16 March 2005

Casio tones

Alright, so I am in Australia now. I went to primary school in a small government school near my house – Marayong South Primary. One of my earliest child hood memories is my first day at school. Not having gone to pre-school, it was a new experience to me but what sticks in my mind is seeing all these other children crying as they parted from their mothers. I remember being one of the few who didn’t cry!

Despite being the only Asian kid in my class (and possibly the only one in the whole school) I didn’t feel any different from the other kids. Of course I insisted on taking sandwiches to school instead of idlis or tamarind rice. All in all I had a very happy school life. Indeed I ended up being ‘boy school captain’ in that school in the 6th Grade. Music at this stage was not a big part of my life. Sure, we had music part of the curriculum but it did not involve playing any instruments. Music largely involved singing Australian folk songs (with themes about the outdoors, kangaroos and sheep shearers) and Christmas Carols. Nevertheless, it was something I loved immensely and later on in school I was part of the choir which had a few public events like visiting Old People’s Homes and singing to them!

In 1981 I was presented with my first musical instrument. It was a Casiotone Keyboard. It was small keyboard but had a bar code reader pen attached. This allowed you to scan special bar coded books that contained music. Once a song had been scanned in from the book, the keyboard would guide you to play the song – it showed a light above the key, which needed to be pressed. Hence, my very first guru was indeed the Casiotone!

Of course, there were no bar-coded books for Carnatic geetham-s or varnam-s. With the help of the flashing lights on the Casio I learnt to play Beatles songs, songs from TV Themes and other pop songs. My fingering was ad-hoc as I had no formal coach but from listening I learnt how to play the tunes without the lights. Looking back, this probably was an excellent way to learn music – it encouraged me to listen and showed me the notes I needed play.

In high school, music classes were a bit more formal. Still there was no formal coaching but students were encouraged to concentrate on one instrument – naturally I chose the keyboard. I continued playing the keyboard with my ad-hoc fingering but it served the purpose. Our school music teacher (Mr Neil Winter) was graduate from Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music. He was an enthusiastic fellow who had some innovative ideas about teaching music. He used to have listening tests where the class would listen to a piece music (either Western classical or rock) and we had to write down what instruments were used in the various parts of the composition and to comment on the music. I remember reading somewhere that Palghat Mani Iyer said learning music is 80% listening and 20% practice.

I studied music in school till the 10th grade and was encouraged by my music teacher to go further with it and study it for my Higher School Certificate. I would have loved to but the traditional Indian values of studying high level mathematics with physics, chemistry, English and economics told me otherwise. That was effectively the end of my Western music education.

In the next instalment, I will write about how I made the leap into the ocean of Carnatic music.