Beyond Do Re Mi
AR Rahman’s brainchild, the KM Music Conservatory, now known as KM College of Music and Technology (KMCMT) is formalising education in music (theory, history and performance), a field where there are only a couple of other contenders in the country. Wanting to leave a legacy and bring talented musicians to the fore, the KM Music Conservatory was started in 2008 in Kodambakkam (home to many film studios) here in a multi-storey building. Due to space restrictions, the institute moved to Vadapalani in August. The new facility also houses the Sunshine Orchestra, which nurtures talented children from underprivileged backgrounds and KM Studio for film and band recordings and sound design.
Seeking to challenge the set conventions in the music industry, this academy is one-of-a-kind. KMCMT offers music education to all ages and abilities, seeking to highlight the role of creativity in learning, awareness and opportunity. The institution is tied to Middlesex University, UK, which brings a hierarchical structure to the teaching and learning of music, which is relatively new in India. Adapting those structures to India — finding the connections and crossing points between Indian film music, Hindustani, western classical music is where the challenge lies.
Fathima Rafiq, executive director of KM and AR Rahman’s sister has a dream for the students who enter their portals. “I want them to make the most of their stay here, dedicate themselves to the subject of their choice, make the most of the facilities at KMCMT and have a positive attitude to life. Learning and goodwill must go hand in hand. It is a great learning experience for students and faculty members alike.”
Academic coordinator for the institution, Adam Greig, is happy to have moved to Chennai from the UK. “It’s a very unusual project — teaching Western classical music in India and to promote it as a staple education along with Hindustani and Carnatic music. You never know what to expect.” Adam began playing the piano when he was six months old and has completed his PhD in music theory analysis and performance at Lancaster University, UK. “I focus a lot on the theory and analysis of music. People usually consider music as having a practical basis only and don’t take musicians very seriously. There is a much wider context to music, which we are introducing here. There are specialized classes that teach the historical side of music, how to do job presentations, and complex analyses that involve maths, reasoning, etc. It goes beyond the Do Re Mi..”
The man behind it
AR Rahman requires no introduction. He began KMCMT to “develop and nurture an education in music for all who have the passion and to create an awareness of Western classical music and music technology while fostering learning and growth of Indian music traditions. Through KMCMT, we want to provide students with a strong artistic, intellectual and technical foundation for pursuing professional careers in music. We are offering programmes designed to cultivate individual excellence, a collaborative spirit, cultural exchange and creativity.”
In the course of his interaction with students, Rahman notices, “They all want to find answers according to what’s in their minds, or seek answers from friends and anyone who is willing to teach them. I sometimes learn from them. These are interesting episodes.” Students strive to become like AR Rahman when they join his school. Parents too share this dream for their wards. His take? “I want them to be better than me. So we provide them with things they did not have access to. Their job is to raise the standard of music in India.” Students who graduate from KM also get to audition for the KM Symphony Orchestra.
The foundation programme is for 16-year-olds and is a one-year course, designed as a pre-university course. Adam comments, “It is important because Western classical music isn’t taught uniformly in India and we try to bring students up to speed in an intense one year. With 22 hours of lecture per week and 20-25 hours of self work, we bring the students up to speed. It’s a full-time commitment. It’s amazing how the students take to it and the knowledge they assimilate. Once they get used to the routine and mould, their development takes off.”
Sound technology room. They currently have 40 students. The two-year diploma programme is for ages 18 and upwards. They follow the guidelines set by Middlesex University. Students can specialize in piano, percussion, strings or vocals. Adam is candid when he says that the eligibility to get into KMCMT is the desire to learn music and knowing English. Students are asked if they can make the transition from just enjoying the music to spending their entire lives doing it. “That is where the difference lies. When you spend all your time and odd hours with music, it changes your perception of it and life,” says Adam. They also have part-time preparatory programmes for people — one-year and seven-month courses.
Philip Taylor is a musicologist from UK with 15 years of teaching experience and teaches chamber choir. He says, “What I’ve seen in India are students with a drive to learn and with more respect for their teachers. We keep adapting and changing our curriculum, creating from scratch, confronting assumptions and perform.”
