Indian Music & the West

Perspectives of a student, performer and teacher

Table of Contents
A Student and Performer of Western Music discovers Indian Music
Serious Study – A Disciple sets out the Long Path of Learning
Obstacles along the Way
Physical Obstacles
Lack of Repertoire
Listening Experience
Cultural Context
Social Pressures
Advantages of a Western Music Background?
Advantages of being in the West?
A “Western” Performer of “Indian” Music
A Teacher of Indian Music in Europe
A Teacher of Western Music in Search of the Teaching Models

It is not a question of Indian music, or American music, like that; any type of music, in tune and in rhythm, gives you food for your mind, heart and soul“. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

It often appears that we live in a world of dualities. We tend to interpret our impressions in terms of black and white, good and bad – even east and west. Although in some situations this may be convenient, it tends to keeps us from seeing the more subtle relations that unite our world. The theme of Indian music and the West immediately suggests several dualities: geographical, cultural and musical. And it is exactly in this context that Maestro Khan’s simple and straightforward statement is an important reminder. It is a wonderful example of his musical vision and is an invitation for us to stay aware of the universal elements of music, even as we concentrate on the diversity and contrasts of its specific forms. I believe that if we keep his statement in mind, it will help us come to a fuller understanding of the complex and fascinating theme before us.

In addition to exploring the above ideas, this paper traces several of the important stages of my musical development during the last thirty-five years of studying both western music and (for the past twenty-four years), Indian music. I have tried to recount how my impressions during some of these stages helped me to better understand my roles as a student, performer and teacher . The most important points I wish to make may be viewed from the following perspectives.

From the perspective of a beginner, curious to enter the world of Indian music
There is nothing intrinsically “foreign” or “exclusive” about Indian music which makes it inaccessible to anyone who is attracted to it, and who has a wish to begin to learn.

From the perspective of a serious student, engaging in a long-term study
All of the essential features of Indian classical music can be passed on from the guru to the disciple wherever they happen to be living and regardless of the student’s ethnic origin. Depending on talent, determination, and attitude, it is possible for a student to overcome whatever obstacles may be waiting, and reach the highest level of understanding and execution.

From the perspective of a western performer of Indian music
The most discerning connoisseurs of Indian music tend to listen with their ears open and their eyes shut, and do not place much importance on a performer’s ethnic background or country of origin.

From the perspective of a teacher, working in a variety of western music contexts
Indian music can be introduced effectively in the West at many levels, from primary school through the professional music conservatory. Also, Indian music pedagogy has much to offer the western music educator.

A student and performer of western music discovers indian music
I grew up in the midst of a great cultural curiosity in everything from the “east”. I must admit however, that I was not actively involved in the movement and I barely noticed some of the momentous “Indian” events of the late 1960’s – George Harrison with his sitar, Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pop Festival, etc. But as a music student in my own culture, I was gaining experience in a number of western musical styles. There were elements in many kinds of music that I found attractive – from folk music to rock’n’roll, to jazz and classical. I was also very interested in composing and improvising. But somehow I was not completely satisfied by any one style and was searching for my proper place as a musician. It was at this moment that I had the good fortune to see Ustad Ali Akbar Khan perform at the university where I was studying.


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    Lute Improvisations
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