Music for the future

Print edition : November 18, 2011

A.R. RAHMAN: "My motto is to pave the way for new forms of music without upsetting the sanctity of music." - R. RAVINDRAN

The Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman speaks about his music academy, K.M. Music Conservatory in Chennai.

A.R. RAHMAN, the Oscar-winning composer from Tamil Nadu, has another achievement to his credit three years ago, in April 2008, he started Asia's first music academy with courses that are not offered in ordinary music schools. The academy, K.M. Music Conservatory (KMMC), is a college of Western music and music technology and is situated in Kodambakkam, Chennai. It recently got affiliated to Middlesex University in the United Kingdom.

At KMMC, students are often seen performing Rahman's Oscar-winning composition Jai Ho. Three of his students have made a film called Art of Power for Hollywood. Another one recently won a tough competition to make the signature tune for the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation (BMRC).

Rahman's academy has on its board the likes of violin maestro L. Subramaniam and Hindustani classical vocalist Ghulam Mustafa Khan. Kazimir Boyle, the Hollywood composer who composed the music for Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodha Akbar and the Oscar-winning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, apart from Indian music composers and singers such as Leslie Lewis and Hariharan, have conducted workshops at KMMC on several occasions. And yet, the academy has miles to go, as Rahman put it. In an interview given to Frontline, he spoke about the vision, goals and plans of the academy and also the courses and the problems faced by it.

When did the idea of opening a music academy come to your mind?

In the past few years, whenever I was alone, a thought would flash through my mind what about my music after I die? What have I done for the people who have given me so much love, admiration and awards? What have I done for the next generation? This concern made me start a music company because even if one dies, the company will live on. I had been looking for some corporate personnel to start it but five-six years passed waiting for a proper initiative from them.

Then, while creating music for young people in New York, I met my friend Srinivas Krishnan [master percussionist and also the director of Global Rhythms World Music Ensemble at Miami University, U.S.]. He is a rock star in Miami. He teaches arts and music of India to foreign, especially European, students. The meeting with him gave me the idea of opening a music academy in place of a company.

Do you have a particular goal to achieve through the academy?

Of course! To give India and world music a viable alternative career on the lines of medicine and engineering. My students at KMMC will have a strong artistic, intellectual and technical foundation, which will lead to the development of a unique art form. This form will challenge conventional and dominant commercial music.

As a music lover, do you have any personal aspiration to fulfil through KMMC?

Yes, I have. Since the time I stepped into music, I had this dream of having a symphony orchestra with my own musicians. This academy is a step towards fulfilling that dream. Now we have just started a programme in brass with Adam Rapa, who is regarded as the world's most renowned trumpet player and educator. It is yet another sure step towards the making of a symphony orchestra.

So what are the courses you offer and the age groups you entertain?

[Smiles] Well, it is a little complicated. We have two major courses under which all sub-courses fall. One is the foundation course and another is the preparatory course. Foundation is a full-time course while preparatory is part time. The foundation course leads to a two-year diploma and finally to a Bachelor's degree in music. The final year could be completed with training in Middlesex University. The foundation course student can major' in Western and Hindustani classical music, or in piano, percussion or violin.

The preparatory course is designed for music lovers of any age group without mandatory educational constraints. A student of the preparatory course can learn all stringed instruments, such as violin, viola, cello and double bass. Guitar, flute, tabla, piano and percussion are also taught. Western music theory, critical appreciation and sight singing are also taught by a select international faculty.

Have you classified the courses too?

Yes. The course has two main ingredients practical and theory.

The practical has all musical instruments piano, violin, percussion, which will include Indian and Western percussion like Hindustani tabla, xylophone, drums, vibraphone, brass, saxophone and French horn followed by composition and performance.

STUDENTS OF KMMC celebrate after Rahman won two Grammys for his work for the film "Slumdog Millionaire", in February 2010.-M. LAKSHMAN/AP

In theory, we teach Hindustani and Western music, their appreciation and audio engineering with the knowledge of pro-tool logic, etc. The good news for the real learner is that we are introducing chamber choir, for which we have opera and musical theatre in place, and also special piano studies, which includes a specialised course in Russian piano style. KMMC also has a very strong Sufi qawwali group.

