Music as Medicine

Think back to the last time you were at a wedding, a party, or a festival. Can you imagine any of these, but without music?

Music is literally everywhere we go, even without our realising it.  And it affects us, strikes a chord, as it were, in ways that other modalities cannot.

Music has been described as one of the longest-standing self-prescribed therapies in history. We have been using music to effect emotional, psychological or even physical change within us from the dawn of time. Mothers have sung babies to sleep with lullabies, religions use hymns to awaken feelings of devotion and community, national anthems stir up patriotic fervour, and football anthems unite fans. Sad songs can help heal heartbreak, while upbeat peppy music can motivate us to exercise or run or dance just a little bit longer. Often, the best tribute to a loved one at their memorial service is to sing or play their favourite song. Music has been an almost intuitive crutch or coping mechanism, in the ups and downs of our lives.

The definition of music therapy, however, is a little more specific: the use of music to improve health or functional outcomes. Again, this is a concept well-known through history, going back to antiquity. It’s no coincidence that Apollo was the Greek god of both, Music and Medicine.

Related image

Aulus Cornelius Celsus recommended the sound of cymbals and running water for the treatment of some mental illnesses. Similarly, Hippocrates found that playing music alleviated the symptoms of patients with mental disorders. In many indigenous cultures ranging from Asia to Africa, the Americas and Australia, medicine men (and women) often employed (and in some instances still do) chants and dances as a modality of healing.

Music therapy formally came to the attention of the medical world, in the West (particularly in the UK and US), in the aftermath of the two World Wars, when soldiers returned from the battlefronts with what was then, for want of a better term, described as “shell- shock”, but what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder. Musicians would travel to hospitals and play music for soldiers suffering from war-related emotional and physical trauma. The systematic clinical study of “music presented according to a specific plan in independently influencing recovery among service members with mental and emotional disorders” began subsequently.

Music medicine

In effect, musicians were using music to achieve “non-musical” goals. A friend of mine, brilliant violinist Robert Vijay Gupta (incidentally the youngest ever to enter the ranks of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra) describes this well in one of his TED talks: In 2011, US Congresswoman and gun-control advocate Gabrielle Giffords survived an assassination attempt, but one of the bullets entered her left hemisphere and damaged her Broca’s area, the speech centre of her brain. In one of her recovery sessions (accessible on YouTube), while working with her therapist, she struggles to produce the most basic words, and bursts into sobs in sheer frustration. The therapist then tries a new tack, and they attempt to sing together. Through her tears, Giffords begins to sing along, and is able to clearly enunciate the words of the song, in one descending scale: “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”  As Gupta puts it, is a very “powerful and poignant reminder of how the beauty of music has the ability to speak where words fail; in this case, literally, speak.”

One of the pre-eminent neuroscientists studying Music and the Brain at Harvard, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, is a proponent of Melodic Intonation Therapy, which is now quite popular in music therapy. Schlaug found that stroke victims who were aphasic, and unable to form three- or four-word sentences, could still sing the lyrics of a song. After hours of intensive singing lessons, Schlaug found that the music was able to literally ‘rewire’ the brains of his patients and create a homologous speech centre in the right hemisphere to compensate for the left hemisphere’s damage.

The “non-musical goals” in music therapy are created depending on the patient, and on what their needs are. They could variously be: having the patient feel better; alleviating symptoms; or helping them progress in their treatment.

The experience of music is an extremely complex phenomenon. It is the only life experience that gets processed on both sides of our brain. Music has all of these elements in play, occurring simultaneously: melody, rhythm, words (lyrics), harmony, timbre, tempo, dynamics, and form. And consider how you as a human being experience all this: you have memory, emotion, participation type (so active or passive) and familiarity. If you now consider all the areas of our brain that are processing all this information in real-time, it involves most if not all of both hemispheres.

This has been demonstrated by researchers using fMRI imaging, to show multiple areas of the brain ‘lighting up’, all at once. These include the areas responsible for auditory processing, motor control, emotion, memory. And within these larger areas are even smaller areas that are more finely tuned to respond to this stimulus.

Take just one element, for example: rhythm or pulse. Simply, the “beat” draws your brain into this idea called “entrainment.” So your brain hears the beat, processes it, and responds to it by “matching”. This aspect of music therapy has been used to good effect in the recovery of stroke victims or those with Parkinson’s disease, by giving them a steady beat by which they can pace their stride lengths. If they are given a beat, their brain will entrain to it (a phenomenon known as rhythmic auditory stimulation) and their feet will keep pace.

Music therapy has likewise been found to be effective in Alzheimer’s disease. When brain damage occurs on one side of the brain, (and since music stimulates both sides of the brain), music therapy can encourage the homologous area in the opposite hemisphere to compensate for that loss. Through the use of music, our brains are able to access long-term memory by these different neural pathways.

A music therapist is not just a competent musician, but also a flexible one, who should know how to engage and interact with patients across a multitude of diseases, disorders and conditions. These range from autism to others with special needs, rehabilitation of stroke victims,  Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, syndrome and other movement disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, cardiovascular disease, psychiatric illness, in cancer centres, palliative care and those suffering from chronic pain, alcohol and drug rehabilitation programmes, correctional facilities, and even in neonatal intensive care units, especially for prematurely-born infants. The list keeps growing. Due to its versatility, music therapy is finding use in more and more areas of healthcare.

The standards of practice are, however, just as rigorous as any other therapy in healthcare. The tendency by some to label themselves as music therapists without undergoing the necessary training is quite unfortunate and discredits the profession. As explained, music evokes emotional and psychological, even physical reactions in us, and knowing what sort of music to use (or avoid), for whom, when, and for how long, is a learned science.  Music must be chosen purposefully, and with understanding supported by evidence-based research.

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 July 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


Side-by-Side with Sistema Sweden

By now, most of you reading this column will know that my wife Chryselle and I began and run a music charity Child’s Play India Foundation ( with the objective of instilling positive values and social empowerment to disadvantaged children through music education to the highest possible standard.

Our inspiration for this came largely from the El Sistema music revolution, the social action music programme that was founded in Venezuela in 1975 by Maestro José Antonio Abreu and that has taken the world by storm ever since, being emulated and replicated all over the globe.

We have been on the worldwide Sistema grapevine from the very start. This is how Chryselle heard of ‘Side by Side’, the international music camp for children run by Sistema Sweden in partnership with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

This international music camp is possibly the world’s largest, now in its sixth consecutive year. To quote from their website: “During a few immersive summer days, children and young people gather from all around the world in Gothenburg to play in an orchestra, sing in a choir and develop their creativity. Participants rehearse, socialize, sing and play together. The camp ends in a magnificent concert side by side with musicians from the Gothenburg Symphony!

As a flagship for the Swedish National Orchestra´s Children and youth activities the camp is an important international meeting place for children and youth.

