The batch of 2023 with their teachers Top row (left to right) Bakir Utepbergenov, Zeinep Suleimenova, Olga Lyapina, Osman Yarullin, Margarita Gapparova, Aruzhan Bisengalieva, Aida Bisengalieva; Middle row (lett to right): Tivona D'Souza Murphy, Nyra Jain, Marat Bisengaliev, Nysha Karnavat, Gauri Khanna; Front row (left to right): Meghna Mathur, Aneesha Vora, Samvir Sujan, Pranaya Jain, Nyla Bajaj | Photo: Navin Umaid Chaudhary

Onwards and Upwards

In its 11th year, the SOI Music Academy has given wing to many budding musicians, some of whom are now pursuing higher studies, to carve out a career in Western classical music. As the next batch graduates, we speak to the students about the role music has played in each of their lives and bring you a special conversation with the first student to have completed the 11-year course before she soars to the U.K. for a Bachelor’s in String Performance.

Nyra Jain, violin

She walked into the SOI Music Academy as a seven-year-old, fell in love with the violin and by 14, she knew it was her calling. After a decade and more at the NCPA, Nyra Jain joins the alumni who have secured admission in reputed universities abroad to pursue further studies in music. Excerpts from an interview:

Nyra Jain with violin teacher Olga Lyapina

ON Stage (OS): How did you get introduced to the world of Western classical music?

Nyra Jain (NJ): My introduction to Western classical music was through listening, because my parents, and especially my grandparents, have always been keen listeners. I first joined the Suzuki programme as an after-school hobby when I was five years old. In February 2012, the first round of auditions for the then NCPA Special Music Training Programme was held, at which I was unsuccessful. Later that year, there was a second round, where I got selected for the programme.

OS: What led you to commit a decade and more of your life to music? How would you describe your journey?

(NJ): After having played the violin once a week at the Suzuki Programme for two years, joining the SOI Music Academy showed me that I was ready and willing to do it more seriously. I enjoyed learning more aspects of music which included history of music, theory and chamber music.

Playing the violin is something I have a great passion for and enjoy immensely. Over the last 11 years, there have been a few days when I have not loved it, or have wanted to quit, but there is an overwhelming feeling of joy on most of the days, which easily outweighs those bad days. Being onstage gives me a rush and the drive to deliver. To be in the moment with my violin gives me immense gratification.

Music has also been my go-to activity when I want to escape academic pressures. When I play the violin, I am in my own bubble of sorts, and am not bothered by anything else. There have been times when concerts or violin exams and school exams have coincided, when I have had very late nights and early mornings. But it has all been completely worth it. I know that I am privileged to have got this kind of professional teaching in India. The kinds of experiences that I have got being part of the SOI Music Academy have been amazing.

OS: Could you tell us about the role of the teachers at the academy?

(NJ): Miss Dina Semenova was my first teacher when I joined in 2012. She inculcated a sense of keenness in me for the violin. She was a very kind and gentle teacher. Ms. Olga Lyapina has been my teacher since 2015. I love going for her lessons—I just have so much fun. I have been called crazy by my friends and family, because I have often chosen to go for a lesson or rehearsal rather than go out with them. Through her demanding yet nurturing ways, Miss Olga has taught me how to be disciplined and ambitious, and also when to be hard on myself and when to take it a bit easy. She is so much more than a teacher to me, and I owe a large part of who I am as well as my love for the violin to her.

OS: How would you look at the opportunities you received to perform and compete during the training?

(NJ): Being in India, where Western classical music is still developing, the kind of opportunities I have got here have been remarkable. My first solo recital in December 2021 was an uplifting experience. It felt even more satiating after the lull in performances during the pandemic. I pushed my limits—the discipline in my practice and the hours I put in, while being critical with myself. This experience absolutely strengthened my resolve to pursue music performance as a career.

During the pandemic, I participated in international music competitions. I received awards at the Newport Virtuosi, Oskar Rieding and Savino competitions. While it was disappointing not to be in a winning position for some, it gave me insight into the performance level of my contemporaries across the world. Since 2019, I have had several opportunities to perform as part of the SOI and the SOI Chamber Orchestra. In June 2022, I joined the chamber orchestra on tour to Bengaluru and Chennai. This incredible experience gave me a glimpse into the ‘real world’, to understand the demands and rigour required of a performing artiste.

