The soundscape of music – part 2


In this exclusive interview, SHUBHENDRA RAO and SASKIA RAO-DE HAAS speak with V. SRINIVASAN. In part 2, they speak about the role of music in education, and how to bring music into the lives of children.

Q: I would like you to share about your value-based education program, the Sangeet4All (S4A) initiative. What is your ethos on how music should blend into the curriculum, even this idea of value-based music education? What are the pillars that you have tried to imbue in your program?

SR: I think music is one of the most under-used subjects in the field of education. Not just now, but always. In the olden days, in the guru-shikshak parampara way of learning, it was a holistic education where a child got to experience so many different things, until we learnt to institutionalize education. By doing that, we cut the wings of creativity. It wanted everybody to be at a certain average when nobody is average, nobody should be average. There are various degrees – not to say someone is higher than the other, everybody is equal in a certain way, but not in the equal way that institutional education brings you.

So, this is where we wanted to make the change with S4A. The period from 0 to 9 years of age in every child’s life is the most important phase. That is when 70% of your life’s learning is embedded. The seeds are put in at that age – 9 months before the child enters this world until about age 8 or 9, depending on where you’re growing up. In today’s world I would say 7 or 8, whereas in previous ages we could even push that to 10 or 12. Nowadays, there’s so much information that children lose their childhood too early. Take our son Ishaan. We had gone to meet my guru, Pandit Ravishankar, over lunch and at the end of 3 to 4 hours they were singing together.

Guruji was more than 80 and our son was a two year old, but what he said that day is so important for us. He said, “Beta heera to tha hi [this child is a diamond], but make sure he remains a child as long as possible.” So, even when he was 19 he was still a child. All the great people never lose their childlike enthusiasm to learn, to experience.

So, in S4A we bring that in very strongly from the time the child enters the regular school. Before that, we don’t have access to the child, and so we want to make sure that every child gets that seed of music, and what music brings to that child for the rest of their life.


SRH: Yes, that’s the very idea of it. We’re very arrogant as adults to think that when we talk to a child, giving a lot of information, that they actually internalize it. They choose what they want to know; it’s not up to us, really. They’re ready when they’re ready to walk, to talk, to do anything. Our job is to provide the opportunities and they can choose from the pool of experience. That’s how children learn when they’re young.

From a philosophical and inspirational point of view I believe that, but also very practically. My mother, my aunts, my grandmothers were either Montessori or Waldorf teachers, and a lot of emphasis in those approaches is put on play, on imitation, on absorption. I find a very interesting parallel between those philosophies and the way children learn traditional music patterns. They’re not going to sit down when they are two or three years old. They’re playing. Our Ishaan was playing with his Lego blocks while we were practicing Raga Bhairava, and at some point we would say to him, “This is Raga Bhairava, see? Let’s sing it once.” And he would sing it once and go back to playing. It was not a 40-minute structured music class. It was just part of his life, his surroundings, and that’s how he picked it up.

We want to take that approach in S4A, so when we go into a school we change the entire musical fiber of that school. What is the music they play in their assemblies? What is the music they dance to? It helps the teachers; it’s not that music has to stay in the music room. It’s also not that if you have a French class, you learn Sur le pont d ’Avignon in the music class. No, not at all. There should be a complete approach to musical creativity in the school environment, and music starts literally with what is sound.

How does a child respond and interact audibly with their surroundings? What types of trees, what types of birds? And from that, what are the different instruments? What is the raga for the time of the day? Take them through how classical music has been built. And we get feedback – like this young girl telling her mom on their morning walk, “I think we should listen to Raga Bhairava because it’s early morning.” And the mother was like, “We’ve never listened to this.” It’s beautiful to see. Or a child recognizing a surbahar¹. And these are young children, five or six years old, and they have that connection.

If they become musicians, great, but they are already musicians because every living being is musical. So, again, we take it away from only being a performing art. It’s a wonderful experience to enjoy a concert, but it’s a very limited approach if we only look at that. We need a much more holistic approach to music and bring that into the life of a child. Interestingly, the traditional learning process goes past that as well. Then, you have a much larger pool of children who have a connection with music. What if we made a mistake in teaching small children how to read and write? They don’t start with Shakespeare in Grade 1. Similarly, children need to start with, “What is sound?” They don’t start with the absolute basics, which would let children slowly grow into it.

Our children were born with that because we lived that way, but if you’re not from a musical family then this information gets lost. Then it becomes that much harder for the child to connect with music, especially classical music, for the simple reason that there is too little exposure to it. And when there is exposure to it, it’s often high-handed difficult music. They are supposed to sit still for two hours. And if they want to practice, they are supposed to tie their hair to the ceiling – there’s a lot of fear that comes into it. Whereas you want a joyful experience.