With the vision that all children should be given the opportunity for positive development through musical practice in a choir or orchestra, the foundation works to spread and develop El Sistema in Sweden.”

There are six ‘levels’ of orchestra: Beginner; Basic; Intermediate; Upper Intermediate; Pre-Advanced; and Advanced; and six choirs: Beginners; Children; Upper Voices; Youth; Open; and Volunteer. And the total number of children in this year’s camp? A mind-blowing 2500!

side by side

We tried hard to get one of our more advanced Child’s Play children to participate in this initiative. His application to join was accepted, (which in itself was a significant step, considering that places are limited at his level, despite the large scope of the camp) and had it been possible to sort out his passport documentation and absence from his academic year, he would certainly have benefited from the experience. But sadly it didn’t happen this time.

But, having invested so much time and energy researching this project, we decided to self-fund a recce trip to experience it ourselves. Our son Manuel, who took up cello barely a year ago, was thrilled to be granted a place in the project, and as a parent able to play an orchestral instrument, I was invited to join as well.


The camp was splendidly organized and co-ordinated by a team of some hundreds of volunteers and staff. As you can imagine, with so many levels of orchestras and choir, each working on completely different concert programme repertoire, and the sectional rehearsals involved, the rehearsal venues were scattered all over the city of Gothenburg, although pretty much within walking distance from each other and the dormitories (basically empty classrooms with folding mattresses on the floor for beds) where children, parents, guardians and teachers were staying for the duration of the camp.

Each year, a colour is assigned for the Side-by-Side T-shirts, emblazoned with their logo, a large crotchet rest. It was purple last year and orange this year. All through the days of the music camp (15-19 June), and well into the night (the sun doesn’t really seem to set in the summer months in Sweden), the city came alive in a sea of orange, everywhere: children jauntily walking to and from rehearsal with instrument cases on their backs or in hand, Side-by-Side tote bags brimming with music and what-have-you slung over their shoulder. After the last rehearsal for the evening was done, the orange brigade was out in force in all the public spaces, parks, gardens, amusement parks.

The level of civic participation was really heartening to see. The Gothenburg Concert Hall (Konserhuset), the University for Music and Drama (Högskolan för scen och musik), the World Culture Museum (Världskulturmuseet), the Gothenburg School of the Arts among many others willingly shared their space and resources for rehearsals, while schools and halls of residence provided accommodation space and dining areas. The whole city seemed to be proud to be part of this upbeat music education programme.

There were participants from sixteen countries from all over the world, for the most part from the home country, the other Scandinavian neighbours, and the rest of Europe, although I also met children from Ghana and Lebanon. We seemed to be the sole representatives from India. It was a moment of great pride when our tricolor flashed across the screen at the closing concert among the flags of all the participating countries.

The experience showed me, to an even larger extent than my visit to Sistema Scotland many years ago, what can be achieved in music education when everyone works together. The level of parental, guardian and teacher commitment was outstanding as well. Although the camp was timed to coincide with the Swedish school summer break, many other neighbouring countries were back at school. Parents had taken time off work to accompany their children to this event, and in some cases their music teachers had come along as well. Impromptu rehearsals and practice sessions could be heard all over the dormitories in the evenings. You could see and hear old friendships being renewed (many children come to this camp every year since its inception), and new ones being forged. My son is now friends with Christian, his Danish desk partner, and they have already begun to correspond.


An unforgettable sight and sound for me was listening in on a woodwind rehearsal. I’ve never seen or heard so many scores of bassoons (close to seventy) in one crowded room before. As someone next to me remarked, “It’s a forest of bassoons!”

It was an emotional experience for me, watching and hearing children of all ages and ability working hard to give of their best. In this our tenth anniversary year, it only strengthens our resolve to bring such a dream to fruition. We have seen and heard the power of music as a force for collective good, as a source of great fun and enjoyment. You will have read in the press recently how yet more scientific studies have proven the “predictive relationship between music education and academic achievement,” and most significantly, “regardless of socio-economic background, ethnicity and gender.” This continues to be our raison d’être at Child’s Play: Every child is noteworthy. Every. Child.

(An edited version of this article was published on 07 July 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Taking it Slow


“Dress me slowly, as I’m in a hurry.” This is what Napoleon Bonaparte is supposed to have said to his attendants. Did he really ever say this, or is it apocryphal? Whether or not he did is irrelevant; it is good advice.

From personal experience (and I’ve learnt this the hard way), I can say that slow practice is the best, indeed the only way to secure learning.

The impetuousness of youth rebels at this; I experienced this, and I see it in young students today. It is difficult, as it can seem like drudgery, and the temptation is strong to just “get over with it” and move on to something more interesting. But slow practice yields immense rewards.

Noa Kageyama is a violinist, performance psychologist, and teacher on the faculty of The Juilliard School of Music, New York. He has an interesting blog, BulletProof Musician, in which he candidly discusses issues related to practice and performance of music.

In his view, most of us don’t practice slowly enough. Again, I whole-heartedly agree, from my own experience and that of most students I know. Kageyama recommends ‘slow-motion’, or ‘super-slow’ practice, (as opposed to ‘regular old’ slow practice, which most of us often resort to, which doesn’t really accomplish much more than repetitive, mindless play-throughs without real benefit).

Kageyama makes interesting comparisons between the practice of a musical instrument, and practice of the martial arts. He quotes martial arts expert Peter Freedman: “If you train fast all the time you are actually slowing down your ability to learn fast and that is counterproductive. Also by going fast you are promoting fear in yourself….. By going fast you lose the ability of understanding what you are doing. By rushing through your techniques you can’t see all that you can see when going slow. By going fast you concentrate too much on the end of the technique and miss the important things, like the beginning and the middle of what you are practicing.”

If you are from my generation, you will remember what a sensation the Bruce Lee films were. There is a scene quite soon after the beginning of his 1973 epic film ‘Enter the Dragon’. Lee is teaching a young student how to train. “It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon,” he says. And when the student stares at his finger, Lee sharply rebukes him: “Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!” If we are obsessed only with speed, we will lose much of the beautiful nuances of the music being studied. The cranking up of tempo can come later, all in good time, after the segment can really be played well slowly.

Kageyama says something quite similar; that we often make the mistake of being “too concerned with the outcome, not the process.”

The whole idea behind slow practice is to really listen, analyse what our fingers, wrists, hands are doing, and ‘diagnose’, if you like, what the issue is, and where exactly it occurs in the passage being studied. In the case of a stringed instrument: Is it an awkward string-crossing? Is it a position shift? Are we using too little bow (more often than not), or in some cases, too much? Would a better bow distribution help to get a better phrasing or melodic line? Is the intonation really secure throughout?

