Making and Teaching Music in Mumbai

Last month, St George’s Anglican Grammar School’s Head of Performing Arts, Mr Michael Newton, was invited to play, sing, compose, arrange, produce, scratch, rap and improvise with a group of international teachers in Mumbai, India. He combined the trip with an opportunity to visit a number of Indian schools as well as the Dharavi Dream Project in Asia’s largest slum. Here, he writes about the experience.

I was invited by Musical Futures International to present a series of workshops on informal learning and non-formal teaching at ‘The Big Gig’ music education conference in Mumbai, India. The delegates were predominantly from international schools in Mumbai, but also from farther afield including Kazakhstan and Germany.

I have had a long association with Musical Futures (MF), a not-for-profit musical education organisation that originated in the UK. I came across the informal approach to music education that MF promotes as part of my research for my MMusEd in the early 2010s. At its heart is the research of Professor Lucy Green on how popular musicians learn, which is often informally, and it is this message that resonated with me and how I seek to teach music at St George’s.

Playing is at the heart of the Musical Futures approach. We began each day with chair drumming, delved into the principles of informal learning/non-formal teaching, had whole class workshops, and then smaller band-based ideas in subsequent workshops throughout the day. A common theme running through each session were questions from participants around how to teach theory as well as the skills required for the more complex band-work. It soon became apparent that no matter where a music teacher teaches there are common shared concerns regarding the teaching of theory, engagement and motivation of students, and the retention of music students. It was comforting to know that right across the world musical educators are being challenged by the same conundrums.

Mumbai is a huge city, with a population almost the same as that of Australia. It is crowded, chaotic, vibrant, pulsating, constantly noisy and there was never a dull moment throughout my time there. The people were beautiful, gentle and extremely warm and welcoming. While in Mumbai I took the opportunity to visit other schools to look at their programs and gain some innovative ideas to bring home with me. The schools I visited were all high-rise schools, much like our own vertical school in the heart of the Perth CBD. I saw some very interesting use of music technology and the accessible creativity it can offer students. I also saw an Australian teacher wrangling the American band system of music education, something totally foreign to both of our backgrounds and training. There were also numbers acronyms – it seems educators the world-over love a good acronym!

At the heart of Mumbai is the Dharavi Slum, the biggest slum in Asia with over one million people living in just two square kilometres. Dharavi produces over a trillion dollars of economic output each year, very little of which the residents here see. The people of Dharavi work in small-scale industries such as recycling, pottery, soap manufacturing and textiles. It is unregulated, dangerous and dirty work with no safe-guards. The residents often sleep above the workshop in small, low, crowded rooms away from their families. Those lucky enough to have a house live in one room with multiple families. Electricity is intermittent, water is only available for one hour a day from a communal tap and is untreated. There are many different schools in Dharavi that offer education in different languages for its people. Due to the number of students, the schools operate in two shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. To my surprise there were 60 students to a class.

In the middle of all this is an after-school HipHop program called the Dharavi Dream Project, involving more than 150 students. To take part, students must attend school. The project aims to keep young people in school and to help create and sustain an environment in which under-resourced emerging hip-hop talent is encouraged. Its aim at its core is to encourage these students to follow their passion for music.

Staffed largely by volunteers and resourced by donations, it teaches b-boying, beatboxing, graffiti art, skateboarding, HipHop, and music production. It operates out of a small three-classroom school with long-division still on the board from the day’s lessons. Our visit allowed us to see b-boy battles, a beatboxing workshop run by famous Bollywood beatboxer Gaurav Gambhir (D-Cypher) and we were shown with immense pride some of the work recorded and produced by the Dharavi Dream Project. The Dharavi Dream Project indisputably changes lives.

Visiting the Dharavi Dream Project and seeing the meaning and joy it brings to young lives, as well as to those leading it, was a gentle reminder of why music exists, and why we as music educators choose to teach music. It was a reminder too that it is often all too easy to get caught up in the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of teaching music, to lose the central point of the whole thing; yet, music is fundamentally something people do, most have no formal training, and they do it because music makes life better. It was an experience that will stay with me for a long time and enhance my teaching of music to the St George’s Musicians.

My thanks to Musical Futures International and Music Teachers in International Schools for the invitation to present at the ‘Big Gig’, and sincere gratitude to Mrs Tina Campbell and St George’s Anglican Grammar School, and the Anglican Schools Commission, for so generously supporting this incredible opportunity.