3 R's and an M

Teaching music in the slums of India

by Akshar Narain

Morris Academy For Math, Science, and Engineering
Rockaway, NJ

Two of my piano students

In the slums of India, an estimated 100 million children cannot read or write at their age level. A few years ago, I taught English for an organization called Pratham, which teaches millions of these children the 3 R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic. This year, I wondered if I could add an M to the 3 R’s: music.

Could I, in just three weeks, introduce music as a fun, new language for children to read and express themselves in, have children learn to play pieces by Beethoven and Mozart, bring out their hidden musical talents, and finally connect with them in spite of the great linguistic, social, and cultural divide between us?

Just as Pratham opened up a world of literature, poetry, and algebra by teaching the three R’s, I wanted to open up a world of symphonies, ragas, and musical performances by teaching the M. So I convinced Pratham leadership to let me develop a piano curriculum and teach it to a class of 10.

The results far exceeded my expectations. By the end of the three weeks, each of the students could perfectly play at least one of the pieces I’d taught. Several could even play with their eyes closed. A handful spontaneously started to teach others. At an end-of-session concert, the children dressed up in their finest blues, silvers, and golds and played pieces from Beethoven and Mozart and the most difficult piece: the Indian National Anthem. Their friends and families responded with smiles and applause. What they had only heard before on TV played by professional musicians they now heard played fifteen feet in front of them played by people they saw every day.

I thought about how the initial halting lectures I’d given in Hindi had given way to one-on-one sessions where I’d taught through rhythm and tone. Communication in music was every bit as effective as communication through words.

During those three weeks, I could feel the students’ frustration as they struggled through a difficult piece when their fingers flopped on the keys in an exasperated cacophony, and I could experience their thrill upon mastering a piece when I heard a triumphant arpeggio.

The music lessons worked: the children not only learned how to play, but were excited to keep learning. Before I left for the US, we discussed how the lessons could continue. We realized we could do two things: I could keep teaching over the Internet, but more importantly, the children who’d learned the most could start teaching themselves, essentially replicating what Pratham had done for the R’s for the M: encouraging members of each community to teach those around them. With time and luck, this may turn into a grassroots musical undertaking in the Indian slums.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s how it started.

The Music Pieces

The music pieces that children learnt are listed below, in increasing order of difficulty.

The New Musicians

Shubham plays the Indian National Anthem

Shubham was the student who needed the least help. Everything I taught him, he seemed to grasp very quickly. He first caught my attention when I had introduced the students to Ode to Joy on the Wednesday before Indian Independence Day. On the Friday, when he returned to class, he was the only student who was able to play through Ode to Joy fluently, without any mistakes. He never ceased to impress. I often had him help other students with sections of pieces that they had trouble on. Though he could play very well, he was very quiet and did not talk much. I could not tell how enthusiastic he was about learning music.

Ankush plays Ode to Joy

Ankush improved the most over the three weeks. He was one of the younger students. At first, he would play the pieces hesitantly. When I introduced to him Ode to Joy, he was confused about two lines that were similar except for three notes. I had difficulty conveying to him the difference between the two lines. Over the weekend, however, he was able to play Ode to Joy with ease and also learned Twinkle Twinkle Little Star quickly. Though he bore a calm disposition, I could tell that he was eager to learn piano from the way he pecked at the keys, lightly and quickly. In fact, sometimes he played two quickly to show off how well he knew a song.

Nisha plays Ode to Joy

Nisha was one of the best readers of music in my class. Every time I tested her ability to play Ode to Joy or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, she would always clasp her sheet music in her left hand and play hesitantly with her right. She rarely played the wrong notes, but her playing was often interrupted by pauses of several seconds. Her hesitation was due mainly to the fact that she did not memorize her songs. However, if she memorized, she would improve greatly. Nisha often lost concentration during class because she enjoyed chatting with other classmates. Often, when I was helping other students, I would here one of the recorded songs on the keyboard being played in Nisha’s area. Though she could play well, she often did not focus much.

Ritika plays Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

Ritika was another reader, yet she learned the material a bit more slowly than some of the other students. Whenever I observed her playing a song, she would crouch very close to the keys, and while reading the notes, she would glue her eye to the key to be played and strike it with precision. Observing her, I could see how much she concentrated and how hard she tried to get the right notes. Most of the time, she hit the right notes, but hesitated while playing also because of not memorizing the songs. With time, however, she improved upon Ode to Joy and like every other student, could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star well in two to three days. Like Nisha, she often enjoyed chatting more than playing.