It helps us to “fine-tune the execution” of the segment being studied, while making sure we cultivate the right habits, so then when we do increase the tempo, we are still playing it the right way.

In my youth, I didn’t possess a metronome. I wish I did. Over the last decade or so, I have found it extremely useful in disciplining the adherence to really slow practice, and measuring the progress as one gradually ups the tempo.

Today, of course, one doesn’t need an actual metronome to help us. If you have a smartphone, you can download a metronome app for free, and have it with you at all times. The value of the smartphone to the study and practice of music deserves a whole separate column.

American classical double bass virtuoso and teacher Gary Karr also advocates metronome practice, “to keep you slow”. In the July 2010 edition of The Strad magazine, he says: “As string players, we are always engaged in multitasking and if you leave out any of these tasks, the music and technique both suffer. Being able to think of as many tasks as possible is one of the main reasons why it’s important to practise slowly. It is a proven fact that the more tasks you are able to perform at the same time, the quicker you will benefit from the process of osmosis. Because we all have the tendency to play too fast, we need an outside influence to keep us slow.”

In his book ‘Practicing for Artistic Success: The Musician’s Guide to Self-Empowerment’, Professor of Violin and Viola at the Manhattan School of Music Burton Kaplan talks of the necessity of finding the Tempo of Consistent Control. He recommends that you 1. Set the metronome at the tempo at which you think you can play the passage 2. Begin playing. 3. Stop when you make a mistake – even a small one – and set the metronome 5-10bpm (beats per minute) slower. 4. Repeat this process until you can play through the passage with no mistakes. 5.  After trying this a few times, you will begin to recognise what a Tempo of Consistent Control feels like – it is a calm, centered feeling that is entirely devoid of anxiety. 6.  Stay with your Tempo of Consistent Control for at least four days, before moving on to the next comfortable place. 7. When you feel really secure, only then move up, gradually, in tempo.

For those interested, there is an interesting graphic chart (available on the Classic FM website) compiled by William Short, Principal Bassoonist of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, New York. Drawing on his own experience from his teachers and career in music, Short brilliantly condenses the ‘hows and whys’ of slow practice, from the way he approaches tempo, to how he structures his practice mindset.

He elucidates some of the topics on ‘the never-ending list’ of things to pay attention to during slow practice: Rhythm, Intonation, Articulation, Phrasing, Posture….and those peculiar to wind instrument playing: Airstream, Resonance.

More slow practice, by William Short

He ends the graphic with good advice for us all. We could either have the “I have to get this perfect” approach (wrong); or, “Let’s see what I can learn today”, what he calls ‘creative experimentation.”

And what if we get frustrated along the way (happens to the best of us)? “Stop. Take a Break and Come Back Later.” But do come back, people. Happy Practicing!

(An edited version of this article was published on 30 June 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)



CoughsThe cough reflex is a sudden, often repetitively occurring protective reflex which helps to clear the large breathing passages from fluids, irritants, foreign particles and microbes. It has three phases: an inhalation, a forced exhalation against a closed glottis, and a violent release of air from the lungs following opening of the glottis, usually accompanied by a distinctive sound.

This “distinctive sound” can range from a gentle, barely audible throat-clearing, to a fortissimo no-holds-barred let-it-all-out bark that would drown out a jet engine.

In January, the great Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, during his recital of all the Bach Cello Suites in Mumbai last month, paused only to make a polite if pointed remark about the incessant coughing in the audience.

He offered those who were feeling uneasy the option to leave. A few did leave at that point. He then requested at everyone collectively clear their throats with a loud cough, along with him, as if to get all the coughing out of our system.

There was nervous laughter and applause; but although the coughing initially abated in both volume and frequency, it soon crept back up again.

Even before Yo-Yo Ma made his point so dramatically, I had found it disturbing enough to try and count in my head how many bars of music I could listen to before a cough emanated from some section of the audience. The score (if you will pardon the pun)? About two or three. But one learns to tune out such sounds, and just listen.

This is not to say that I’ve never myself felt the overwhelming urge to cough at concerts. But it’s like this: if the cause of my cough impulse is an upper respiratory tract infection, or even recovering from one, I have the good sense to stay away from the event, out of consideration for others. And if it’s something more innocuous, like just a little throat irritation, over time, I’ve learnt to suppress it. It can be done, trust me.

The number of performers that have expressed their displeasure at coughing at concerts is legion. The virtuoso Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia would often “take out his handkerchief, cover his mouth and cough soundlessly into it to offer a hint to the insensitive.”

Sir Simon Rattle did the same handkerchief mime in 2007 to a Carnegie Hall audience, and then said: “This piece [Mahler’s Ninth Symphony] starts with silence and returns to silence. The audience can help to create the piece by remaining silent.”

The great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel could be equally critical of coughers. During one performance in Hamburg, he warned his audience: “Either you stop coughing or I stop playing!” The threat evidently had the desired effect there, but poor Ma had no such luck in Mumbai.

Brendel also lets off steam through his poetry. In his tongue-firmly-in-cheek poem ‘Cologne’, he writes of the tendency of the Coughers of Cologne to “cough distinctly during expressive silences”, and cynically recommends that “coughs of outstanding tenacity” be awarded “the coughing Rhinemaiden.”

Many London concert venues have flavoured cough drops in crinkle-free wrappers, gratis, in the foyer, in a bid to combat this menace.

So, why do people cough at concerts? A study on the subject in 2013 has made some uncomfortable observations. In his paper titled “Why Do People (Not) Cough in Concerts? The Economics of Concert Etiquette”, Andreas Wagener of the School of Economics and Management at the University of Hannover examined the extent of coughing in concert halls and what is behind the phenomenon.

He found that the average concertgoer coughs at 0.025 times a minute, which would work out at 36 coughs on average a day, double the normal average. “If coughing were purely accidental, it should occur evenly distributed over the concert, which is not the case.”

Apparently, the volume of coughing tends to increase in slow, quiet moments of the performance or during unfamiliar or complex pieces. Also –get this: “Coughs in concerts are mysteriously contagious”. He described it as “coughing avalanches”.

He cites Brendel’s Hamburg experience (“Either you stop coughing or I stop playing!”) to argue the case that coughing in concerts can be “switched off”.

Wagener’s conclusions seem to chime in with the observations of James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas, Austin TX. In his paper “Perceptual and Environmental Determinants of Coughing” published in ‘Basic and Applied Social Psychology’ journal [1(1): 83-91, March 1980], he reported that (1) the larger the group, the more coughs per person; (2) people are more likely to cough if they hear others cough; (3) the closer a person is to a cougher, the greater the probability that they will also emit a cough; (4) coughing varies as a function of external stimulus demands (i.e., subjects were more likely to cough during the ‘uninteresting portions’.

