The odds are stacked heavily against a child growing up in India eventually becoming a professional musician of sufficiently high-calibre. I shall restrict the discussion to western classical music, but this I suspect applies equally well to many other genres, such as jazz, for instance.
Let us examine a child’s exposure to music. Fewer and fewer families actually have music as a part of their household life. This is true world-wide. Live music, centred around the upright piano, which formed the backdrop for any family occasion or party has been replaced by recorded music in the last century. If a child is not surrounded by music, any latent or inherent talent remains dormant, and there are enough examples to prove how important an early awakening is to one’s musical development. The minimum age for acceptance into the Kala Academy is eight years. We have already lost two or three crucial years prior to this.
Mainstream school work is becoming a huge stressor for young minds, and parents quite understandably encourage their children to swot the books for increasingly longer chunks of the day. All ‘extra-curricular’ pursuits, not just music, are seen as a frivolity, a distraction from the ‘main’ goal of securing the highest possible grade at pivotal points (SSC, HSSC) and the inevitable entrance exams that follow. The extension of school hours recently is in real danger of sounding the death-knell of any ‘extra-curricular’ interest, be it music or sports or anything else. This is tragic. It is well-accepted that the study of music actually improves concentration, school grades, promotes teamwork and a better sense of community.
It is difficult to blame parents here, because life is increasingly tough and competitive. And so far in India, there is no defined career path for an aspiring musician. The Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) is the only professional orchestra in all India, and it is just seven years old. The age of European and American orchestras can be measured in centuries, and even South-East Asian orchestras and opera houses are now several decades old.
Music, like sport, needs top-notch coaching to get to a truly high level. And music, also like sport, is hugely competitive on a global platform. If the quality of the teaching isn’t good enough, it hampers or delays a young person’s music development. There are a mere ten Indian musicians out of the 94 players currently in the SOI.( Interestingly, six of them are of Goan origin, albeit Bombay Goan!). The percentage will only increase if the quality of teaching at the grass-roots level improves, across India.
If a young Indian gets to a sufficient level of proficiency, there is no centre of higher music education. Anyone aspiring to get to a truly world-class level is therefore compelled to go abroad. The study of music is more than just one-on-one sessions with a teacher, and matters of technique. It also involves study of music history, harmony and counterpoint and so much more; playing chamber music is so important as well. And vitally it involves being immersed in a milieu where one has access to high-quality performances, instrumental, chamber, orchestral, choral, and opera. This happens too infrequently in India, if at all, and mainly in bigger cities.
By the time young persons (and their parents) even awaken to the idea that music is something worth pursuing, it is often too late. Many European music conservatories do not accept students above the age of twenty-four, an age when many Indian young music students have not even reached full flower, let alone made up their minds that they want to study music above other more lucrative and ‘mainstream’ careers like medicine, law or IT.
Possibly the last and major deterrent for a young Indian musician who has gotten this far, and managed even to get admission into an European or British or North American music conservatory (itself no mean feat due to the high standard), is the enormous admission fee, and the high cost of living in these countries, which is compounded by the poor exchange rate with respect to the Indian rupee. I know this from attempting to help a couple of young Goan musicians who have been accepted into such institutions, but are struggling to raise the admission and living costs for just the initial year. It seems to average around 5 lakhs in Europe, and more than twice that in Britain and North America! This is out of reach for most Indian families without philanthropic, governmental or corporate support.
So there is much work to be done in the field of music education in India. But the immense talent and potential of our children make it well worth the effort.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 13 October 2013)