Vishwanath plays the Indian National Anthem

Vishwanath was one of the strongest students from the beginning. He learned the musical concepts the fastest, and knew the western musical notation that I taught better than everyone else. Whenever I tested the student’s knowledge on the name of a note, the number of beats to a certain note or how to play a certain rhythm, Vishwanath often answered before anyone else. Though he was not always right, he displayed an immense amount of enthusiasm. During the first song, Ode to Joy, he struggled with some rhythms. For example, during one performance of Ode to Joy, he played a pair of identical notes rapidly while he played the rest of the song at a steady pace. However, with every class, I noticed an improvement in his ability to play. Once he had mastered Ode to Joy, he went on to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star well and was one of two students to be able to play through all of the Indian National Anthem.

Suraj plays Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

Suraj was a shy, quiet student. He would play every song slowly, steadily and would hesitate. He was always very careful to play the right notes yet hesitated quite a bit and made a few mistakes. It took a while before he became comfortable playing Ode to Joy. However, after two weeks, he could effortlessly play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star slowly, clearly, steadily and with no mistakes.

Chandani plays Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

Chandani was one of the more enthusiastic students. Every class, she came in with a smile on her face and an eagerness to learn how to play. She was quick to learn from her mistakes, and whenever I corrected her, she often improved. However, she was slow to learn some of the songs. When she played Ode to Joy, she experienced much hesitation. She would also often point her fingers and play the song instead of keeping all of her fingers out in a house position. However, like most, she was able to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in two days and also improved upon Ode to Joy in a week.

Vijay plays Ode to Joy

Vijay was the most rounded of all the students. He never stood out above the rest, but he never made any grievous errors when playing. He was a quick learner, mastering Ode to Joy in one week and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in two days. He could memorize the songs and knew the notes well, yet his playing did not sound as polished as some other students’. He was a victim of small errors. For example, when the sheet music prompted him to play two identical notes in succession, he would sometimes play only one note. Overall, Vijay was a focused student.

Aakash plays Ode to Joy

Aakash, along with Shubham stood out early on. At first, he was one of the quieter students, and was also one of the first to be absent from my class. On the day I introduced the song Ode to Joy, he was not present. However, two days later, he was able to play better than everyone except for Shubham. Aakash had a good memory and with polishing, he was able to play the songs well. Amazingly, when he had missed two classes in which I had been teaching Indian national anthem, he came back and was able to play far into the song. Sometimes, when Aakash and Shubham had already mastered a song, they would lose concentration and start conversing with each other. Often, I had him along with Vishwanath and Shubham help other students.

Shaily plays Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

Finally, Shaily took the longest of all the students to learn new material. She was very focused when playing a piece. She would always sing along to the song and name each note as she played it. Though she made quite a few mistakes, she was aware of them, as shown by her annoyance when doing so. She seemed to be the youngest student though. When playing Ode to Joy, she would get confused and play a note that was supposed to be played once, twice. I would sit with her, and play the sections of the song she had trouble with slowly and clearly, naming each note as I played it. After hearing me, she would name each note herself and would shake her head angrily every time she made a mistake. However, with time, she improved and is now able to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the keyboard.

Monday, August 12: The First Day

The class with me and Nirmal Kaur, the district's Pratham director

I anxiously stared outside of the car window, observing the bustle of the streets of New Delhi, reciting a few Hindi lines in my mind. I could never seem to remember the correct Hindi words so I constantly turned to my mother who kept reminding me. I was practicing my introduction to a class of ten children I would be teaching simple piano music to. They had little experience in English so I felt it appropriate to speak with them in their native language, Hindi. I repeated my introduction many times in my mind until finally, I had arrived at Budh Vihar, the area of Delhi where I was to teach for the next three weeks.

Budh Vihar consisted of a system of narrow roads on which motorcycles, rickshas and small cars maneuvered through the crowds of people that filled up the streets. Chains of rudimentary shops, each one room, stretched across the sides of the roads, surrounded by ditches of cloudy, translucent water. A stench of sewage filled the air as we walked deeper into Budh Vihar and the shops started to disappear. Finally, we came to a building on a quiet street. As I headed up the concrete stairs, I saw several classes in action. Upstairs, the walls were filled with children’s drawings. The coordinator of the center ushered us into a small, dingy room. My heart started pounding vigorously. The task of teaching children who did not speak my language was daunting. I did not feel ready with my introduction either. The children assimilated into the room—six boys and four girls. They were a quite bunch; much less talkative than the children I had taught English to two years ago.