All of these points were borne out at the Yo-Yo Ma concert. The seating capacity of the NCPA Tata Theatre is 1109, and given that Ma is such a big draw at any concert anywhere in the world, it was a packed auditorium. In any case, the age demographic that attends classical music concerts tends to be “of a certain age”, who are more prone to ailments and illnesses.

But with BookMyShow hosting the event and managing ticket sales, it brought in a very different audience demographic to that seen at most Mumbai concerts. This is a good thing, of course. The more newcomers one attracts to a classical music concert, the better. But in the defence of that same audience, I felt it was a little unrealistic to expect a new audience to sit in rapt attention for two-and-a-half hours, with no interval, to a recital of the Bach Cello Suites, no matter how formidably great the performer. When a lone unamplified, stringed instrument is pitted against a 1100-strong audience, and even a few feel the urge to cough during what they perceive as ‘uninteresting portions’, you can imagine how often it would have snowballed into a ‘coughing avalanche’.

However, some other assertions by Prof. Wagener from Hannover ought to make us squirm a little. He feels that coughing at concerts can be deliberate, sometimes passive aggressive behaviour (to indicate boredom during a slow or ‘uninteresting’ section of the performance), or may be intended to “test unwritten boundaries of courtesy, to comment on the performance or simply document one’s presence”. In other words, coughing at concerts may be an attention-seeking ploy.

The Anti-Cough police can go to the opposite extreme as well: in February 2019, Olympic hockey star Samatha Quek was sent to opera ‘detention’ for coughing during a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Vienna Staatsoper. She was escorted out and made to watch the rest of the opera on a screen in another room.

But a little common-sense wouldn’t be amiss: If one is unwell, it’s better to stay home; you’ll not really enjoy the concert, you’ll disturb others, and spread germs. Mints/boiled sweets/cough drops can help, but only if unwrapped quietly. If all else fails, it’s best to have the good grace to leave the concert venue.

(An edited version of this article was published on 23 June 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


An Ode to a Wonderful Teacher

Murphy’s Law certainly applied to Cristina Fernández de Simón de la Cruz as far as her flights into and out of Goa were concerned: Everything that could possibly go wrong, did.

To start with, her luggage got left behind in Paris, so she arrived at our doorstep with just the clothes she was wearing, and a fresh top that she presciently had packed in her little backpack. And typically, it was a weekend, so it was impossible to chase up anything from our end until the Monday. But neither this nor the jetlag after being shunted around at airports in Paris and Mumbai prevented her from turning up on time, fresh as a daisy, to her first day of work as cello teacher, at the office of our music charity Child’s Play India Foundation. Her luggage eventually showed up, a few days later.

And unfortunately for Cristina, to add to her woes, she had booked her return journey, both Goa-Mumbai and onward, with Jet Airways, as it was the cheapest deal on offer. She had no idea the airline company was in deep trouble. You can guess the rest. When it abruptly crashed to a halt, the rug got pulled from under her feet, with no ticket back home at the end of her stint. A vague promise of “a full refund” was made by email, and all the alternative itineraries were much more expensive than the one that she had booked on Jet.

To her credit, she took all of this in her stride. She didn’t miss a single session with the twenty-plus cello students entrusted to her. She did all the following-up with the Jet authorities on her own time. Her dedication to her work was nothing short of exemplary. She didn’t lose her focus despite her personal issues.

Cristina was at work before schedule, cycling to work from her accommodation. She quickly assessed how far her predecessor had taken each child or adult learner, and challenged each to go further, with appropriate music and/or etudes for each.

If there were unexpected cancellations from students, she would offer to work longer with those who were present. If there were gaps between students in a day’s schedule, she would herself slot in extra time for a child who needed extra attention and was able to make it.


To say that all her students, young and old, absolutely loved her, would be a gross understatement. We had the unprecedented phenomenon of a child spontaneously returning twice and even thrice in one day, for extra instruction or go off into an available room to practice. Practice charts have never been fuller. Some children would wait expectantly outside her studio, waiting for a free moment to demonstrate to her how they had practiced what she had taught them earlier. A word or nod of appreciation, or a pat on the shoulder would make them beam with pleasure.

Cristina arrived before our annual summer camp. Many of our little cellists (the youngest only six) were rank beginners, had had only been playing the instrument for a few months, and naturally therefore had no orchestra experience. Cristina worked like a stevedore between rehearsal sessions to get them playing (a simplified part where necessary) as a cello section. She insisted on including even the littlest cellist in at least some of the pieces. I agreed, but privately felt it was a tall order in the limited time frame we were working with. But she did it.

Cristina had earlier also worked with Xiquitsi Moçambique, a music initiative with much in common with us; this is indicative of her high motivation towards music as a vehicle for social change and empowerment. She was coming to work with us for all the right reasons, for all the reasons that she had gone there as well.

She didn’t ask for time off from work to go sightseeing or socializing; she did all that on her own time, in the weekends. She worked even on holidays if children were able to come to her class.

She planned ahead, even for the time after her eventual departure. Each child and adult learner had a clear road map of how to practice, exercises, scales, arpeggios, pieces to begin to tackle later.

When she learnt that one of our disadvantaged children had his birthday on the day of his class with her, she surprised him (and everyone else in the office) by turning up with a birthday cake! He was visibly moved by the gesture.

When a child learned that her accommodation was not far from the Goa Science Centre, he went into such raptures over the delights and wonders to be found within, and lobbied so hard that they should visit together, that she relented, put aside her own evening plans and agreed to take him there after work. She bought their admission tickets and shared his excitement with the hall of mirrors, the maze of swirling and falling marbles, etc.

She mentioned this to me in passing, some weeks later. Amused, I wondered how they had got there, as it’s a fair walk to the Goa Science Centre from our office. It turns out that they took turns cycling, while the other ran alongside, all the way! That must have made for quite a sight! But it is also indicative of her genuine affection for “her” cello children. She gave them love, and they loved her right back by working and playing their hearts out.

When she left, it was an emotional good-bye and parting for all of us. Warm, giving, conscientious, morally upright human beings like Cristina renew our hope in the goodness out there and the goodwill we continue to attract from far and wide. We have also had the odd experience of the overseas teacher who turns up for all the wrong reasons: self-seeking, self-advancement, work-shirking, mendacious and duplicitous. One Cristina is worth a thousand of these. She is a shining example of how much goodness through music can be achieved when people reach out with all the right intentions. We wish her well in her music career, and she knows that there is a place for her at Child’s Play whenever she should be able to return.

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 June 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Janissary music

Many of you will have attended the house-full concert of the splendid Indian Naval Symphony Band at the Kala Academy on Holy Saturday, 20 April 2019.

Among the featured works on the programme was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous “Turkish Rondo” or “Turkish March”, arguably one of his best-known melodies from his piano music. It is the third and final movement of his piano sonata number 11 in A major, K. 331/300i.