OS: How did you manage your training with school?

(NJ): My music has always been something that I have done and always will do for myself, and no one else. Being part of an academically rigorous school, and wanting to continue my music diligently, I have had to make it a point to find a balance between both. It has been hard to not compromise either, but having the constant support of my teachers, friends and family, made it a little easier.

I think that when you enjoy something so much, you don’t feel the pressure as much and you give it your all.

I cannot imagine a world where I don’t play the violin. I feel so complete with my music, I would be a different person without it.

OS: You will soon be pursuing higher studies in music in the U.K. Please tell us more about it.

(NJ): When I was younger, the thought of becoming a musician and wanting to be a professional was something I couldn’t fathom. By the time I was 14, I was quite clear that music is what I would love to pursue, and this was a feeling that came to me organically. I didn’t have to sit down one day and make a decision.

My family has invested in my musical pursuits, and I have always had their support, but I have never felt any kind of pressure from them to make it anything more than I wanted. The decision to pursue music professionally and study it at a higher level was entirely mine.

This year I will be pursuing a Bachelor’s (Honours) degree in String Performance (Violin) at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester. I love how the programme is structured—the main focus is performance, but importance is also given to other aspects of musical and career development. I am super excited to start this new chapter, to meet new people and fully immerse myself in a world of music!

OS: Is there something you would like to share with fellow learners of music?

(NJ): I would say: have the courage to follow your dreams. Don’t do it for anyone except yourself. Music is something you will only get better at if you want to and if you enjoy it. Do it for the joy of learning and have fun.

Gauri Khanna, cello

Music has always moved me. I am told that I was humming before speaking. Very cheesy and Abbaesque but the fact is that for as long as I can remember, I have always had music in my life and wanted to make music my life. When my mom brought me to the NCPA, it was like entering the pinnacle of a world of music. Something about the place just resonated with flowing notes. I was both excited and nervous about my audition. I sang ‘Wouldn’t it be Lovely’ and even whistled the notes, though I could barely whistle. At the end of the audition, there was a discussion about my instrument. I guess there was conversation about violin, but, you know, cello.

The cello, often considered an unwieldy support instrument, is anything but that. I was blessed to find the most inspirational teacher, Miss Margarita Gapparova. She has led me through my musical journey with kindness, patience, warmth and tremendous love for music. She made me love the cello even more and stoked my love for music further. While Miss Margarita unfurled the wonder of the cello to me, I must have been born under a lucky star because in addition to her, I’ve had the incredible fortune of learning the piano.

Music is an art that has its basis in craft. To be able to perform the finest art, you need to know the craft well enough. My teachers have given me the craft and taught me how to convert it into art that touches souls…it’s like alchemy. A good musician can play music. A great one understands music. At the NCPA, we are very fortunate that the music we study is placed in context through Solfeggio sessions and History of Music lessons. I have been blessed that Dr. Cavas Bilimoria has shared his vast expanse of knowledge on countless occasions stoking my interest in and love for various musical pieces.

With so many stalwarts paving the way, the NCPA became a second home to me. The majestic corridors beckoned me to promised pleasure of incredible music, the classrooms being welcoming spaces of unrestrained joy. It is the one place that is exciting, comforting and relaxing all at once.

The crown jewel of all the hard work that our teachers put into us and demand from us students is the opportunity we get to perform in front of audiences of various sizes. And the opportunities are frequent and varied. I have personally had the honour of playing the great masters as well as popular songs across various performances. The fact that you have equal chances of performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or ‘Naatu Naatu’, makes the NCPA and the SOI exciting places to be in.

I have always dreamt of being a musician. I am so thankful to Mr. Khushroo Suntook, Chairman, NCPA and Mr. Marat Bisengaliev, Music Director, SOI, for having created this academy which brings dreamers like me closer to achieving what would otherwise have been impossible.

Aneesha Vora, flute

My musical journey started at the age of six. I had always been fascinated by the flute and wanted to learn to play it. However, I was told I was too young to start playing a wind instrument. So, I tried playing the piano and the violin. While I enjoyed playing these instruments, I never felt a real connection with them. It was not until I started playing the flute that I fell in love with my instrument and with music.

When I first started, I struggled with basic techniques like breath control and finger placement. But over time, with the guidance, patience and continuous encouragement from my first teacher, Miss Aigerim Beisembekova, I have been able to master these skills and play tougher pieces with greater ease and confidence.