Forming a semicircle around me, the children curiously stared at me, wondering what I was going to do. Now, it was time to introduce myself. I glanced nervously at my parents and then proceeded to stammer my Hindi introduction. I was now the center of attention; though in a discomforting position, my confidence in my ability to communicate with these children increased as they approvingly nodded their head, indicating that they understood. I grabbed the bag from the table to my right, reached inside and uncovered a box. I opened the box and unraveled a piano keyboard from the Styrofoam packaging. The children gazed impassively. Then, I plugged in the keyboard and started to play a tune, Ode to Joy. The gaze remained unchanged. As I played another tune, one child exclaimed, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star!” in recognition. This was the first sign of excitement that the children showed. Encouraged, I started to play another piece, this time a Bollywood song. All the children exclaimed, “Kal Ho Naa Ho!” I seemed to have captured the children’s attention now, so I handed one keyboard to each of them. After plugging the instruments in and fiddling with the wires of the chargers to make sure the instruments were working, I commenced my lesson.

The class first starts tinkering with their pianos

I held my hand up in front of the class. Already, some children started to imitate me before I told them to pretend they were holding a ball. Then, I held my keyboard facing them, and told them to place their hands on five keys, retaining the position. Then, I had the children practice playing the notes, C, D, E, F, G. First, I held my thumb to the children, who imitated me. Then, I played the note C. I stated “C,” as emphatically as I could. All of the children exclaimed, “C!” and started pecking at the note with their thumbs. Then, I held my index finger in the air and placed it on the note, D. The children, without hesitation, shifted their attention from C to D. The children even guessed which letters represented the next few notes, without being told. After showing the children the positions of each note on the keyboard, I proceeded to teach them the musical staff and the position of each note on the staff. It was amazing how quickly these children grasped the material. Throughout the lesson, I spoke minimally, relying heavily on hand gestures to teach the children. I visited those who struggled personally and demonstrated the correct finger-note pairing by dictating the name of the note and holding up the corresponding finger. Even by the end of class, the children who struggled had become much better when I reviewed them. My mother and father could have acted as translators throughout the lesson. However, they spoke minimally, which forced me to communicate with these children through means other than language.

As I had hoped, I was beginning to communicate with them with music.

Tuesday, August 13: Teaching Rhythms

I teach some music theory

I knew that I would be teaching class in a different room today. The room was a darker version of yesterday’s. One white board lay on one side of the room. Thinking I would use it for the class, I stood by it. The children settled in the room, but seemed to have a liking for the other side of the room because they were facing away from me. Perhaps they would realize this, but when they started to set up their keyboards, I realized I must move to the opposite side of the room. It lacked a white board, so I was given a chalkboard. A fluorescent light at the back and the daylight streaming through the doorway provided enough lighting for teaching.

This class did not pass by smoothly as had yesterday’s. Testing the children’s memory, I drew a musical staff, and wrote the note C. I asked them in English what note it was. Most of the children seemed to remember. Then, I drew on the staff below C, something I had not taught them yesterday. I asked, “Can you guess what note this is?” After a short pause, one student called out, “H?” Then I repeated the notes starting from G and going down. The students then guessed the correct answer, B. They more easily guessed the next note, A. I asked each student to play G, F, E, D, C, B, A and all were able to do so without much difficulty. However, the challenging part of teaching the children had yet to come.

I help individual students with the issues each had

Now that I had taught the children the seven notes, I began to teach them rhythms. I drew two notes: both with stems, one with a dark, filled in circle, and the other with an unfilled circle. I told the children to clap once for the dark note, or quarter note. Then I told the children to clap twice for the unfilled note, or half note. The children easily clapped these rhythms. Moving on, I drew some rhythms on the board and told the children to play the notes with the correct rhythm. Each student played the quarter notes well, but the half notes caused confusion. Some children would play a note twice when they saw a half note. Others played them too fast. Some children struggled with the rhythm altogether. I visited each child personally to help them get the rhythms right. I faced many problems when teaching rhythms. While I was helping children personally, others were playing. I failed in communicating to them that I wanted to hear each child play one at a time. The keyboards created too much noise, so I turned the power off. Additionally, when I told the children to clap the rhythms I created, they did so effortlessly, but when I drew new notes on the board, mixing up quarter and half notes, they had trouble differentiating between the notes, often playing each note for the same duration. I went around the room many times to show the children how to properly play the rhythms, and each time they were able to perfect it when I visited them. However, whenever I put a new rhythm on the board, some children still could not figure out how to play it. Even after playing the notes several times myself, some children had difficulty.

Today, I spoke more than yesterday. I spoke in English and tried with hand gestures to communicate with the children. Many times, the children understood what I was trying to say, but our different languages prevented me from conveying to them some things that could not be represented by hand gestures. Overall, it became easier to communicate with them.

