Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) was invaded on a Saturday morning by a group quite alien to the spacious arts complex. No less than 187 children, aged 4-8, were backstage at the arc-shaped Tata Theatre, segregated into smaller groups. Each cradled a baby violin which, depending on the child’s size, was one-fourth, half or three-fourths the size of a regular violin. From some of the diminutive instruments came the unmistakable strains of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
This was the first dress rehearsal for the children of Suzuki NCPA, a programme started by the NCPA to train children using the principles of the Suzuki music education method. Created by Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki after World War II, the core idea of the method is that all children possess ability. Just as they learn to speak their own language easily, they can acquire other skills if the same natural learning process is applied in teaching them.
Mini me: The students on stage at the Tata Theatre, with Dalal playing the piano in the back. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
At the theatre, three months of practice is finally resulting in a stage appearance for the children. As they wait to be called to the stage by Zane Dalal, the programme’s administrator and conductor in residence, Symphony Orchestra of India, or SOI, some zealous ones start warming up. Clashing bars of Twinkle, Twinkle can be heard from different corners of the room and the nervous energy peaks as the performance time nears. Some girls—either they possess very Zen-like personalities or are completely oblivious to what’s going on—deal with pre-show jitters by calmly sipping water. Another pair of girls use their violin bows to indulge in a few minutes of dandiya dance steps.
The Suzuki programme was started in 2008 by the NCPA, in association with Avabai Petit High School in Bandra. Forty-five children took part in the first performance held during the last concert season in February. The programme has since been expanded and the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy School at Marine Lines is now on board as well. Once a week, teachers from NCPA conduct classes at the two schools. Since students from other schools are also welcome to participate in the programme, weekly classes are conducted for them at the NCPA.
The Suzuki NCPA programme is the brainchild of Kazakh violinist Marat Bisengaliev, SOI’s music director. Formed in 2006 as a collaboration between the NCPA and Bisengaliev, the SOI is India’s first professional orchestra, comprising Indian and international musicians; many of the musicians serve as teachers. The SOI performs a biannual series of concerts in February and September; over the past few years they have become red-letter dates in Mumbai’s cultural calendar.
Bisengaliev hopes to expand the Suzuki programme to 1,000 children by next season and also include children from the slum and economically backward areas of the city. “This gives children the opportunity to get involved with classical music,” says Bisengaliev, explaining that you don’t have to be a musical prodigy to be part of the programme. The NCPA has imported the mini violins and passed them on to the children at a subsidized cost, between Rs3,000 and Rs4,000.
Besides the children’s teachers Yuka Honda and Assel Atageldieva, some musicians from SOI have volunteered on rehearsal day. NCPA’s ushers and other support staff are also involved, out of pleasure more than duty. But the situation is still chaotic. Controlling close to 200 children, even budding violin maestros, can be a task. As a few groups are led on to the stage, a six-year-old runs up to a helper with a tormented look. “Miss, I’m four number!” she shrieks, pointing at one of the groups on stage, shocked they have left without her.
Proud parents watch them, some already transforming into stage moms. Some cherubic young girl’s mother has decided her daughter’s going to be a music diva, and dressed her in what can only be described as stage clothes—a glittery gold dress with a short, asymmetrical gold satin skirt. The little Beyoncé squirms as her mother photographs her with a camera phone.
Finally everyone’s on stage (one without a violin, because she didn’t feel like playing) and Dalal takes his place behind the concert grand. As he strikes up the piano, they take a bow, and soon violin bows are moving in all directions, with pudgy hands pressing down on the strings. Some caress the strings with the bow, while some use it like a knife cutting through a loaf of bread. Variations of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Song of the Wind and Lightly Row will all be performed on the final day.
Six-year-old Serena Augustine’s mother Evelyn says her daughter doesn’t need to be encouraged to pick up the violin at home any more; she reaches for it herself. Augustine says that since the classes happen during school hours and on the premises, the parents are all for it.
Richa Agarwal, mother of seven-year-old Ananya, says the most important benefit of playing an instrument and being on stage is the boost in confidence. “Music should be made part of the classroom. An instrument can become your best friend, you don’t need anything else, whether you’re happy or sad,” she says.
In the audience are a few BlackBerry-toting fathers, who seem to be more involved than the moms. Vishal Sharma, a partner in a private equity firm, has come to watch his daughter Seher. “I never imagined I would see my seven-year-old perform at the NCPA in front of 500 people,” he says. At first, he says, Seher was excited about getting a violin and new clothes for the performance, but now she’s getting involved with the music. The object of the discussion soon arrives, her violin case strapped on to her back, rock-star-style. “I thought playing the violin would be easy, but it has become difficult,” she informs her father.
Learning curve: Bisengaliev hopes to teach children from slum areas also. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
One of the few boys in the group, Shauwan Irani says he loves to keep moving his fingers over the strings. The eight-year-old loves Bollywood film music, but he does admit that he practises his violin at home and keeps it clean.
Besides musical knowledge, says Dalal, the Suzuki method contributes to improving a child’s posture, hand-eye coordination and confidence. “That’s far more important than the violin,” he says. “Seeing introverted and reclusive girls become confident and boisterous, that’s my reward,” he says. “(Among the children) there’s this growing sense of ‘watch me’. You can’t put a price on that,” he says.
The second performance by the Suzuki children will be held today, as part of the SOI’s 7th Celebrity Concert Season.