As the years went by, I progressed through the levels of the music school’s curriculum. I learned more complex pieces and techniques and began participating in concerts. These taught me the value of discipline and time management. I also developed a very close bond with my teacher who taught me so much more than just the flute. I was heartbroken when she had to leave the programme. However, I have been extremely fortunate to get a teacher like Miss Aruzhan Bisengalieva, with whom I was able to connect from day one.

Managing my rigorous training alongside academics has not always been easy but the encouragement and support of my teachers have inspired me to offer dedication and commitment to this programme. I have also fostered a deep love and passion for playing the flute; it is one of my favourite ways to unwind.

Some of the most fun and memorable experiences I have had at the SOI Music Academy were during our orchestra rehearsals, especially those with Mr. Bisengaliev. He has given us several opportunities to participate in various concerts. One of the most enjoyable concerts I have played is a Christmas concert organised by the winds teachers where I played in duets, trios and even quartets. Working with other musicians taught me the importance of listening, collaboration and communication.

Looking back on my seven-year music journey at the school, I am proud of how far I have come. The bonds and friendships that I have made with my teachers and fellow musicians will always be close to my heart. Without a doubt, music will remain an inseparable part of my life and the lessons I have gained over the years will always remain etched in my mind.

Meghna Mathur, violin

Even though I grew up in the era of ‘pop’ music, it was always classical music that intrigued me the most; piano ballads helped me sleep and I dreamed of dancing to waltzes. However, I was only an enthusiast. The fires of passion for music were only lit within me when I saw an SOI Music Academy student perform at a school assembly. There was no going back after that—I knew I had to play an instrument. I was already trained in Hindustani classical music, so I was looking for an instrument that flowed like my voice and I befriended the violin.

I joined the academy a month before I turned 10, and in these seven years, I have metamorphosed into a far more patient, perseverant, coordinated and imaginative person because of my teachers.

My violin teachers over the years (especially Miss Zeinep Suleimenova, Miss Gulzara Shakir and Mr. Oleksandr) have taught me hard work, patience, and how to ‘dream’ with my music. Yes, hearing, “practise minimum two hours,” and, “you sound like a mouse,” can be daunting at first. However, without these, I wouldn’t possess many of the qualities I cherish about myself today.

The orchestra practices with Mr. Osman Yarullin and Mr. Bisengaliev have instilled teamwork into me while yielding many friends. Furthermore, the Solfeggio and History of Music classes have greatly enhanced my knowledge of music. After all these years, it will be difficult to imagine life without the academy. I have been taught to see the world in new colours, one that was difficult to maintain with academics, but also served as a respite, and always will.

Samvir Sujan, piano

As I walk up the stairs to West Room 2 at the NCPA, I feel a sense of belonging; the red carpeted foyer, the silence in the hallways, the housekeeper quietly at work. On other days, you walk in and it’s showtime, the lights are bright, the hallway is bustling and soon you are delighted by the Symphony Orchestra of India bringing the most precise sounds together.

Classical music is an expression of emotion, a way of communication that needs no language and no lyrics. When I listen to a composition, I imagine and visualise the many possible scenarios the music could embrace. Miss Aida always has a snippet or story on the piece we are set to learn.

As a child, I felt like these are things adults do, until the day I met Miss Aida Bisengalieva, the only reason I love classical music, and the piano in particular. I owe every sound that my fingers produce to her; the sensory input, the long hours of patiently allowing me to learn at my own pace, trusting and pushing my abilities, gently letting me know when I am wrong and bringing me back on track. My learning under Miss Aida goes beyond music, it allows me to explore the challenges she sets, just like a sport. When you complete a 20-page Haydn concerto flawlessly, the feeling is euphoric, one of absolute victory.

I have a keen interest in music production and understanding the application of music in different aspects of the arts. With my training, I wish to explore music and discover its great diversity.

Classical music is complex, but when taught well, it is magical with a lasting value.

Nysha Karnavat, violin

For the last seven years, music has played an essential role in my life, from learning the piano and violin to studying music theory and performing in the SOI Academy Orchestra, it has shaped me as a person. The NCPA has been my second home for this period and I have been privileged to learn from Osman Yarullin. Without his guidance, I wouldn’t be where I am today. His passion for teaching music has helped me gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of music. He has provided me with opportunities to play pieces that I thought were beyond my ability and pushed me to improve my skills constantly.