Wednesday, August 14: Ode to Joy

Some students began to teach on their own

Arriving in the classroom twenty minutes early, I noticed that the keyboards had already been neatly arranged in four rows of three. Little by little, the children started pouring into the class, greeting me, “Good morning,” as they came in. One of my students, Aakash, did not show up today. I started class by reviewing quarter and half notes. Yesterday, most of the children struggled to play the different combinations of quarter and half notes that I put up on the board. Today, their fingers flew over the keys and played the rhythms with ease. This was partly because I was much more helpful today. I guided the children by stating each note. For the children who had the most trouble, I played the rhythm on my own keyboard, emphasizing each note and stating the note’s name. The children seemed to finally grasp half and quarter notes. However, some still seemed confused about the position of each note on the keyboard and which finger was used to play which note. When I caught sight of a finger meeting a key it did not correspond to, I held up the correct finger and stated the note the finger should strike. Then I played the note with my finger. Some children consistently hit notes with the wrong fingers, but repeated instruction led to improvement. After the four rhythms, I introduced the children to the first song they were going to play, Ode to Joy.

A look of excitement and bewilderment spread across the children’s face as they received their Ode to Joy scores. Already, some of the students started examining the notes and attempting to translate the notation to music on their keyboards. My mother asked the children whether it looked easy or difficult. They all exclaimed, “Very difficult!” To start, I played the first measure of the piece. Then, I observed each student try to mimic me. Some students were able to play this quickly. After hearing each student at a time, I moved on to the next measure, all the way until the fourth measure. By that time, many students were able to play notes well, however, they hesitated during play. I visited each student personally to help him or her and tried something new. I had those who could play the first four measures well help others who were struggling. By the end of class, many students who had not been able to play at the beginning became more familiar with the notes.

Friday, August 16: Mastering Ode to Joy in One Day

Shubham learned to play Ode to Joy in just one day

As I walked frantically through the heavy rain in Budh Vihar huddled under my umbrella, careful to avoid the sloshy puddles, on the road, I noticed, one of the students, Suraj, walking the opposite way I was walking. We said good afternoon to each other, yet I wondered why he was not going to class. When I reached the building, I headed upstairs and sat on a chair as the children poured into the classroom. They immediately took out their instruments and began fiddling around with the keyboards. When everyone had entered, one of the students, Shubham, started playing Ode to Joy perfectly. He was one of the quietest of all the children. As we applauded him for his outstanding performance, a small smile crept across his face for the first time. My father decided to record our first performance of the class. I was equally impressed with Aakash, sitting next to Shubham. He had not attended Wednesday’s class so he had not received music for Ode to Joy. However, he could play the first, second and fourth lines of Ode to Joy flawlessly. After I personally helped him, he had perfected the song. Some children had not yet perfected the song, but had a good grasp on the notes. Vishwanath struggled with some of the rhythms, playing two successive notes quickly. Ankush had trouble distinguishing between the first and second lines because they were so similar. Ritika could read the notes well yet had trouble matching her fingers with the right keys. Others had a difficult time with the song.

Throughout the day, I sat with each student and helped him or her with the areas they struggled in. Since I could not speak to the children, I relied mainly on playing the notes and hoping they would imitate me. I divided the piece up into different sections. I played each section and told the student I was working with to copy me. Many children confusedly played two of the same notes successively instead of once. Other children played the notes with the wrong fingers. I held out my finger and said the correct note. I had those who had perfected Ode to Joy to help the children who were struggling. That way, I could move on to assist others.

At the end of class, about three people had perfected Ode to Joy. Learning that Saturday would be a school day, I considered coming in. However, I decided that the best way for the students to master the song would be for them to practice diligently.

Monday, August 19: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Ritika plays Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with her eyes closed

A long weekend interrupted my teaching schedule. After two days break, I had to wake up early at eight fifteen once again and take a shorter shower using a bucket. Arriving at Budh Vihar, I noticed that the keyboards were already laid out on the classroom floor. I worried that none of the students had taken their keyboards home, so they could not have practiced. However, I deduced that the students could have arrived early and then left their keyboards in the classroom. I distinctly remembered that the students had packed their keyboards away in their bags for the weekend. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I looked forward to hearing the progress that the students had made over the weekend on the song Ode to Joy. On the other hand, two days break had left me a bit uncertain as to how much the children had practiced and how much I would have to teach them.