SR: Once the joyful experience is there at that age, say from ages 2 to 9, then there has to be a change, in the teenage years. That’s when they’re discovering themselves and the world. I strongly believe that teenage years means to rebel. You do exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, whether from parents or from society. But once you’ve seen it all, done it all, in your late 20s, 30s and 40s, your best memories are of your childhood. The nostalgia that brings a smile to your face is when you remember your childhood.

The songs that you learned at that age, the teachers who taught you, everything comes back, and you have a smile. That is why we feel S4A is important in building a connection with music. Of course, our approach is with Indian classical music, and the whole world of spirituality and of connecting with your soul. Someone has said, “You never teach a child; you learn from a child.”

SRH: I think every parent can relate to that [laughing].

Q: Both of you have been intensely connected with music over several decades, as musicians and music teachers. How has that journey influenced your own personal evolution? How do you think you have changed as human beings as a result of this path?

SRH: I think the change for me has been a bit more dramatic, because I was born in a small village in Holland with a view of windmills, cows, the flat fields, and a canal with small rowing boats in front of our house. Now, I live in a city of 20 million people, more than in my entire country. Clearly, this music is pretty powerful [laughing].

SR: And to add to that, as a joke of course, I make fun that pepper is found to be too spicy in Holland and here is a Dutch lady who can chomp on green chili!

“Find your own style, whichever one.”
So that is the path and the journey.
Find your own voice,
and always check if you have it.

SRH: For me there are two evolutions, and they are connected. One is as a musician, because I’m a cellist and I play Indian classical music. Until now, the cello was not used much in Indian music and this shows the evolution in music. During my first lesson, I was sitting on a chair as all cellists do, and my guru was sitting on the floor. And you don’t need to be very sensitive to understand that it’s not the right equation to learn. So, I needed to adapt to the music culture. I changed my playing style.

So, there was a huge change at around the age of nineteen to twenty when I came in touch with this music and slowly got drawn into it. I made sure I could sit on the floor and then worked on the instrument. I had an Indian cello built for me by a wonderful person in Holland.

The other life lesson, which I hold very dear, is from my guru Hari Prasad Chaurasia, who said, “Don’t play like a flute, or a sitar, or a vocalist. Find your own style, whichever one.” So that is the path and the journey. Find your own voice, and always check if you have it. In music you have a lot of freedom, but it’s a hard-earned feeling. You need to put in a lot of practice if you want to reach a certain level. You need to put in the hours if you want to get anywhere, and after that the freedom is there for improvising, understanding more and more. It’s just following that light of what Baba said. That’s my own personal journey.

SR: For me, I knew nothing else. It was very smooth in a way, in the choice. It was not smooth in the execution. Music is the only thing I know, although I was good in other things.

SRH: Good in everything else. He was an A student at school in all subjects, and sports, and the sitar.

SR: I never thought I’d become a doctor. For me, this was my journey, my calling. This path was there and I just had to walk on it, and the most important thing was discipline.

I think discipline in any sphere is important. Like spirituality, it is important to build that discipline. That is the backbone on which everything else is built. The hours of practice build discipline, and also physical strength and inner strength to be able to overcome any doubts or obstacles. Maybe I’m practicing something and I’m not able to get it at this moment, but my inner strength tells me I need to practice it a hundred more times, and the one hundred and first time it becomes better, until it becomes a part of everything else. That comes with practice.

And that practice, whether it’s through music or it’s a life lesson, is the ultimate guru, the knowledge. After a certain point, the guru is a perception in your mind. He or she is a part of your whole being. For me, my guru has not physically been there for the last 8 to 10 years, but I know he’s there with me in every moment. The strength that you derive from that relationship is so strong, and this is all self-realization. A guru can mean something quite different for Saskia, something different to you.

SRH: You’ve learned from the most famous Indian musician of all times. It would be really interesting to hear a bit more about that.

SR: Perhaps he was the most famous Indian musician, and unparalleled in anything and everything. I was with him throughout my life, and for a certain period experiencing and living with the master in that elevated guru-shishya parampara 24/7, 365 days of the year, breathing the music he taught, imbibing it and making it my own, and then giving it my color. Eventually, whatever music you play has to be yours. That’s what the guru also says: Teaching is just 20%, while 80% is your effort. To have travelled with him around the world, to have performed together, sat on the same stage, and learned in front of five to ten thousand people, I wish I could relive it again and again and again.

To be a child always, and to be utterly
and truly humble to the bigger picture of music.
Music is knowledge,
and I believe my guru was a servant of knowledge.

Q: This is very wonderful to hear. When you look at your own life, your personal growth, values and character, what aspects were most profoundly nurtured in you because of your master – your development as a human being and as a musician?

SR: To be a child always, and to be utterly and truly humble to the bigger picture of music. Music is knowledge, and I believe my guru was a servant of knowledge. Even at the age of 91, when I met him he said, “I wish I were twenty years younger! What my mind is telling me to do, my body can’t keep up. I wish my body would respond, because now I’m seeing music in a way that I could not see twenty years ago.” This is Pandit Ravi Shankar at 91. That humility and dedication to music, to knowledge, to learn and share – that for me is the biggest learning.