The Naval Band’s choice of this piece, arranged for military band by Canadian composer and bandmaster Louis-Philippe Laurendeau (1861-1916) was an apt one. In the piano movement, Mozart imitates the sound and style of Turkish Janissary bands, the music of which was extremely popular when he wrote the sonata (sometime around 1778 to 1783).

The Janissaries were elite infantry units that formed the Ottoman Sultan’s household troops, bodyguards and the first modern standing army in Europe. They were initially drawn from kidnapped young Christian boys mainly from the Balkans who were converted to Islam and drilled from a young age to be part of an extremely loyal and disciplined corps of soldiers.

The military music of the Janissaries had a distinctive sound, on account of the instruments in the band (or mehter), comprising a strong percussion section and shrill winds. These instruments included the kös (giant timpani), davul (bass drum), zurna (a loud shawm, a conical bore, double-reed woodwind instrument), naffir, or boru (natural trumpet), çevgan bells (variously called a Turkish crescent on account of the configuration of the bells, Turkish jingle, or Jingling Johnny in the West), triangle (a borrowing from Europe), and cymbals (zil).

janissary music

The purpose of the shrill, lively martial music on the battlefield was meant both, to inspire their own soldiers and to intimidate the enemy, although the bands played during peacetime as well.

The ‘style’ of Janissary music caught the imagination of European composers of the Classical music era (1750 to 1820) on account of its perceived exoticism and its twin connotations ie Eastern, and military. Centuries of warfare between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs meant that the inhabitants of Vienna were quite familiar with “enemy music.” After the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz between the two powers, the Ottoman diplomatic delegation brought along a Janissary band to Vienna.

Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, all of whom lived in Vienna for some of their lives, and their Viennese contemporary composers, incorporated their interpretation of “Turkish” music in their compositions.

Sometimes this could merely mean imitating the sounds of these “Turkish” instruments by changing traditional symphonic instrumentation to include piccolo (whose piercing tone recalled the shrill sound of the zurna or shawm) of Ottoman music) and additional percussion instruments (bass drum, triangle, cymbals), eliciting the “exotic” timbre of “foreign” music.

As the genre became more popular in the latter half of the eighteenth century, composers also began to incorporate melodic and rhythmic features of Janissary music such as repeated notes, chromaticism, unison melodies, large intervallic leaps, simple harmonies, irregular phrasing, quick alterations of major and minor modes, duple meter with accents on strong beats, and sudden changes in dynamics; admittedly gross approximations of authentic Janissary musical characteristics, but which nevertheless added melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic nuance to their imitations, often called music “alla turca”.

This was merely one aspect of ‘Turquerie’ the term used for the craze in western Europe for imitating aspects of Turkish art and culture.

Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca from the aforementioned piano sonata is perhaps the most iconic example of the genre, with its repeated notes, repeated ornaments, and loud/soft passages which are so characteristic of the ‘Turkish’ style. The effect would have been even more marked when played upon the piano of Mozart’s day, whose bass strings would have rattled when played loudly. It is a work just begging to be orchestrated for woodwind, brass and percussion.

Mozart’s opera from the previous year (1782), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) wallows even more indulgently in Turquerie, with its whole plot centred on the stereotyping of ‘comically sinister’ Turks, a classic case in point of Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism in his eponymous monumental work: “the Western manner of representing the global East in a way that both purports and permits cultural domination.” The opera’s overture and two marches for the Janissary chorus are in the ‘Turkish’ style.

In Review Entfuhrung hdl 1115

An even earlier work, his violin concerto number 5 in A major, K. 331 (1775) is sometimes called the “Turkish” concerto because its finale is interrupted by a loud episode of ‘Turkish’ music, during which  the cellos and double basses add to the percussive effect by playing their instruments ‘col legno’, striking the strings with the wood of the bow.

That same year, Haydn included ‘Turkish’ music in the overture of his opera ‘L’incontro improvviso’ (The Unforeseen Encounter) with a similar theme, underscoring Viennese fascination with all things Turkish.

Image result for ‘L’incontro improvviso’

Haydn’s 1794 symphony (no. 100, nicknamed ‘Military’, one of his twelve ‘London’ symphonies, also  uses ‘Turkish’ music in both the second movement (which depicts a battle) and in a brief reprise at the end of the finale.

There are at least three examples where Beethoven uses the ‘Turkish’ music device. He wrote a Turkish march as part of the incidental music to a play, The Ruins of Athens, in 1811.

He also wrote a set of variations on his march for piano, Op. 76.

Beethoven’s 1813 orchestral work, Wellington’s Victory (also called Battle Symphony), commemorating the British victory in the Battle of Vitoria that year, has the opposing British and French armies march to battle with Turkish music versions of their respective battle songs, “Rule Britannia” and “Malbrouk s’en va-t-en guerre”.

The last example, perhaps the most well-known, is a passage in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony (1824). A tenor soloist, assisted by the tenors and basses of the chorus, sings a florid variation on the famous ‘Ode to Joy’ theme, accompanied by Turkish instruments playing pianissimo.

(The ‘Turkish’ section begins at 3:37)

The characteristic rhythm of ‘Turkish’ music is that of the cadence of marching soldiers: “Left… left… left, right, left.” The melodic instruments often emphasise this rhythm by playing ‘grace’ (or ‘crushed’) notes, either singly or several in succession, on the beat.

‘Turkish’ music enjoyed such popularity that piano manufacturers designed purpose-built pianos with a ‘Turkish’ (also called ‘military’ or ‘Janissary’) stop. A foot-pedal would activate a bell to ring and/or a padded hammer to hit the soundboard to imitate a bass drum.

The ‘Turquerie’ craze may have died out, but it lives on in music.

(An edited version of this article was published on 09 June 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)



Dance of the Knights: Prokofiev v/s Oistrakh

My father introduced me to chess, as he did to so many things in my life. The 1970s were arguably a heady time for chess. There were no other distractions, like television, computer games or the internet. It was a time when the press (I remember Time magazine in particular) gave quite a lot of coverage to the great games featuring the likes of Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Kasparov.

The big wooden chess pieces my son uses today are the very ones my father, his namesake, grew up with. Thanks to him, when I was young, I knew the names of all the pieces in three languages: English, Portuguese and German. It is interesting to note that the word for the most expendable, least important piece, the pawn, is Bauer (farmer or peasant) in German; and Peão (plebieian/ servant) in Portuguese.

Back then, there weren’t dedicated chess coaching classes, so we made do with what we learnt at home and what we could make sense of whenever we got a chance to read about the game. I remember trying to follow the chess game sequence in the back pages of the Times of India and the Sunday Standard, and the short-hand was not so easy for us, because we hadn’t really been taught it.