When the students arrived, I had each of them play Ode to Joy. Everyone improved upon his or her ability to play the composition over the weekend. Some more students besides Shubham were able to play Ode to Joy well. Others were able to sight-read the music but hesitantly stumbled through the piece. Only two children were not able to play through the piece. I decided to move on and introduce the children to their new piece, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The children excitedly nodded their heads to the idea of a new song. While passing out the songs, I noticed that some students were already trying to read the notes and pecking at the keys. I realized, in the score, that there was one note that I had not yet taught. I had taught the children low A, but not high A. Since I had labeled the notes with their corresponding letter, the children would play a high G and then a low A. However, I drew two notes on the board, one representing a low A and the other representing a high A. I showed the positions of the low and high A on the musical staff. This cleared things up for most students.

Shaily learns to read Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
These students posed for an impromptu photo session on the school steps

First, I played the first two measures of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I asked each student to play the excerpt one at a time. I went around the room, observing each student’s playing and helping them when necessary. Surprisingly, the students faced many fewer problems than in the past. By the time I had visited every student, Shubham and Aakash had played the whole piece well. Ankush experienced some hesitation on his first try. I played the first two measures slowly, stating each note. After a few repetitions, Ankush started to recognize the correct notes. Chandani, Ritika and Shaily faced more problems. Chandani held her fingers high above the keys and often mistook G for A. I held up my little finger and stated “G!” Then I played G emphatically with the finger. I did the same for Ritika and Shaily. When the three girls seemed to have a better picture of the piece, I moved on to other students, telling the girls, “practice”. Vishwanath at first seemed to hesitate when he played the section, but after a few attempts without my assistance, he succeeded. Vijay had some confusion about the number of times a particular note was pressed. For example, when the music prompted him to play two G’s successively, he would often play one G. First, I emphasized to him that two G’s were to be played, by striking G twice myself. Then I played the whole section of the song. He seemed to improve. Finally, Suraj and Nisha, two shy students who often hesitated when playing the keyboard, were able to play all of the notes correctly. Suraj’s rhythm was off though. I helped him by first playing the section myself and then tapping along while he played.

After having each student play the first section (some of them could already play the whole piece!) I went around again to help them with the next section. Most of them had figured out the notes for the rest of the song by themselves. For the rest of class, my father recorded each student playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with his smartphone. About four students played the song well. Some hesitated, because they felt nervous while being recorded but everyone managed to play from start to finish. My mother asked, “So how difficult is the piece” to which they all responded “Easy!” For the first time, at the end of class, I asked, “So, did you have fun?” I was received with blank stares. When my mother translated my question to Hindi, I heard one shy, “yes” followed by another “yes” and then a whole chorus of “yes’s” erupted from the students.

Wednesday, August 21: Choosing the Third Piece

I help Chandani play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

Monday was the first day I taught the children Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I had not seen them afterwards. However, in one day, most of the children could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star well. Had they retained what they had accomplished? Today was Raksha Bandan, an Indian festival celebrating the brother and sister relationship, so I figured that several of my students would not attend class. However, I looked up the staircase leading to the next level. About seven students descended and started setting up their keyboards for class. As they set up, I thought about how I should begin class. I did not have any new pieces ready for the students, nor did I think that testing them on Ode to Joy and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star would take very long. I decided to check their progress and then go on from there.

Chandani and Ritika had to share a piano after a few broke

I raised my hand and called for everyone to be quiet. Then I had the children play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star one by one. Of the eight students that attended class today, (Chandani arrived later) seven were able to play it well. One student hesitated a little bit, so I decided to ask everyone how much they practiced. Most of the students said two hours, Chandani practiced for one hour, Suraj practiced three hours and Vishwanath practiced four hours. However, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was an easy composition and the students already knew how the tune sounded. When I tested the students on Ode to Joy, the results were not so great. Aakash, Shubham, Vishwanath, Vijay and Ankush played the song well. Suraj, Chandani and Shaily still experienced difficulty and hesitated every measure. After hearing everyone play, I announced to the class how much they should practice. I declared that everyone should play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star two times only, except for Shaily, who I requested play it ten times. Then I pointed to each student and asked them how much they should practice. At first, they stared blankly at me, but after my mother translated, they nodded approvingly and responded.

It was time to introduce the third piece of music. I did not have sheet music, so I wrote the names of two pieces on the board, Kal Ho Naa Ho, a popular Bollywood song and the Indian National Anthem that, of course, everyone in India knows. I held a poll to see which piece the students wanted to play. Asking Vishwanath first, I received a vote for the Indian National Anthem. Everyone else also voted for the National Anthem. I could not determine whether this was because they truly desired to play the National Anthem or because Vishwanath caused them to jump on the bandwagon. Vishwanath explained that they could play the national anthem in various school events.