Q: I would love to hear your message for our youth. A lot of youngsters today love to play music, they love to sing, but whether it’s practical to make music their career depends on the ecosystem around them – their parents and educators. We all love music, but we also feel that very few people make it to the top. What would be your guidance for youngsters? What are the clues that help them realize there’s something big here?

SRH: We are approached very often by young people saying they want to make music their profession. First, we need to understand what it is they want out of this. Most of them want to perform on stage. How much time does that take – one hour per week, two hours? It’s not much. To be a musician is to live your music, and that is the reason you practice. You can’t perform all the time unless you’re a hotel musician playing in the lobby, but even then you’re practicing.


A performing artist is only going to be part of who you are as a musician. Now, what do you want to do with the other 99% of your time? That is the question you need to answer. Do you want to practice really hard so you are a performing artist full-time, or do you also want to teach? Do you want to write about music? Do you want to compose as well? Do you want to go into music technology? What is that 99% going to look like?

That is the question to be answered by people in the music profession, because I think most kids have the wrong picture of what it entails.

SR: They just see the final product. They don’t see our hard work; they’re not privy to that. But whether it’s music or anything else, I think you should just follow your passion.

SRH: Absolutely. Anybody who wants to ask us this question in person, please write to us. I’m not joking, because anyone who has this question in their heart, we want to see how we can help them. However, being an Instagram success with thousands of followers, playing two chords on your piano might not be a perfect start for a profession. Look at the music. If you really love music, that’s all it takes. Sometimes kids confuse fame with musicianship. Even with popular music, you need a high level of expertise, you need to practice, you need to listen to your fears, you need to listen to the music you want to play and be creative with it. You need to live your art, whatever style of music you want to follow.

Q: Living your art is such a wonderful thought. In this context, do you have a message for parents, because they are after all a part of the ecosystem?

SR: Please allow them to follow their passion.

SRH: That, and if they’re not good at maths don’t send them to maths tuition, send them to music class. Music literally has the power to build brain cells, and that is something every parent who’s interested in the academic success of their children should know. Apart from the complete joy, it is now proven that children who do music seriously score higher overall in all subjects. They get into good colleges, but most of all the learning that happens from a young age when they’re learning music is really important. Also, let them listen to the music they like when they are studying; research has shown that this helps them to focus in class.

Music is not just about performing,
it’s also about educating.
It’s a unifying force,
which is also about evolving spiritually.

SR: And remember, reality shows are not music. They’re not creating musicians there. This is a question we get asked a lot: “How soon can my child be on stage? Will it take three months?” By the sixth month the parent is frustrated that their child is not yet on stage. The child is not frustrated.

SRH: It’s the same message – 99% versus 1%. Most of the time we’re not on stage. It’s not that we have our mattress and pillow on stage somewhere. It’s a small percentage of our life, just like a professional athlete. Are they competing 24/7? No! Mostly they are training.

SR: That’s why the Olympic Games come once in every four years. You prepare for four years to go to the Olympics, but to be a musician on stage should you be there in two to four months? That perception should change. Music is not just about performing, it’s also about educating. It’s a unifying force, which is also about evolving spiritually.

SRH: One last word for parents of young children – sing with and to your child, because to your child you sound better than Lata Mangeshkar or any great singer. Why? Because you’re sharing with them. If you sing with them, that is when music starts.

Q: And after all these years on this journey, what drives you further?

SR: It’s a lifetime thing. If at the age of 91 Pandit Ravi Shankar can say what he did, we’re mere children in the world of music. Sangeet4All is a mission for us to bring about the necessary change that we feel will help future generations.

Q: Thank you both. This gives us a rich perspective and a great learning. I wish you all the joy and fulfilment on this path. I can see that you’re touching so many hearts, inspiring people in your own quiet, anonymous way. As you rightly said, 99% of the time is spent in sadhana, behind the scenes, and that’s where I feel the real alchemy is happening.

SRH & SR: Thank you.

¹A bass sitar

Interviewed by V. SRINIVASAN

Saskia Rao-De Haas And Shubhendra Rao

About Saskia Rao-De Haas And Shubhendra Rao

Composer and performer, Pandit Shubhendra Rao, is ranked amongst the key soloists of India, who lived with Pandit Ravi Shankar for over 10 years, assisting him in concerts and compositions around the world. He is a musical ambassador by his natural ability to bridge cultures across the world. His wife, Saskia Rao-de Haas is a cellist and composer, originally from the Netherlands, who has enriched North Indian classical music with the Indian cello, as well as being an accomplished western classical cellist. She studied with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia as well as at CODARTS and the University of Amsterdam.

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