Taught By A Master

By Mona Malacane

Last semester Norbert Herber attended a week-long introductory course to classical Indian music taught by one of the world’s most renowned sarod maestros, Amjad Ali Khan. If you are like myself and not particularly musically inclined (except for knowing which sounds you like and which ones you don’t), the sarod is a stringed instrument, slightly larger than a guitar.

Khan pic

Photo from Amjad Ali Khan’s website

The class was offered through the Madhusudan and Kiran C. Dhar India Studies Program, which is located in a house along the cobblestoned 8th street. The usually cozy home was packed with students and their instruments wanting to learn from Khan. “We sat on the floor in a room in the house … and people were on the floor, and on chairs around the perimeter and spilling out into the other room.” But this is kind of a modest crowd for Amjad Ali Khan, explained Norbert. “A friend of mine who grew up in India said if this sort of thing was happening in India, there would be thousands of people flocking to [the class]. He is a huge celebrity.”

Although learning from one of the masters was a draw for Norbert, he has always been interested in learning more about classical Indian music. One of the biggest challenges when learning to play Indian music is understanding how different it is from Western music at a basic structural level. For instance, Indian music is composed of ragas, which are a series of notes that construct a song. Unlike Western music, however, ragas differ in their rhythm and organization. “The rhythms are the same [as Western music] if you think about rhythm in the really basic sense of a pulse. But unlike our rhythms – where the pulses are organized into neat groups of 2 or 4 or 3 – these are organized into groups that are odd numbers, and because they are in odd numbers it sounds weird to us because we are so programmed to hearing even numbers.”

Norbert saxophone pic

Photo courtesy of the Dhar India Studies Program

Although some of the other students had trouble reconciling these differences, Norbert was able to adjust quicker and easier to the new sounds. “Having played music that follows odd meters like this I had a frame of reference for doing it, but I could see that there were people who really struggled with this because they were accustomed to straightforward rhythms.” (I can just see the classically trained Jacob’s student’s heads spinning trying to learn something that doesn’t follow a perfect pattern.)

Indian music is also very flexible, fluid, and improvisational. “The rules that you have to follow to play [ragas] are not very restrictive at all. And there isn’t a sense that you need to look at something that is written on a page and play it that way, and that’s the only way to play it. There’s more of a field of possibilities,” Norbert explained. “Anything is possible within a set of parameters that the performers decide on.” In fact Norbert said that performers can just decide on the raga to play and in what beat cycle they will play it, right before the performance, basically winging it.

The course culminated with a performance at the music school by Amjad Ali Khan and his two sons, Amaan and Ayaan, who are also world-class sarod players. President McRobbie and his wife, the Provost, and the Dean of the college were all in attendance. The three Khans also performed at the Lotus Music Festival later that week.



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