Anyhow, since I had no sheet music, I decided to write the notes on the board. I wrote the first phrase of the national anthem and asked the students to name the notes. Hearing a plethora of wrong answers, I drew a reference on the board for the students, which helped tremendously. I taught the children a new note, the eighth note. I drew on the board, one quarter note, two eighth notes. Then, I had each child play the first phrase. For the eighth notes, I counted one, and for the quarter notes, I counted one, two. The children picked this up very quickly. With each song, it seemed that they were becoming better and better at learning notes. Then I drew the second phrase on the board. Playing the first and the second phrase together caused the children some difficulty, but overall, they were able to handle the changing notes and the rhythms. After playing the two phrases together myself, the children smiled in understanding. They were able to visualize how the song would sound since they knew it so well.

Unfortunately, by now, three of the eleven pianos ceased to function. No matter. The students cheerfully agreed to share pianos and visit each other’s homes after class for practice.

To end the class, I asked everyone excitedly how much they should practice Ode to Joy and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Everyone remembered their assigned times. I promised that I would have sheet music for the Indian National Anthem the next day.

Thursday, August 22: Indian National Anthem

I demonstrate the class's final song, the Indian National Anthem

It rained heavily today in Budh Vihar. At first, only five of my students attended class. I had a new composition ready, the Indian National Anthem, but I did not have ten copies for the students. I requested Hemant, a Pratham volunteer to make copies. While he was getting them, I tested the five kids on Ode to Joy and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They all were able to play them without major difficulty. Shubham and Aakash, the two quietest students, even pulled out some of the sheet music that came with the keyboard, and asked me to label each note with its letter. I was astonished to see such excitement from those two. As we were waiting for the copies to be made, I continued with the Indian National Anthem, writing the notes on the board and having the children play them. While the students practiced, Shaily, Ritika and Suraj entered the room. I had tested them on their ability to play Ode to Joy and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. All three of them nailed Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Suraj struggled a little on Ode to Joy, but after some assistance, he improved. Ritika was able to read the notes of Ode to Joy and play through the song, but moved at a slow, hesitant pace. Shaily experienced confusion with the number of times required to play a note and the overall rhythm and structure of the song. As I assisted these three, Hemant informed me that copies of the Indian National Anthem could not be made because all copying shops had closed due to rain. I tried to raise the one score I had on the board. It kept falling, so I held it to the board with some tape. The students started copying the notes onto their sheets and I went back to assisting Shaily, Suraj and Ritika.

The room was filled with multiple noises from Indian National Anthem and Ode to Joy. I visited Suraj and Ritika once, and helped them with the parts of the song they had trouble with. Shaily, I spent the most time with. Ode to Joy started with the notes, E, E, F, G. Often, she would play E, E, F, F, G. First, I showed her how to play it correctly, hoping that she would copy me. However, the method of imitation did not yield much success. Then, I played the notes, but this time, I just stated the name of each note as I played it. She seemed to understand the piece better, but the whole picture was not coming to her. I told her to keep practicing.

At the end of class, I firmly declared to the students that Ode to Joy and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star should be perfect the next day.

Friday, August 23: Practicing the Indian National Anthem

Today, Ankush and Aakash did not show up to class. I had requested that the children come to class today with Ode to Joy and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star perfected. As I went around the room asking each student to play the two songs, I realized such was the case with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Still, Chandani, Ritika, Suraj and Shaily struggled with Ode to Joy. I decided that it would be best if they just worked on it over the weekend since everyone eagerly awaited a new song.

Last class, I had already commenced teaching the Indian National Anthem but I had not provided the students with the sheet music. For the rest of the class, I worked with the children on the Indian National Anthem. Shubham and Vishwanath picked up the composition quickly. While I was working with students in the front of the room, I could hear Vishwanath at the back playing sections of the song that I had not discussed. I visited each student personally to check how they were faring. Everyone seemed to have a problem with one section in which there were two occurrences of a quarter note followed by two eighth notes. For the quarter notes, I counted “one, two” while holding the note down. Each individual eighth note was given one count. Nisha and Vijay mastered this the moment I corrected their mistakes. However, most of the students did not understand right away. Chandani was confused by the rhythm of the notes. Perhaps she needed to hear the passage played slower. This helped, but she still could not play the passage fluently. I then stated the name of each note as I played it, and Chandani improved tremendously.

