Bonds Built to Last

Educational initiatives and outreach programmes feature as prominently on the SOI’s calendar as performances. We take a closer look at two recent collaborations focused on appreciation of Western classical music and developing musical potential among the youth.

When the Symphony Orchestra of India was founded by NCPA Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook and violin virtuoso Marat Bisengaliev back in 2006, there was no such orchestra in existence in the country. Then, the SOI Music Academy was established in 2012 to impart an advanced level of education in Western classical music, conspicuously absent in India. Today, musicians of the SOI continue to teach at the academy, besides working to develop the musical potential among the youth, who might be less privileged or have limited access to educational resources, in various parts of India.

Two recent projects of the SOI, under the CSR initiative of Citi, the SOI’s first patron, have been widening the reach of and access to Western classical music in the country.

The Kalimpong connection

In February this year, six students of Class 10 at Gandhi Ashram School in Kalimpong were invited to the NCPA to attend concerts during the SOI Spring 2024 Season. Working with the community, the school provides health services and is free for the most vulnerable students in the region. Harnessed as a tool for transformation, music lies at the core of the school’s philosophy and is compulsory for students from kindergarten to Class 10. The key goals for the Mumbai trip included learning about how a professional orchestra works, what it takes to become a professional musician, how children study music at the SOI Music Academy and opportunities in music in a city like Mumbai.

Across six days, the students were privy to it all. Not only did they attend rehearsals and concerts and interact with members of the orchestra, but they also met international soloists like Bryan and Sylvie Cheng and attended talks on Western classical music by Dr. Cavas Bilimoria. For most of these students, who usually play in a string orchestra at school, this was the first time they experienced a full-fledged concert by a symphony orchestra. Further, a friendly and supportive Martyn Brabbins, former Music Director of English National Opera and visiting conductor at the NCPA, took them through various instruments and even arranged for individual demonstrations with musicians of the SOI.

This exposure, though, was by no means the first of its kind. The SOI and the NCPA’s links with Gandhi Ashram School date back to 2011 when Bisengaliev and musicians of the SOI attended the Strings Concert in Mumbai organised by Virgil Sequeira, now Assistant Director & Principal of the school. Sequeira, a music and drama educator, choral/orchestral conductor and development professional, has enjoyed a long association with the NCPA—first as a concertgoer and performer when he studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and then through visits to the SOI’s rehearsals he organised for students of The Cathedral & John Connon School where he taught at the time. Then, in 2022, a quartet from the SOI was hosted at the Kalimpong school for a week. The musicians performed for the students, observed music classes, hosted masterclasses and presented a concert with the school’s music teachers. More recently, in January 2023, the SOI and NCPA hosted six music teachers from Gandhi Ashram School for a weeklong training session.

Coming full circle

During the course of this fruitful period, some of the Gandhi Ashram alumni became members of the SOI. One such talented alumnus is Sujan Chettri who has played the double bass with the SOI since February 2023. His own musical journey began at Gandhi Ashram where he studied and played the cello in the school orchestra, even going on to participate in international projects like The Sound of the Earth in Germany. This exposure helped him realise that music could be more than just a hobby, further sparking his interest in pursuing it professionally.

“There was a shortage of professional teachers of cello at our school. Fortunately, I received guidance from visiting volunteers. I also played with the Indian National Youth Orchestra, which gave me the amazing opportunity to perform with the Vienna University orchestra in Austria. This further solidified my desire to make a career in music. Upon joining the SOI, I felt I had found my place,” says Chettri, who auditioned for the SOI trainee musician programme and after a year of apprenticeship is now a regular musician with the orchestra. “When I found out that students from Gandhi Ashram School were visiting us, I was very excited.” Chettri was entrusted with guiding the students around on their visit to Mumbai and organising sightseeing visits to the city’s historical landmarks.

Valuable takeaways

Although Sequeira was not present on the trip, he observed that his students had returned inspired by the level at which students of the SOI Music Academy play and the dedication of the musicians of the orchestra towards their instruments and rehearsals. In an email interview, Sequeira wrote, “Our students came away with deep insights relating to how musicians of the SOI practised for long hours and still kept their energy high. When mistakes happened, the musicians noted them down instead of getting annoyed. [The students observed how] the musicians improved their playing with every repetition. Every section sounded like just one person was playing. They also respected each other. Our students were very proud of the alumni working at the SOI and filled with hope and confidence to give it their all to music and to guide their peers to improve the standard of our school orchestra. They’ve decided to have an inter-house string orchestra competition on World Music Day this year, which will entail choosing repertoire to holding rehearsals and conducting.”

A Goan collaboration

Another outreach programme that came to fruition in late February was when musicians of the SOI visited Child’s Play India Foundation (CPIF) in Panjim, Goa. Organised on the initiative of the SOI and Dr. Luis Dias, founder of CPIF, this was the second weeklong music camp conducted here after 2022. Established in 2009, CPIF is a registered music education trust that aims to provide social empowerment to India’s disadvantaged children through imparting classical music lessons in violin, viola, cello, recorder, transverse flute and piano. A lot has happened at CPIF since 2022, including a move to bigger premises, says Dias, adding that training in the double bass has also begun with plans for training in the clarinet in the pipeline.

This time around, the visiting faculty included a string quartet comprising SOI violinists Nazikgul Zhanazarova and Kalyanee Mujumdar; Mark Anthony Nunes on viola; and Dastan Altynbek on cello. Mornings at the intensive camp, from 26th February to 3rd March, were spent working with music teachers. “It was heartening to see the response from other music teachers in the state, including the Kala Academy, Goa’s state-funded apex music school,” says Dias. Afternoons and evenings were devoted to schoolchildren and college or university students with time given to one-on-one instruction as well as to group exercises covering such topics as intonation, tone production, bow control and technique, scales, arpeggios and more. The camp culminated with enjoyable performances by both the students, and musicians of the SOI.

Strengthening musical identities

The attention and advice given by SOI viola player Nunes left an impression on 12-year-old Chaitra Rathod, while Pari Kerketta and Disha Gawas, both cello students of age 12, conveyed their gratitude to cellist Altynbek. “It was an incredible week which my teammates and I spent together preparing for a performance at the end,” says violin student Niah Noronha, 12, who is thankful for the mentoring received from violinists Zhanazarova and Mujumdar.

Beverly Vaz, a violin teacher at Kala Academy, says she is keen to be a part of more such camps, while Joshua Dias, violin teacher at CPIF, says, “My experience with the SOI in Goa was enriching. We learnt the different ways we could teach our students to improve their intonation and bow strokes in a way that let them enjoy the process of playing the violin. The musicians also readily answered many of the questions we had.”

Dr. Luis Dias, who worked closely with the students, teachers and musicians during this time, shared a memorable moment from the CPIF camp which sums up this productive collaboration. “My own cello and viola students (Pari, Disha and Chaitra) have been studying about Mozart with me. We use videos and illustrated children’s books, some of which have buttons that can be pressed to hear pre-recorded music. One of the works of Mozart they heard this way was his Divertimento in D major, K. 136. They were in the other room when the SOI faculty quartet began their rehearsal ahead of performing it on the last day’s in-house concert. You should have been there to see how their eyes widened and their faces lit up with sheer joy. It was their first experience of a work they thought they knew, but now being played live, and at such a high level. It was an unforgettable moment for them and for me.”

By Beverly Pereira. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the May 2024 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.