Sunday, September 26, 2010

Music Education in Nepal

Think of some Nepali musicians. Guys like Robin Tamang, Raju Gurung, Anil Shahi, and Pundit Homnath Upadhyaya. All are incredibly successful musicians from a range of different styles, and what they have in common is this country: Nepal. They come from Nepal, they have Nepali families, they make records and concerts in Nepal, and they are loved in Nepal.

They represent Nepal to the extent that any group of Nepali workers in Spain, Qatar, or Malaysia right now could be eating daal bhat and talking lightly about Pundit Homnath’s rock-steady classical tabla groove, or Anil Shahi’s lightning fast fusion guitar fingers, or Robin Tamang’s impassioned blues vocals. Nepali people can be proud of such musicians and their music
But now let’s take a closer look. Where did these musicians learn to play, write, and sing? Where does their music really come from? Nepal? No. Not a single one. Robin Tamang lived and played in Canada for years before launching his successful career in Kathmandu; Raju Gurung earned a degree at Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA; Anil Shahi learned classical Eastern and Western guitar in India and the UK; and Pundit Homnath Upadhyaya learned tabla in Varanasi, India. Ask any one of them about music education in Nepal, and you’ll likely hear a sad story. Here’s part of that sad story, gathered from six months of interviews, observations, and classes in schools around Kathmandu.

The government doesn’t support music education to any practical extent, and music generally isn’t offered at government schools. Not surprisingly – the government is preoccupied with things like constitutions, federal states, and army staff at the moment, so it could be a while before they consider music with any seriousness. Some of the larger private higher secondary schools offer music teaching, depending on if the director or principal wants to or not, but the focus of this teaching seems to be with making adequate Parents’ Day shows—drilling the students by rote for weeks for a ten-minute performance of songs they already know. Principals and parents walk away satisfied, but what do the students actually learn? To sing songs that they already knew. Music? Hardly.

A music curriculum for Nepal is currently being processed by the Ministry of Education, but many principals have no idea about it, much less their overworked and underpaid music teachers, who often teach part-time at five or more different schools per week in order to make enough money to live. Lucky teachers will have a music classroom, some instruments, a reasonable amount of students, and electricity for part of the time – but only if they are lucky. Even if a teacher knows a music curriculum, he probably can’t teach it—there is no program in the country right now that focuses on music teaching skills, and many music teachers are trained as performers and teach only because it’s a job. They have nowhere to go to learn things like lesson planning, rehearsing, music notation, curriculum, classroom management, and performance organization; they have no resources like method books or syllabi; and they are under no accountability at all except to have their students pipe out 10 minutes of rote memorization once per year

Principals, parents, and teachers at many Nepali higher secondary schools have no idea of how amazing their music students can be. The Lincoln School recently hosted an event called SAISA Music in which a group of grade school music students from around the South Asia region came together to learn and play music for a weekend. They had a band, a choir, and an orchestra, totaling over 200 students, and in only three days of work, they could perform two hours worth of historic, diverse, and difficult music at an exceptional level.
What’s the difference between the SAISA choir and a choir of Nepali schoolchildren? It’s not money, directly—everybody has a voice for free. The difference is that the SAISA teachers had high expectations for their students, and they knew the process for teaching the students to reach those expectations. Until the principals and parents at Nepali schools push their students and teachers and expect them to perform at higher standards, things are just going to stay the way they are. The students are the real victims of the whole situation, and it is sad to witness.

It’s easy to read this and not care at all. “I don’t want my kids to be musicians anyway” or “Music isn’t as important at my school as math or science.” But keep reading and let me show you why you really should care, and care enough to stand up and do something about it.
First, for your students and children, music education helps the brain develop. This has been studied and documented many times by researchers: music students on average score higher in math, critical thinking, analysis, and spatial reasoning than their non-music peers. In addition, music helps with problem solving, cooperation, leadership, discipline, muscle control, communication, and creativity—skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century workplace.

In the USA, students who participate in music programs score an average of 57 points higher on the verbal section and 41 points higher on the math section of the national SAT test (similar to SLC in Nepal)—nearly 100 points higher than students who are not in music.
Medical schools recognize the benefits of music education. According to a study by Dr. Lewis Thomas, 66% of applicants with music degrees are admitted to medical schools in the States, as opposed to only 44% of applicants with biochemistry degrees. Music students can get jobs. They can teach, perform, record, or go on to further study in another country. The average starting salary for music teachers in the USA is $30,000 per year (Rs 2,160,000 per year, or nearly 2 lakh Rupees per month).