Moving on to assist others, I requested that Shubham help her. Suraj had a problem with a series of seven eighth notes in succession. Initially, I played these eighth notes slowly, counting out loud how many notes there were to play. When I saw that he was still confused, I played slowly. There were six eighth notes of E, followed by a seventh E, which was a quarter note. I counted each note as I played it and when I got to the quarter note, I stopped, and emphasized that it was held longer than the eighth notes. Suraj seemed to understand and he improved. Shaily experienced the most difficulty. I repeated the passage many times. Although she never could play it correctly, she seemed to be getting a better idea of how to play the notes.

At the end of class, it occurred to me that the Indian National Anthem would cause the students greater difficulty than I had expected. We only had four more days together because Wednesday was a holiday. I did not believe that many students would be able to master the piece in the time left, especially since two of them had not shown up today. For them, a whole weekend without practice would go by. I decided that I would come in tomorrow to work with the students. As I walked out of the room and down the stairs, I heard Ms. Nirmal Kaur, the school principal, calling out to the children and declaring that there would be no day off on Saturday.

Saturday, August 24: Extra Assistance

To provide additional assistance to the students on the piece, Indian National Anthem, I decided to hold a class today. Everyone except for Ankush and Aakash showed up. This was the first class in which I did not have the students play Ode to Joy and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. After the children settled in and unpacked their keyboards, I asked them to play the Indian National Anthem. Vishwanath was able to play fluently, with a few minor mistakes. Shubham did likewise. I worked with the other students to fix their mistakes. However, most students could not go beyond the first line. Vishwanath and Shubham were able to play through the song, but with many mistakes. I was starting to think that not everyone would be able to play Indian National Anthem. But I would give it a try once more on Monday.

Monday, August 26: Planning Final Performances

Today, I looked forward to hearing what progress students had made over the weekend. Fortunately, everyone showed up for class. After waiting a few minutes for the students to set up their pianos, I called out for everyone to quiet down. Then, I had Vishwanath start class by playing the Indian National Anthem. He could play almost all of the notes of the song. Pleasantly surprised, I exclaimed, “Very nice!” Then, I heard Vijay, who could also play many notes, but not as fluently as Vishwanath. Nisha was able to play far into the piece, but she had not memorized it. Ankush, since he had not attended last two classes, could only play the first line. Aakash, who like Ankush, missed the last two classes, tried to play further. He managed to hit the right notes, but his rhythms were off. Chandhani and Ritika crouched very close to the piano so that their eyes were almost touching the keys. Their heads switched back and forth from the sheet music to the keys. Although they could not play rhythmically correctly, they hit many right notes. Shaily played the first few notes fluently, but lost her streak after a few notes. After hearing everyone, I started to oversee children individually.

Vishwanath teaches another student how to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

First, I asked Vishwanath and Shubham to help Ankush and Aakash catch up. Then, I turned to Chandani to assist her. She could play the first section of the song with few mistakes. Once she reached the first series of G notes, she struggled with the rhythms. To help her, I first counted 1,2 for quarter notes, and 1 for eighth notes. Since she had learned this last class, it did not take long for her to understand how to play the song. But she had trouble with the next few sections. First, I tried to play each section by four notes, hoping that she would be able to copy me. Then I moved on to the other students until I came to Suraj, whom I spent the most time with. He was confused with how many time to press one particular note. Additionally, he did not understand the rhythm in which a series of Gs were played. After noticing that everyone was having a bit of trouble with the Indian National Anthem, I decided to change the plan a bit.

On Saturday, some Pratham officials would be coming to the class to observe the students’ progress. I decided to have each student come in prepared with one of the three songs that I had taught them. Ritika, Shaily, Suraj and Chandani would play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Nisha, Vijay, Ankush and Aakash would play Ode to Joy, and Vishwanath and Shubham would play Indian National Anthem.

Tuesday, August 27: Increasing Confidence

Everyone came to class today. This would be the first class in which not everyone worked on the same song. At the start of the class, I evaluated everyone. Ankush, who was assigned Ode to Joy, played most of the song well, but made one mistake. Nisha hit all of the notes but stumbled through the song while trying to read the notes and play at the same time. Vijay made a few rhythmic mistakes but mostly had the song perfected. Aakash was able to play well. The Twinkle Twinkle Little Star players experienced little difficulty. Suraj played slowly, steadily and made no mistakes. Ritika, as always, craned her neck over the piano and hit every note with precision and concentration. Like Suraj, she played well. Chandani also played slowly and made very few mistakes but still knew very well the general idea of the song. Finally, Shaily, made the most mistakes. She mostly hit the right notes, but skipped a whole section. Then, I diverted my attention to the two students who had the most challenging task of playing through the Indian National Anthem. Shubham was able to play through most of the song with very few mistakes, memorized! Vishwanath, on the other hand, still needed his score and struggled with some areas. After hearing each student play, I visited each one by one to fix any mistakes and tighten the students’ ability to play the songs. With Ankush, I simply, played the section of the song he had the most trouble on over and over again until he was able to play the song well. Then, I inspected Shaily. She kept skipping the same section over and over again. I decided to have Ritika, who could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star well, help Shaily. I would come back to her later. With Nisha, I took the score from her hand, and told her to play. The goal was to have her memorize the piece. She hit all of the notes of the first, second and fourth sections of Ode to Joy without her score but with much hesitation. The more I had her repeat the section, the more she remembered. Eventually, she was able to play the whole piece memorized, albeit hesitantly. Overall, everyone was able to play their piece well and was in a good position. I was feeling comfortable about Saturday’s performance.