Munna Shaokat Ali is a lyricist and composer, proponent of Hindustani classical and Qawwali and Sufi ensembles. He is the president and founding member of Amir Khusro Sangeet Academy and has written Piya Haji Ali for the Bollywood film, Fiza. Witnessing a new group take to some of Rahman’s compositions like Maula Maula and another like Tumsa Koi Nahin under Munnaji’s guidance was an experience the writer can never forget — soulful and energetic. They inform me that every performance begins with a Sufi ensemble.
Also getting to witness piano recitals under the guidance of Prof SuroJeet Chatterji (alumnus and the recipient of the highest degree from the Moscow Conservatory) brought tears to the eyes of spectators who lost themselves in renditions of Yanni and Chopin. A popular culture is that of students turning instructors at KMCMT.
Senior manager Jyoti Nair, who has been with the institute from day-one is a vibrant lady who is a performer herself and immerses herself in the day-to-day running of the place and students. “The students have a learning environment that is free. They get to learn from different teachers who have different styles and strengths. They get to make their own path in the world of music.”
The new facility that was inaugurated on August 9 by Mukesh Ambani is spacious, well-designed and equipped. With lecture halls, performance rooms, round acoustic rooms for practice, floating percussion rooms, a sound technology room, keyboard labs where students can practice with earphones on, library, listening rooms, it is every musician’s dream space.
The building is designed to take in between 300-400 full-time students. The KM music library has a diverse collection of musical resources from the Indian and Western musical traditions. In addition, students have access to 40,000 musical recordings, Wi-Fi and student study areas.
The preparatory fee structure per course per year for Chatterji’s Piano Studio is Rs 85,000, Western voice for around 68,000, Hindustani voice and instruments for 56,000. The foundation fee structure per year is Rs 5 lakh. Scholarships are based on means and merit.
Adam’s goal is to create an understanding of the importance and opportunities in the creative industry. That also includes a number of rounds of convincing parents about performance, teaching and the ample opportunities in the field. Surprisingly, a large number of their students are engineering dropouts.
Students get a bit of a reality crash at some point because all come here with the aim to become rich and famous. Once that’s done, they find their niche and work towards it to have a satisfying career in performance, teaching, composition and the works. The varied backgrounds of their faculty members give the students an exposure and understanding of what options are available to them.
Students reach out to their professors from 7am to 3am in the morning, apparently. “And if there is no response, they track us down on Gchat or Facebook or in person!” says Adam. That is the level of curiosity and enthusiasm witnessed there. Knowing they are behind in terms of a global knowledge level, they will do everything they can to get up to speed — even demand classes during holidays. They are exceptionally serious and focused. “I don’t think I can go back to lecturing in the UK anymore. You have to fight, persuade and encourage them to learn, with very little respect and high expectations for teachers. Here, I have to try and force them away from me sometimes to get some time off,” he laughs.
A student from the first batch, Altamash Bin Shakeel Ansari came from Allahabad to learn piano here in 2008. He completed the foundation and diploma programmes and headed to Middlesex to complete the bachelor’s degree in Piano Western Music Performance, all on scholarships. He, along with vocalist Abhinav Sridharan, from KMCMT also created a fusion of Opera music with Indian elements. They have performed for BBC and toured India and Germany. They are back now to teach at KMCMT.
Adam tells us, “Rahman keeps a check and is actively involved in even picking out the décor. He helps bring in industrial connections, to take Indian musicians to the international platform. He makes sure he spends time at least twice a year with students. Students like Abhinav have also performed with Rahman at different shows.”
These youngsters get to work on public concerts, corporate events, competitions, composition, jingles, launches, festivals, and what not! They are encouraged and taught to practice yoga, have had lectures on performance injuries and are in general, moulded to become better musicians with a healthy mind and body. There is never a dull moment on the premises, the writer noticed. Musicians like Hariharan, Leslie Lewis, Palakkad Sriram, Rajesh Vaidhya, Jean-Francois Gonzales-Hamilton, etc, also conduct workshops for students. Turning into a landmark for learning music in the country, this institution is nurturing talent, bridging differences and paving the way for an invaluable experience.