Akshar’s Story: 3 R’s and an M

While visiting a Pratham Balwadi (preschool), high school student Akshar Narain was inspired by the organization’s innovative learning methods and wondered if he could expand the three R’s (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic) to include an M—music. He set out to teach children—across linguistic and cultural barriers—how to play Beethoven and Mozart on the keyboard.

In a Pratham classroom amid New Delhi’s slums, Akshar began by acquainting the class of ten students with simple notes and rhythms. His broken Hindi soon gave way to communicating through chalkboards, music and hand gestures. “I guided the children by stating each note. For the children who had the most trouble, I played the rhythm on my own keyboard, emphasizing each note and stating the note’s name. Finally, they seemed to grasp half and quarter notes.”

By the beginning of the second week, many students had completed their first song, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” albeit at a range of playing levels. Akshar addressed this by sitting with struggling students for one-on-one instruction. Akshar used his smartphone to record the children so they could view their playing and see what needed improvement.

“So, did you have fun?” Akshar asked. One shy “yes” was followed by another “yes” and then suddenly a whole chorus of “yeses” erupted from the students. They were excited to learn more.

The second song, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” went easier as the students had already grasped the notes and proper fingering. Akshar also began asking the more advanced students to help teach the others—an idea that proved successful in moving the whole class forward. “During those three weeks, I could feel the students’ frustration as they struggled through a difficult piece when their fingers flopped on the keys in an exasperated cacophony,” says Akshar. “And I could experience their thrill upon mastering a piece when I heard a triumphant arpeggio.”

The results of the music program far exceeded Akshar’s expectations. By the end of three weeks, each student could play at least one piece. For a final concert, the children dressed up in their finest clothes and performed for Pratham’s New Delhi leadership. They played pieces by Beethoven and Mozart, as well as the challenging Indian National Anthem.

Friends and family responded enthusiastically. Music they had previously only heard by professional musicians was now being performed in front of them by their own children.

“Before I left for the US, we discussed how the lessons could continue,” says Akshar. “I could keep teaching over the Internet, but more importantly, the children who have learned the most could start teaching others, essentially replicating for music what Pratham has done for reading, writing and math: encouraging members of each community to teach those around them. With time and luck, this may turn into a grassroots musical undertaking in the Indian slums.”

Read Akshar’s account and view photos and videos from his time with Pratham in New Delhi.

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