Several Pratham teachers attended the students' final recital

Thursday, August 29: Preparing for Final Presentation

Today’s class was rather relaxed. The children acted up more so today than any other day. When I came in the room, I inspected each of their playing. Suraj played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star well. Shaily made a few mistakes, but I thought she would be able to polish her piece by tomorrow. Ritika concentrated hard on her song, and played it well. Ankush made one minor mistake, but I felt comfortable with him. Vijay was able to play through the song well, followed by Aakash, who started off with many mistakes but began again and played through with none. Nisha played Ode to Joy slowly and hesitated. She played some half notes as quarter notes but with some assistance from my mother, she was able to fix this. Shubham, impressively made only one mistake on his Indian National Anthem, and Vishwanath struggled a bit, but had the song memorized.

I first visited Shaily. After observing her play, I asked her to play ten more times. At first, she kept forgetting to repeat one section of the song. But the more she played, the more familiar she became with the song. Her mistakes dissipated into minor errors and eventually, she could play well for the first time. Ritika, although slow, played the song clearly. I asked her to play three times. I asked Ankush to play Ode to Joy five times. Then Vijay, I asked to play three times, Aakash, three times, Nisha five times, Vishwanath five times and Shubham three times. With each play through, the students were sounding better and better.

A director of the Pratham offices of the area stopped by my class today. She was interested in hearing what the students had learned. First, Shaily played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for her, which impressed her, as well as everyone else. Vishwanath piped up and wanted to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Shubham played the Indian National Anthem. After a while, the children felt comfortable about their playing and started fiddling with the gadgets on the piano.

Friday, August 30: Feedback Time

It was the day before Saturday. Today, I would work with the children on their pieces and make sure they were perfect the next day. I decided that all the children must do now is practice their pieces many times so that they are perfect the next day. First, I heard each person play his or her piece. Most played well, but there were a few mistakes. Then, I went around the room and told each student to play five times. The room became quite noisy as the children were all having fun fiddling with the gadgets and different options on the keyboards.

After the five in the front, Ritika, Suraj, Shaily, Chandani and Nisha had finished playing I had the rest of the children play ten times. After I had heard everyone play, I asked each of them what they like about the class. Many said that they liked the songs. Most people chose the Indian National Anthem as their favorite song. Others liked the way I taught. One student said that I made the difficult sections of pieces easy. Another student appreciated the way that I fixed everyone’s mistakes. Overall, the children were satisfied by the end of three weeks. Each one of them could read a piece of music written in western classical notation and play it.

Saturday August 31: Final Presentation And The Future

On the last day, we presented the results of our endeavors to the Pratham New Delhi leadership, among them Mr. Shailendra Sharma and Ms. Arshi Naaz. I outlined the goals of the project, our plan for accomplishing these and the pitfalls we overcame. Finally, each student played his or her assigned piece, well. I also gave them the sheet music for the Kal Ho Naa Ho song and they proceeded to try to read and play it on the spot. A couple of them succeeded in reproducing the first line further showing their grasp of their new found literacy!

We discussed ideas for making a music program take root in the Pratham curriculum. The easiest would be to have the current students teach new students and thereby organically grow the base of music teachers. I also offered to hold regular meetings with students over the Internet to teach them more advanced concepts.


I am grateful to Rukmini Banerji, Chanchal, Hemant, Nirmal Kaur, Arshi Naaz, Sachin and Shailendra Sharma of Pratham Delhi for providing me with a wonderful opportunity to work with the children. I am also grateful to my teacher Ayumi Hashimoto for helping me grow as a musician and for her guidance.

Related Reports

Chetan Narain - Hope Amidst Despair. An account of the lives and hopes of Pratham Children. 2006.

Akshar Narain - Sustaining Hope. Five Years Later. An account of the lives and hopes of the same Pratham Children. 2011.