Chess is one significant pursuit that my son took a shine to, without the need for much persuasion. I taught him the basics, just as my own father had taught me. We then enrolled him in chess classes. Now it is frustrating for me to play against him, and I have to entreat him to teach me a little. In fact, that is the only condition on which I agree to play him anymore.

In my first job in the UK at Newham General Hospital in the East End, I lived on-site, and it had a vibrant community centre on campus. Once every week it was chess night, and anyone could walk in and play the local ‘grandmaster’. There would be twelve boards laid out, with stop-clocks, and the grandmaster would stroll over to each table in turn, in effect playing twelve games simultaneously. He would make short work of me within just a few moves. But just watching the rest of them play was like a weekly masterclass.

I can’t speak for the Russians in Goa as I rarely go to the hotspots where they hang out anymore, but certainly most of my Russian work-colleagues in England played chess to a pretty decent level. It seems to be a national pastime. Many a happy heady hour was spent in their homes over chess and vodka.

Image result for soviet propaganda chess

The Russian affinity for chess arose almost immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, when Vladimir Lenin’s supreme commander of the Soviet army, Nikolay Krylenko, laid the foundations for state-sponsored chess: He opened chess schools, hosted tournaments, and promoted the game as a vehicle for international dominance. Lenin himself was very good player, but apparently a poor loser. Stalin publicized a fake game (sound familiar?) in which he claimed to have defeated Nikolai Yezhov, who would later become chief of his secret police (and whom Stalin would eventually order to be executed, as he did with so many of those in his coterie when paranoia overtook him).

Chess was perfect for Soviet propaganda. It was a game of intellect and skill, and cheap so that anyone could play. It should therefore not be a surprise that even Russian composers and musicians also played chess.

I was aware that the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was extremely fond of chess, but have only recently discovered how highly he was regarded as a player even in the rarefied chess world.

Prokofiev took to the royal game at a very young age, and was highly regarded as a player even by the chess champions of his time, such as the Cuban José Raul Capablanca (1888- 1942) and Russian-French Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946).

Prokofiev met Capablanca for the first time in 1914 in St. Petersburg, where the champion was playing a series of simultaneous games. Prokofiev pitted himself against Capablanca and even managed to win a game!

I’m not sure how even the details of that 1914 game have been chronicled for posterity, but if you go online, you can replay the whole game, move-by-move. My son and I had great fun doing this.

Prokofiev had an autograph book (isn’t it lovely when you learn of little trivia like this about figures you admire? They become so much more human!) also called his Wooden Book (on account of its wood board covers), or Sun Book, in which he collected autographs of the luminaries he met on his creative journey.

Image result for prokofiev wood book

It was called the Sun Book because each contributor had to answer the question “What do you think about the sun?”

Both Capablanca and Alekhine were included among its 48 contributors, which also included fellow musicians and composers Igor Stravinsky, Anton Rubinstein and Serge Koussevitsky, and painters such as Henri Matisse.

Prokofiev returned back to the Soviet Union in 1936, and found a willing chess partner in David Oistrakh.  “Prokofiev was an avid player, he could spend hours on end thinking over his moves,” Oistrakh later recalled. “Living next door to each other, we often played blitz-contests and I wish you could see how excited he was drawing all kinds of colorful diagrams of his wins and losses, and how happy he was with each victory, as well as how devastated each time he lost…”

For those of interested: there is also detailed coverage online of the series of games he played in 1937 against another Russian music giant, the great violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974).


It was a grand affair, with chess clocks, referees, and of course, an audience.  Ten classical games were to be played by them at the Master of Art Club in Moscow, played at a rate of three games per week, with Russian grandmaster Vladimir Alatortsev and the famed theoretician Ilya Kan overseeing it.

Both players took the games very seriously, staying awake at night and feeling nervous as if they were playing for the world title. There was an unofficial wager between them that the loser would have to do a concert tour instead of the other. In the featured photograph, they are watched by 18-year old violinist Elizabeta Gilels, daughter of great pianist Emil Gilels.

Only seven of the ten games were actually played. It is said that Oistrakh, sensing defeat, pulled out early and went on the concert tour. Move-by-move details of one game (which ended in a draw) are available online.

The two remained close friends, and when Prokofiev died in 1953, the same day as Stalin, Oistrakh and the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, played at the wakes of both.

Finally, for chess nerds, you can also get move-by-move details of Prokofiev playing the French composer Maurice Ravel at Mont La Joli, France in 1924. Who won? Prokofiev, of course!


(An edited version of this article was published on 02 June 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


Safar-ing along with Majeed

It is a weekday in Mumbai. My family and I have an important appointment at BKC (Bandra-Kurla complex) at mid-morning, which is a lousy time if you’re commuting from Borivali. I guess it’s a lousy time no matter where you’re coming from, because you will inevitably be caught in rush-hour traffic.

The local train is quickly ruled out, not with a ten-year old in tow. So we book a cab through an “online transportation network company”, one of several options you have in the city, (but sadly not in Goa).

I decide we should leave half an hour before the estimated journey time, which turns out to be a good thing, because pretty soon we’re caught up in a traffic snarl, the “mother of all traffic jams.”


You know how it is. A three-lane highway can morph into five or even six lanes, if you count two-wheelers on the left “hard shoulder.”

I’m seated in front. I sigh resignedly as we inch forward at the rate of a few inches a minute. This is gonna be a long, painful journey, so there’s nothing to be done but endure it. I sink into my seat and pull out my earphones to check what’s on the FM radio on my phone. Nothing interesting, so I begin to listen to whatever tracks I had uploaded on my phone.

I’m almost nodding off when I’m jolted awake by the slamming of brakes. A motorcyclist tries to recklessly weave between lanes, almost coming under the front wheels of our cab had it not been for the alertness of our driver.

Phew. Disaster averted. You would think that, but no. Far from being thankful, the motorcyclist, helmetless, earphones still in place, begins to berate our driver. A verbal exchange ensues. Not uncommon under the circumstances, you might argue.

But all of a sudden it turns ugly. The motorcyclist takes a long hard look at our driver and lets off a torrent of abuse. He then dismounts from his bike, and walks purposefully, menacingly towards the driver’s door, and motions to him to roll down the window. Our driver very sensibly doesn’t. But you can cut the tension with a knife. The motorcyclist peers intently inside at me, my wife and son. One wrong word or gesture, and things can escalate even further very quickly.

Fortunately all round, traffic begins to inch forward again. A cacophonic chorus of impatient horns and honks erupts from behind our cab. The motorcyclist takes an ominous studied glance at the license plate, throws one last baleful look in our direction, mounts his bike, and takes off. We cruise forward slowly as well.

