What we did when our child needed more culture

A few weeks ago, my partner and I spent a good thirty minutes taking stock of the cultural situation in our lives —specifically, the amount of Indian culture my daughter was exposed to. The alarming conclusion: almost zero. There are many ways to “teach” culture and I have always felt that the most effective way to narrate heritage is through food, music and language.

Let’s assess:

1) Food — I think we have this covered. She loves eating it, making it, watching shows about it.

2) Until three weeks ago, she was not taking any music or dance lessons from an Indian teacher. Her only exposure to music was via violin lessons at a Western classical music school. She enjoys this experience so much it never occurred to us to look elsewhere.

3) She is not bi-lingual because we all speak English at home. I count this as one of my biggest failures as a ‘Generation Zero’ parent!

4) She is not allowed to watch Indian shows or movies (although this doesn’t exactly count as “culture”). Bollywood is grappling with its own issues about what is ‘modern’ and what is not. I really don’t want my five-year old watching as they deal with their identity crisis through the gyrations and pelvic thrusts of women clad in thongs and bikinis

5) We celebrate all the Indian festivals and visit the local Indian temple often, but we have done nothing to explain Indian mythology, the myriad gods and goddesses, the rituals. If we had been living in India, we would have been surrounded by all the imagery and symbolism of religious India, and explanation would have been redundant. Here, everything is a story to be told second-hand.

Our score: 1 out of 5. So she isn’t exactly well-versed in Indian-ness. But how “Indian” does she need to be? How much cultural awareness is just the right amount?

We decided to take some tentative steps towards answering these questions by enrolling her in voice lessons with a local South Indian classical music teacher. I remember my music teacher in India and she was, in one word, strict. I was afraid of her, I respected her and I worried very much about mistakes, but I always remember this time in my life with fondness and triumph. My daughter lives in a different world, a world where every child gets a trophy for participation. We couldn’t wait to find out if she accepted my world without complaint, or if she ran from it traumatized and hurt.

Our comparative experience…

Violin (Suzuki method):

Ms. J gives her a private lesson on Thursdays. Group lessons on Saturday morning can be either a violin lesson or a “musicianship” session (where she learns about music literacy). While these terms sound complicated and stressful, the classes are pure fun and joy.

Ms. J has the patience of a saint, a soothing voice and a perpetual smile. My daughter looks forward to every class, brings drawings and gifts for her teacher and they have a relationship that is heartbreakingly beautiful. Every class is peppered with motivational statements that invariably begin with “I love how you….” I am sometimes frustrated that we don’t get enough negative feedback, but that is not the Suzuki way. There may be twenty things wrong, but you always start by talking about the positive things first.

In the Musicianship class, Ms.C is practically a magician. At 9 Am on a Saturday she has managed to get everyone in her class to giggle and gallop and skip. This is a group of kids ranging from age 3 to 6. She urges them to find their singing voice and tells us parents “don’t worry — they will get it eventually.” As they skip and hop and wave scarves around, they grasp important concepts about notes, musical range, tempo, etc.

Voice lessons (South-Indian Classical):

Ms. N calls us for a trial class to see if my daughter even has a singing voice. Ms. N is an excellent singer and we notice that even when she speaks — her voice booms with authority. She asks my daughter to sing any Indian song (my daughter knows none). Fortunately, I have taught her the basic “Sa Ri Ga” (the “Do, Re, Mi” of Indian music), so we start with that. The teacher seems pleased and we set up a time for us to come and watch the group lesson. My daughter can join the group only if she is comfortable. On Sunday morning, we watch as a group of 5 year olds get together and sing complicated Bhajans — the lyrics are in Sanskrit, the scales vary from F-Sharp to B. I am overwhelmed with fear as I walk away from this class because everything is new. The teaching method, the language, the words (how would my daughter even pronounce a phrase like “Subrahmanya Graja”, let alone sing it?). And the musical range is phenomenal — how are these kids managing to sing at pitches that are this high or this low? On the way back home, I ask my daughter what she thinks, and she says “It sounds like fun, I am ready.” Great.

Two weeks of group lessons later I have discovered many new things about my daughter; she loves music in all shapes and forms. She loves to sing and practices everywhere, all day long. She has a great singing voice, which is manifesting itself so quickly because her teacher is pushing her to sing the highs and lows. She doesn’t understand the words she is singing, but she can memorize with a mental agility that is common only in children. Sanskrit words are no longer a problem. She is working on rolling those r’s…that will take some time. Occasionally, her teacher might get annoyed at a mistake in class, and say something like “Don’t make me upset, or you will be upset” and I hold my breath wondering if these tiny little beings are going to dissolve into tears, but they start giggling and the teacher laughs in response.

Our takeaways:

1) Children are open-minded and fearless. They will try anything and they absorb everything. I am glad my daughter didn’t allow me to act on my fears about the voice lessons.

2) One way of teaching isn’t better than the other. One school of thought doesn’t confuse the other. The two ways of learning, two pockets of knowledge omplement each other. They come together to make her a better musician.

3) Culture is a messy and complicated term. There isn’t one way to explain it to your kids, so tell them everything. Show them as much as you can, and they will pick and choose.

This essay appeared on my blog at http://www.macandchutneymom.com/musical-journeys-east-and-west/

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