The Courage of Collaboration: Middle School Students Expermient in Cross-Cultural Music Making

IMG_2643Over the years, there have been increasing instances where prominent professional musicians from Indian and Western traditions collaborate with one another. But this story is about a collaboration that took place at the very seminal stages of these musicians lives: A group of middle schoolers in New Jersey with a very forward-thinking music teacher forged a beautiful pathway to collaboration for his students this past fall.

Brian McGowan is a middle school orchestra teacher in Basking Ridge, NJ. He writes, “At the start of the school year, a young 8th grade student emailed me asking me if it would be possible for her to play Sitar with the Orchestra.  Other than a few tracks of Ravi Shankar on my iPod, I had no experience with Indian music. I was interested to see how this would work, and naively replied “sure” and told her to bring in the Sitar.”

Within that first meeting, McGowan knew he had jumped into the deep end. “The young student’s presentation confused me when she placed the sitar on her bare foot and played from the floor, but also captivated me with the interesting timbre.  I realized this was a larger project than I originally thought as I could see she was taught aurally and did not read any Western notation.”

At this point McGowan realized he had a very important choice to make. “I realize this would have been a good time to back away from this project, with these obvious complexities, but I couldn’t allow that to be the case.   Our orchestra program is certainly rooted in the classic repertoire of the great masters.  But in addition to that, I have always tried to give every class a musical experience that was completely different, and this was that opportunity.”


Hindustani and Western notation for Raag Malkauns, side by side

“I decided I would put my MA in composition to use and take one of the Sitar’s student’s Raags and write something around it for the orchestra to play.  The only problem was I still did not have enough knowledge about Indian Music to translate what she was doing to what we could do along with her.” It was at this point, McGowan reached out to Shastra Co-AD, Reena Esmail for a little help, and where we first became aware of this beautiful collaboration.

The young sitar player (who due to privacy reasons, we are unable to refer to by name here)  had never performed with Western instruments before. She says, ”At first I was nervous rehearing with the orchestra, because I knew it was so new for everyone and it took a little time to get used to it.” Already, she began to grasp some of the issues even professional musicians face in Indian/Western collaboration. She found it difficult to tune with the Western instruments, and challenging to start in the middle of a piece (in Western music, we often call out bar numbers and everyone begins to play, but in Hindustani music, because of the lack of notation, this rehearsal method is completely foreign). Ultimately, though, she found her way into the music: “When we performed, I was very excited and was happy we did it”.

Ultimately, McGowan’s orchestration of Raag Malkauns for Sitar and string orchestra was premiered at the school’s Winter Concert in December 2015. “There were plenty of challenges along the way for me writing the parts, and the students playing in a style unlike they have ever attempted.  But we all felt a great sense of achievement at the completion of this project!”

Collaboration takes courage. It took courage for a middle school sitar player to approach a Western orchestra teacher and ask to take part in a musical tradition she had never studied. It took courage for that teacher to say yes, and create a musical environment in which she could feel included and free to express herself. It took courage for the middle school students in the orchestra, many encountering Indian music for the first time, to approach this new challenge with curiosity and flexibility. And while they certainly learned volumes about each other’s musical cultures, the deeper lessons they took away from this experience – generosity, open-mindedness, inclusion, and the reward of cross-disciplinary collaboration – will stay with them for a lifetime.

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