I process what has just transpired. Amid the whirlwind of abuse, I did catch some Islamophobic vitriol that doesn’t bear repeating. I take a proper look at our driver, probably for the first time since we got into the cab. He’s bearded, yes. Was that alone a giveaway marker of his religion? How did the motorcyclist, a random stranger, literally off the street, just “know”? He took a look at the cab license plate, but none of us had the presence of mind to make a mental note of his. He had parked at an awkward angle, and it all had happened out of nowhere, too fast for me to take in. The incident calls to mind the accident scene in the film ‘Firaaq’. Those who have seen it will know what I am talking about, and its gruesome metaphor.  The fault was his, but he made us feel uncomfortable.

Had he gotten violent, it would probably have been explained away as ‘road rage’. But we know better.

We drive on for several minutes in stunned silence. “This must happen a lot in your work”, I venture at last. He seems relieved that the silence is broken. “It’s getting worse day by day! What is the need to abuse? Only people of low thought do such things. It isn’t worth stooping down to their level. Then we only become like them.”

We get talking further. At what time did he begin work today? 6 am. “But I was up even earlier, 4.30. Ramzaan chaalu hai, na?” he says, almost hesitantly, sizing me up as he does so.

His name? Majeed (name changed). I notice there’s no election ‘nishaan’ on his left index finger. Why not? “Hamaare naam sab ke sab kataa diye”, he says ruefully. Four names from his family alone have just been summarily struck off, for no good reason. And this is apparently a common occurrence in his family and circle in Thane. He shrugs somewhat fatalistically when I ask whether he’s thought of complaining. Faayda hai kya?

He cheers up when I steer the conversation to Ramzaan, and breaking of the fast with Iftaar food. I tell him how much we enjoy the array of food at the mosque in Panjim. He seems impressed that we are familiar with these aspects of his faith.

He is actually a driver of heavy machinery, of cranes in particular. He’s even done a short stint of a few months in Goa (Vasco), and his work has taken him overseas as well, to Saudi Arabia. After several years there, he came back to his hometown in Uttar Pradesh, gravitated to the big bad city down south like so many others from his state. He’s now more or less settled here; although he visits ‘home’ periodically, home is now here, where the heart is, with his wife and baby daughter.

The conversation drifts back to politics, and the ‘state of the nation’. He’s a huge Akhilesh Yadav fan, and rattles off his many achievements in Uttar Pradesh during his tenure as chief minister from 2012 to 2017.

He is cautious when I begin to speculate who will win. He concentrates on the traffic as he thinks, takes a left as we begin to approach our destination. “We should all win”, he says at last. “All of us in this country should be able to live, study, do our work, practice our faith and raise our families in peace without being insulted or abused.”

He drops us off, surprisingly well in time despite everything. We wish him Id Mubarak in advance, a handshake and a smile, and he’s off.

By the time you read this, the results will be out, for Panjim and for this beautiful nation of ours called India. Whatever they may be, we can only fervently hope that lessons have been learned, that all the hate, anger and vitriol stops and is replaced by love, compassion and empathy, for every citizen big or small, rich or poor, for every living being, for the environment upon which we are all dependent. That we may all have won, just as Majeed wished. It is my wish too.

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 May 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Remembering Sanya


When you think of French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), his vast oeuvre of music for the piano will inevitably come to mind, and perhaps his reputation as arguably the first ‘Impressionist’ composer (although he himself hated the term).

Image result for claude debussy

But in terms of chamber music, he did gift the bowed stringed instrument family one solitary but exquisite string quartet (1893, opus 10); and towards the end of his life (1915), he began (but didn’t manage to complete) a cycle of six sonatas “for various instruments”.

Debussy was a very sick man in 1915, suffering from bowel cancer. He underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations that year, which gave him only temporary respite, if any.  “There are mornings when the effort of dressing seems like one of the twelve labours of Hercules”, he confessed.

The previous year, he had been encouraged by the music publisher Jacques Durand, to write a set of six sonatas “for various instruments”, in homage to French composers of the 18th century, notably François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

The First World War was raging, and patriotic feelings were understandably running high. Debussy even signed the score ‘Claude Debussy – Musicien Français.’

Related image

The plan for the set was as follows: Sonata 1 for cello piano; no. 2 for flute, viola and harp; no. 3 for violin and piano; no. 4 for oboe, horn and harpsichord; no. 5 for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano; and the last sonata for chamber ensemble “combining all the previously used instruments”, “with the gracious assistance of the double bass”.

Sadly, only the first three saw the light of day. The violin sonata in G minor, L. 140 (1916-1917) was to be his final completed composition. Its premiere took place on 5 May 1917, with the violin part played by Gaston Poulet and Debussy himself at the piano in what would be his last public performance.

His letter to a colleague the following month is almost dismissive of his swan song:  “I only wrote this sonata to be rid of the thing, spurred on by my dear publisher….. This sonata will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.”

Hardly an endorsement, which is perhaps why the sonata hasn’t been part of mainstream violin performance repertoire, although that is beginning to change.

The sonata is in three movements (Allegro vivo; Intermède: Fantasque et léger’ and Finale: Très animé), whose “ultra-traditional sonata form” (as also in the previous two sonatas in the incomplete set) some may find remarkable for a composer like Debussy, particularly after two decades of experimentalism, in which he wrote music that seemed to be floating in free space, and scornful of academic models.

Marianne Wheeldon in her book “Debussy’s Late Style” offers an explanation: the war. “Given the very real destruction taking place across Europe, [Debussy] sought to attach himself to a French musical heritage, as the total demolition of traditions now seemed wholly inappropriate.”

At just about thirteen minutes, the violin sonata is remarkably short, (as is the first sonata in the set for cello and piano, at about eleven minutes), but it encompasses a wide range of moods and emotions.

Several famous violinists, in an article in Strings magazine last year celebrating the centenary of the violin sonata, offered a remarkably diverse set of observations about the work.

French violinist Renaud Capuçon described the sonata as “one of those pieces where you recognize the composer after a few bars. His sense of melody, his sense of harmonies, and his way of being very compact is quite clear.”


“It’s such a wonderful example of French music,” said Anne-Sophie Mutter, who recorded the piece in 1995.

Image result for anne sophie mutter

“It’s so different. The sonata is just an incredible example of sound colors, of delicacy, and subtlety of tonal development. It’s one of the most difficult pieces to play, maybe not technically, in terms of speed and double-stops and jumps and all of that. But for me, it’s really about grasping the intention of the composer. You really need to practice pianissimos. The opening is so dreamy and full of promise. It’s so personal but you need a wonderful touch. Most of us spend a lifetime learning that.”



Canadian violinist James Ehnes felt that “there’s a certain amount of code-cracking that needs to go on with learning the piece and digesting the language. What makes the piece challenging and very interesting are the subtleties in notation.”

Image result for james ehnes

A biting staccato passage may return later marked tenuto, he noted, or a piano phrase will return marked pianissimo. “All of these subtle but important differences require a lot of control. He might be looking for nine different kinds of soft in 12 bars.”