A good system of music education helps a country develop economically. It provides jobs and demand for music teachers, musical instrument manufacturers, dealers, and repair shops, music composers, concert and program venues, recordings, organizers, fundraisers, and more. It can raise the level of musicianship in a country to the point where other countries take notice—small conflict-ridden countries like Lebanon, Venezuela, Indonesia, Cuba, and South Africa are famous for their music, and people all over the world buy their recordings.
Music education can strengthen Nepal’s own expressive culture, allowing more students and music lovers to enjoy and participate in making the unique sounds of Nepal. Music education can help Nepali musicians communicate, interact, and thrive in the global community of musicians, allowing for greater international peace and understanding.

Finally, if Nepali school students don’t learn Nepali music, who will?

Now, what’s the solution? How do we get there? Music teachers need a place they can go to talk to other music teachers, access music teaching resources, learn the Nepali music curriculum, ask questions, and practice teaching techniques.Such a place now exists: It’s called the Nepal Music Educators’ Society (NMES), and it is headquartered at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory campus in Gyan Mandala, Jhamsikhel, Lalitpur.

NMES can provide copies of a Nepali music curriculum, in Nepali and in English languages, and it has a library of music textbooks available for music teachers to use. In addition, every Saturday morning, it holds workshops about music teaching, covering such topics as music theory, lesson planning, event and classroom management, etc.The teachers who participate in NMES rotate the responsibility for teaching the workshop at each meeting, with the result that they all end up teaching and learning the best that everybody has to offer.NMES participants are regularly presented with opportunities to go to guest workshops, lectures, performances, and conferences by international musicians, teachers, and organizations.

The NMES is open to anybody, but it will be the most helpful for working music teachers. Teachers! Please come. This is a rare and unique opportunity to connect, learn, and broaden your experience. Principals and parents! Please ask your school music teachers to come.Next, Nepal could benefit greatly from having a recognized music teacher training program. It would train teachers in the skills necessary for systematic music teaching—lesson planning, rehearsing, classroom management, program organization, order of skills and concepts, etc.—things that music teachers need to know but currently have nowhere to learn.

This, in turn, would raise the standard of music teaching in schools, allowing your students to enjoy the full benefits discussed above.
Second, it would give employers—school principals and directors—a qualification to look for when hiring music teachers. Employers would be able to trust that a music teacher who has been through this training will be equipped with the skills necessary to do the job; they can then make more reliable hiring decisions, raise expectations for their own music classes, and enjoy the benefits of good music education to their entire schools (higher test scores, lower dropout rates, versatile graduates, etc.).

NMES is currently in the process of developing a formal music teacher training program. The plan is to offer an intensive course to cover both teaching skills and musicianship skills, and to be taught by education and music professionals. This course will lead to a certificate endorsed by a large and reputable international institution, and recognized by Nepal’s education employers. This will be the first program of its kind in Nepal, and it can be an excellent way to raise the standard of musicianship across the country.However, the program currently needs interest from teachers, recognition from employers, and financial help from donors to become a reality. Please email NMES with your support.

NMES can only be as helpful as we, the music teachers in Nepal, want it to be. It can provide access to resources for music education, professional development, and connect teachers and students and create jobs, but it can only do those things for the teachers who take advantage of it. If nobody comes, then nobody benefits, and nothing changes.In addition, the benefits grow when the group of participants grows. It’s much more helpful for a teacher to come and connect with 150 other music teachers than to come and only be able to connect with 20 other teachers. Can NMES make a big difference in music education across the country? Yes—but only if we want it.

NMES offers a few avenues to address some of the issues facing music education. But it’s not the only way, and it doesn’t solve everything. In a perfect Nepal, we would have a well-funded public education system with a high standard in all subjects, including music, art, humanities, and PE. We would have a thriving economy that allows people to afford to buy music books and instruments. We would have many musical celebrities, trained and educated in Nepal, free to travel around the world and spread the incredible sounds of Nepali music.
Unfortunately it’s not a perfect Nepal, and the only way to get these things is to work for them ourselves. I say ‘Let’s Go!’ Will you join me?

For more information on NMES, please send an email to

Robert Moore is a professional music teacher and researcher from the USA who worked with music teachers in Kathmandu for 10 months on a Fulbright grant.


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