What are the duration and timings?

Preparatory courses are actually part-time courses of one-year duration but can be extended to five years if students want to go on to more advanced levels. Since music learning has no limits, a student can choose to learn for as many years as he/she wishes to. We teach students three days a week at the mutually convenient time.

What will be the future of KMMC students?

Graduates from KMMC will be eligible to give audition for KM Symphony Orchestra. Alternatively, they can look at exciting career options as sound engineers, instrumentalists, music arrangers, music conductors, music editors or logic/pro-tools operators with music directors, record labels, FM [frequency modulation] stations, television channels, studios.

How did you procure all the musical instruments? Is it possible to purchase all necessary musical instruments in India?

It was difficult to procure all of them from the Indian market because many instruments are not found in India such as one in the mandolin family, or the piano. I had to import them from the U.S., Japan, China and the U.K., paying heavy import duty. Some were gifted to me and some others bought locally.

What kind of students do you get in the academy? Are they really interested in learning music or do they join in for quick returns?

It has been three years since I started KMMC with the aim of making it a postgraduation and research university for music education. But the tragedy is that most students are interested in preparatory courses that teach them quick music tips. Some seem to learn music with an agenda in mind. Because of this attitude, I don't have enough people to play stringed instruments.

Every student who comes here wants to become a sound engineer or a composer. No one is interested in joining an orchestra. No one knows what sync performance' is. That's where my role as a music teacher doubles. I need to inculcate and then develop a culture, to teach them how important an orchestra or a sync symphony/performance is. I have designed courses that will give an overall knowledge of music. I don't want to produce jack of all trades and master of none kinds. My students should learn music for passion and not for fashion.

[Rahman's dream of making an orchestra now seems to be coming true partly. On his return from New York last fortnight, he said: KMMC students are rehearsing with Germany's Babelsberg Orchestra, the oldest large-scale film studio in the world, under me these days. They will perform in all the metro cities in January 2012 to mark the studio's 100th anniversary. The dates are yet to be fixed.]

How easy or difficult has it been for you to raise funds for the academy?

It has been difficult. No one wants to fund the school unconditionally.

What conditions do they put?

They want me to do something' for them, which includes performing for free wherever and whenever they want. It hurts. For now, most of the funds are coming from my foundation [A.R. Rahman Foundation].

The fee for your foundation course is unaffordable for many.

The fee structure in my academy (Rs.3.5 lakh per annum) is one-fourth the fee in other big music schools around the world. And they have a break-even payment system. I didn't want to start a free school. People don't value anything that comes for free.

How many students do you have now?

We have over 200 students. Preparatory courses have more students. But of late, thankfully, those in the preparatory courses are moving to the foundation course and eventually to the degree programme. A feeling of competition with their more privileged counterparts elsewhere and who are taught by the best of teachers is making them come back.

You are teaching students of MGR School too?

MGR School is next door to my house in Chennai. Students from there come to learn violin. I can judge from their talent that one day they will become the best violin masters. They would be able to play in front of the Presidents and Prime Ministers of any country in the world. The venue is not important, the process of learning is.

You are doing some philanthropic service for MGR school students through the A.R. Rahman Foundation...

Yes, we have adopted MGR School, which has very young students [in the 5-14 age group] numbering close to 40. Since they come from underprivileged backgrounds, we teach them free of cost. They don't come directly under KMMC.

You are interested in some affiliation with the Rajnikanth School of Music too?

Yes, we will teach students of his school too. Talks are on.

How do you view the future of KMMC?

There is so much need in India for new music. India's music industry is growing by leaps and bounds. My motto is to pave the way for new forms of music without upsetting the sanctity of music. I want my students to learn the value of traditional music diction with today's speed and technology so that they can shine in the competitive world of modern music.

I want to start a music school in Dubai. I have land there, but no funds.

How does it feel to have your own school of music?

Immense satisfaction. Now even if I fail, it is okay because at least I have tried. Students often come to me with apprehensions like what if they don't get a job even after learning music from my academy. I tell them that anything that you learn never goes waste and the process of learning is more important than its results.

I had learnt jazz. Initially I took it as a hobby. But slowly I started making notes and reading about it. I did a lot of labour on it and the world can see that it has paid back enormously!

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