Why am I choosing to write about this particular violin sonata this Sunday? Because I remember hearing Sanya Myla Cotta play it in 2016, if memory serves correctly. And because it will be her month’s mind tomorrow.

Remembering Sanya

Like many of you, I’ve not been able to get her out of my mind from the time we learned of her illness. And in the last few days, I think back increasingly to her performance of this work.

Sanya is remembered, and quite rightly so, for the many virtuosic showpieces she dashed off with such aplomb on our concert stage.

But I think her heart was in weightier, more ‘serious’, intimate, pensive music in the violin repertoire, that is to say, the great violin sonatas. She said as much to me when we talked about the Mozart violin sonatas I had mentioned in an earlier column.

The last paragraph of the Strings magazine article brought a lump to my throat as I read it. Apparently Anne-Sophie Mutter was “especially attuned to the tragic dimension” of the Debussy sonata when she  recorded it in 1995, just a few weeks after her first husband died of cancer.

She said, “When talking about the piece I cannot be objective. It has this end-of-the-day feel. When you combine it with a personal tragedy, it has a very different light.”

And now, for me, for us, this sonata too has a very different light. In my mind, it will be inextricably linked to the memory of Sanya Myla Cotta. For this, and for so much else, Sanya, a big Thank You for the Music.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 May 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Emperor is a Violist!

Image result for naruhito viola

I suppose I could call myself an accidental violist, and I am sure this is true for most musicians who play the viola in Goa and the rest of India.

My formal introduction to music learning was at the violin. All my major music achievements have been on this instrument. So why is it that, half a lifetime later, I found myself cradling its larger cousin, the viola, in my hands?

I became aware of the existence of violas and violists in Goa when I began playing in various string ensembles in my teens, and later with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra. But while I was aware of the differences (bigger, heavier instrument, tuned a fifth lower than a violin, read a different clef), somehow my curiosity did not extend to seriously trying out a viola myself, let alone taking it up.

But then in the 1990s I got employed in England, and a whole new world opened up. Orchestra rehearsals were much more intense and prolonged, and this is when I really got interested in the instrument. The choice of works (by Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Antonin Dvořák) also exposed me to the sheer chocolatey rich timbre of the instrument, and the lush writing for it in orchestral and chamber music.

On one of my biannual return visits home, I dropped in at Furtados and bought myself a viola and took it back with me with the intention of learning to play it. But the demands of my medical career, and my violin playing in chamber groups and orchestras taking up the scant free time remaining, ensured that this happened at a plodding pace at best.

On returning to India, I auditioned in 2011 to play violin in an orchestra here. And when conductor Vijay Upadhyaya enquired if I’d be happy to take up the viola as there were no takers for those positions, I leapt at the chance. We had a concert in six weeks, and I knew it would give me the impetus I needed to really learn to read the alto clef and to find my way about the instrument.

Since then, my life has changed. Although I still get asked to play violin on occasion, I get called out much more as a violist when it comes to chamber and orchestral playing. That’s the wonderful thing about being a violist. You’re far more in demand than you would be as a violinist. Violinists are a dime a dozen.

The belief that only those who can’t cut it as violinists take up viola is so unjust. All the good violists in my circle are wonderful violinists as well. In fact, once you take up the viola, the violin seems like a facile instrument, as it suddenly feels so much smaller, and the shifts and stretches seem far easier. The great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini knew this well. So did so many other violin pedagogues like Max Rostal and Oscar Shumsky. The great living violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz and Maxim Vengerov play both with consummate ease, and have parallel careers as violists as well.

The viola and violists are the butt of many good-natured jokes (it is sometimes called “the Cinderella of the Orchestra”) on account no doubt of the unwieldiness of the instrument, its deeper tone (taking up the viola is often termed as “crossing over to the Dark Side”),

Image result for viola dark side

the paucity of virtuoso writing for it, and the relatively simpler part writing for it in chamber and orchestral music compared to the violin.

Some of my favourite viola jokes: What’s the difference between a violist and a vacuum cleaner? You have to plug in a vacuum cleaner before it sucks!

What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A violist.

What’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? Coffins have dead people on the inside.

Related image

Why don’t violists play hide and seek? Because no-one would look for them.

How do you keep your violin from being stolen? Put it in a viola case.

And there are a few ‘reverse’ viola jokes as well:

Image result for viola jokes


Image result for viola T shirts

Image result for viola T shirts

Image result for viola T shirts

But we are in extremely good company. You’d be surprised to learn how many great composers actually themselves preferred playing viola to violin in ensembles. Let’s start with the ‘big’ ones: Johann Sebastian Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote about his illustrious father: “As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness”.

But there’s also Monteverdi, Johann Stamitz, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, Eduardo Lalo, Ottorino Respighi, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, Carl Nielsen, all the way to Miklós Rósza and Kenji Bunch. Hindemith was a very respectable violist in his own right, besides being a composer.

And just in case you needed further proof that the viola reigns supreme among instruments: it has recently come to light that Japan’s newest Emperor Naruhito also plays viola.

naruhito viola


He succeeded to the Chrysanthemum Throne on 1 May 2019 following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito, making him Japan’s 126th emperor, according to the traditional order of succession.

He was born into an extremely musical family, with his father a cellist and his mother an extremely accomplished pianist.

He too began his introduction to music through the violin, while studying in Australia. But he decided to switch to viola, because he thought the violin “too much of a leader, too prominent” to suit his musical and personal tastes.

Naruhito once contributed an essay to a concert brochure in which he wrote:  “I’m starting to understand the role of viola, which doesn’t stand out, but (is needed because the) harmony becomes lonesome without it. … It’s a joy to have chosen the viola as a friend through which I could meet people and play music together.”

Toshio Shiraishi, a cellist and longtime friend of Naruhito through music, said in an interview that the Emperor’s choice of instrument, the viola, says a lot about the kind of man he is.

Naruhito is quite right when he refers to the viola’s vital contribution to the harmonic structure of a composition.  In so much ensemble writing in general, the viola, far from being just another ‘layer’ in part-writing, is actually the glue that holds the composition together.

Image result for viola T shirts

Try listening to a Mozart string quartet or a Dvořák symphony without the viola line, and it becomes obvious. Dvořák and Vaughan Williams in particular wrote some wonderful orchestral parts for viola, and violists are eternally grateful for this.

And the vantage point in the orchestra is unique. The viola is close to the violins and the cellos, as well as to the woodwind and brass. I’ve learned so much about the genius of the great composers, their brilliant ensemble writing from this plum location.

Japan’s Emperor sends out a powerful message through his viola of not needing to “stand out” or be “prominent” in order to make a vital difference. One couldn’t find a more meaningful contemporary champion of the instrument.

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 May 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)