Thanks to the NCPA, I have had the opportunity to play in various concerts, including two with the SOI Chamber Orchestra. Playing in a professional orchestra has taught me the importance of teamwork and has been a life-changing experience that I will always be grateful for. Music has equipped me with crucial life skills such as dedication and hard work. Playing the violin has also helped me to gain confidence and the constant repetition of pieces to perfect them has shown me what perseverance can yield.

My musical experiences have helped me develop as a person. I distinctly remember crying out of nervousness before my first exam, but now, I can stay calm and focused. The pure joy and satisfaction I feel while playing the violin, whether at home or at concerts, is unmatched. Music has been the backbone of my life and I cannot imagine my life without it. While I do not know if I will pursue a career in music, I know that it will always be part of my life and I will continue to be a part of the academy for as long as I can.

Tivona D’Souza Murphy, double bass

I got initiated into the world of Western classical music at the age of three, starting with keyboard lessons before transitioning to the piano at the age of six. My mother recognised my talent at a young age and felt that it was too good to go to waste.

The last six and a half years at the SOI Music Academy have been a dream. The training has been intense and rigorous, but it has helped me grow not just as a musician, but also as a person. The range of music that we are presented with accompanied by the blend of one-on-one and orchestral lessons have shaped not only my musical abilities, but my values of cooperation and teamwork. From playing to a full house at Prithvi Theatre to performing in Abu Dhabi in 2018, the entire experience has been gratifying as a member of the SOI Academy Orchestra.

Since 2019, I have had several opportunities to perform before an audience as a professional musician. I have been fortunate enough to perform as a member of the SOI for multiple shows, and work alongside world-famous musicians and conductors, like Evgeny Bushkov (who was also the resident conductor of the SOI when I joined the academy), Richard Farnes, John Axelrod, Pavel Kolesnikov and many more. I was also given the opportunity to work with musicians from the Hungarian State Opera on their productions of the operas Die Fledermaus and Bánk bán.

Although most of my time is taken up by music, I have worked very hard to maintain a balance between music and academics. As an IBDP science student, music has helped me de-stress and focus while preparing for the numerous IAs and the Extended Essay. It also constitutes about 80% of my CAS logs.

The teachers at the academy have played a critical role in my journey. Their methods of teaching, and their unending support for both my music and my academics is unmatched. My double bass teacher, Mr. Bakir Utepbergenov, will forever have a place in my heart, with his quips whenever he wants to say that I am playing terribly without hurting my feelings, or the ‘brownie cake’ that he asks my mother to get me whenever I exceed his expectations.

Although I am going to major in biomedical sciences at university, I wish to continue with the double bass as much as I can. My affiliation with the SOI will stay strong because they are more than just a group of musicians to me; they are family.

Pranaya Jain, flute

Like most parents do when tasked with an inquisitive toddler, mine filled my schedule with all kinds of classes, from calligraphy to computer science. But the one that I took to like a moth to the flame was music. However, it didn’t come naturally to me, forcing me to spend hours practising. After seven years of keeping at it, I can truly say, even though my learning was less linear and more like a sine graph of ups and downs, I’ve immensely enjoyed this journey that has taught me to be more confident, responsible and independent.

My ears still ring with the words, ‘Practise, Practise, Practise,’ that my teacher Miss Aigerim Beisembekova would say after each lesson. She has been a great support throughout my early years in helping me become the player I am, instilling her discipline and responsibility in me. Miss Aruzhan Bisengalieva has helped cultivate my playing into what it is today, through her critical feedback on the nuances of my playing and her being there for me always. I have been very fortunate to have two great teachers, who are the perfect blend of a friend and mentor.

As the end of my school life nears, and the pressure of academics rises, music continues to be the one constant. Even during the pandemic, it was a welcome respite and brought a sense of routine to my day. Though I don’t put in as many hours of practice as I probably should, my teachers are always there to push me in the right direction.

I will always be thankful for the opportunities I have received to be able to play in the children’s orchestra, discovering different kinds of pieces I had never heard before, learning how to play in sync with others, and of course making sure I am always correctly counting the bars in which I, as a flautist, am not playing.

The music academy has become a home away from home. I will always take music with me wherever I go and will continue to play even after my graduation.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the May 2023 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.