely this inspiration that we are aiming to provide through our Centre for Indian Music Experience, which will be India’s first interactive music museum, coming up in Bangalore. Through interactive multimedia exhibits that tell stories, a Sound Garden, a Learning Centre, workshops and performances, we aim to provide children an educative yet entertaining experience of India’s musical traditions. Once it is open, we hope visits to our Centre will be a regular part of the field trip schedule for schools. We are also launching a curriculum-based music education initiative called RIME from the 2013 – 14 academic year, where we will be reaching out to school children in Bangalore through music awareness and appreciation programmes.
In the words of sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, “….music is like food. When you need it, you don’t have to explain why, because it is basic to life…”
The author is a well-known classical musician and the Project Director of the Centre for Indian Music Experience in Bangalore