Just an inch from the door, Vandana Gujral strains her ears for the escaping guitar strums. She ignores a sign nearby: “Silence. No one is allowed to wait at the entrance of the exam door.”
Inside, nine-year-old Sana takes a test conducted by the London-based Trinity College, one of the three overseas schools that grade and award musicians in India.
As she plucks Nick Polwesland’s Jamaica, her mother skips and waves a thumb in air. “Like every mother, I was nervous, hyperventilating,” says Gujral. “My daughter practised very hard.”
Along with Sana, a dozen performers aged between seven and 50—children, teachers, band members, even a building contractor from Meerut who plays piano—fill the lobby of the Performers’ Collective music school in New Delhi on a recent afternoon. Their levels varied, but each tried to put on the best show for the visiting examiner from London who would grade and scrutinize how they play western classical instruments such as the electric keyboard, piano and guitar.
A different beat: Performers’ Collective’s Jack Thomas (L) with a student. (Ramesh Pathania / Mint)
The Trinity board first offered these external examination services in India in the late 19th century to lift standards of church music, but saw a steep decline after Independence.
In the last decade, buoyed by several factors, from pushy parents to a growing middle class to the availability of instruments, the candidates have not only returned, they have doubled; about 10,000 students appeared for the exam this year.
Besides Trinity, the London-based Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music saw 900 students sit for similar tests in south India, including Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. And with increasing demand, the London College of Music entered India for the first time this year, enrolling 75 students to take its exam in Mumbai.
The reasons for enthusiastically taking such tests vary: teachers want certification or to sharpen their skills. Music schools advertise scores to distinguish in a now-crowded market. Parents and children want bragging rights, as students can receive a pass, merit or distinction. And serious musicians use the tests to gain credit and continue their education, often overseas.
The exams judge aural and music reading proficiency, presentation, evenness and accuracy of scale.
“We look for all the adjectives that you see in a concert,” says Frank Kelleher, the soft-spoken senior examiner for Trinity, now touring India.
Overall, India has a high standard in piano and all the orchestral instruments, “comparable to Europe and China”, says the clarinettist and former head of the wind music department at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
“Most students come well prepared as the course is expensive,” Kelleher says.
This year, more than half of the 10,000 candidates took the Trinity performance exams, the rest opted for theory, paying between Rs1,700 and Rs4,000 per test.
The number of examiners has also doubled. Ten years ago, a single Trinity examiner could tour a large swathe of territory for 12 weeks.
Today, 14 examiners arrive in India every testing season, October through December. Trinity recently merged with Guildhall, another UK-based music school, to expand its global reach.
Significantly, test-takers increasingly hail from smaller towns and are not members of the elite one might associate with the baby grand. Teacher Ravi Mohan, daughter Ravina, and three other friends from Meerut, have formed a car pool to take piano classes here every Friday.
Indian classical musician Pradeep Chaturvedi, for instance, travels from Jaipur every fortnight to attend piano classes at Anjli Mata’s Eloquence school in New Delhi. The trained classical musician, who is myopic by birth, met Mata, also principal of Theme Music School, in 2003.
“I arrived with several handicaps—but Ms Mata took me on despite my broken English and waived my fees when I said I wanted to learn.”
“Unlike the gharana system of Hindustani classical music, which is moody and selective about choosing students, western music accepts newcomers,” says Chaturvedi, who relies on enlarged scoresheets to play.
Now Chaturvedi runs Soul of Symphony music school in Jaipur and is giving back in his own way: A farmer’s son from Jodhpur takes an overnight train every other week to study theory for free.
Easier availability of instruments is also spreading interest in music. Before liberalization, musicians often had to depend on a generous uncle visiting from overseas to bring in music books, nylon strings or a pack of plectrums. With a high import duty of 250%, smugglers saw brisk business.
Now, with duties slashed to under 35%, Washburn guitars and Kawai pianos are more affordable, allowing musicians to strum and bang and chase their dreams. With this, schools are more diverse. “Earlier, the focus of interest was confined to Parsis or Catholics. Today, Gujaratis and Marwaris are learning,” says Homai Desai, regional coordinator of Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in Mumbai and Pune.
Against non-stop musical entertainment from television, newer schools are reinventing themselves to appeal to youth.
Ritesh Khokar, the 28-year-old co-founder of Performers’ Collective, met his guitarist partner Jack Thomas at the Delhi School of Music, the city’s oldest western classical music centre. They vowed to be different. “We have seen many erratic administrative practices, which were very anti-learning and did nothing to help to spread music,” says Thomas.
Their school, which has grown to three branches since they started out in 2003 and has 500 students, plans to widen its repertoire by offering the London-based Rock School examination for contemporary musicians and plans on introducing exchange programmes and scholarships for students.
Another one, Theme Music School, which already has two branches in New Delhi and has introduced the London College of Music board in its Mumbai school this year, plans to expand to Bangalore in four months.
“There has been a tremendous 25-30% growth in western classical music,” says Chatur-vedi, who also distributes Kawai pianos in India and conducts tests for the London School of Music. He started out with slow sales—five or 10 pieces a year. Now, he sells at least 125 pianos—digital, upright and grand—a year.
Still, practising musicians feel it’s not easy to get crowds or corporate sponsorship for concerts. “Western classical music was in a minority before partition, and so it is now. It’s a struggle to keep western classical music running,” says Gita Chacko, regional coordinator for Associated Board in south India. “Vijay Mallya (referring to the United Breweries chairman) will be ready to promote pop music rather than western classical,” she adds.
Travel and music expenses are burning out 28-year-old Denise Wilde, who travels from Agra every week to take guitar classes at Performers’ Collective. A former member of the band Down to Earth, he worked six days a week at a town’s hotel to pay for his weekly music lesson and overnight train to New Delhi. “If you get paid Rs8,000-10,000, what do I spend on myself after paying for the travel and investing in music?”
This, he says, makes him envious of the affluent suddenly flocking to music. “The fact that they can afford to buy 10 guitars, but don’t play any of them…maybe that disappoints you,” Wilde says, “but you get over them.”