By Robin Wander
Because singing is foundational to all Indian classical music, the content of the class includes practical teaching of several ragas, talas, compositions and improvisations. There is also discussion of the musical culture of Indian classical music, with focus on the music of North India. What is not included is sarod instruction. He says he is not at Stanford to teach the sarod. Rather, he is "teaching music as a common factor among all people."
There are two types of music, according to Khan. The first is pure sound without lyrics or written notation. The second is text utilizing lyrics and language, notes and scores. Khan recognizes the importance of both, but believes that text can create barriers. So, on the first day of class, he had the 30 students, all with some experience playing a musical instrument or singing in a variety of musical traditions but not necessarily Indian, sing a raga – which is something between a scale and a melody. The vocal sounds of the raga are what Khan calls "natural music," a kind of music that he says is easier to feel than understand.
He asks his students to clap the intricate rhythm and close their eyes when they sing to help them concentrate. His corrections of timing and pronunciation are firm but encouraging.
Khan teaches his Stanford class the same way he would teach a class in India. He hasn’t watered down the content or the approach, which is to instruct without notations or even a lesson plan. It is all oral, just like back home in Delhi.
Music is Khan’s way of life
Padma Vibhushan Amjad Ali Khan comes from a long and illustrious lineage of musicians. His father, Haafiz Ali Khan, and grandfather, Ghulam Ali, were musicians in the vibrant North Indian courts of Gwalior and Rampur. Kahn said Ghulam Ali transformed the Afghan rabab into the sarod and was the first player of the sarod, which has become one of the most important instruments of North Indian classical music along with the sitar.
The sarod is a fretless stringed instrument with a teak frame, a goatskin soundtable, and a metal fingerboard with six to eight strings plus several sympathetic strings adding up to anywhere from 19 to 25 total. The instrument lends itself to improvisation and graceful expression because of the ability for the musician to slide and glide between notes, much like a human voice.
Khan gave his first sarod recital at the age of 6 and quickly rose to fame by the time he was a teenager. Known for his subtle and expressive raga improvisations, Khan brought a new lyricism and depth to the sarod. Today he engages audiences around the world with his interpretations of traditional and newly composed ragas, as well as with his cross-cultural music projects. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra premiered his sarod concerto, Samaagam, in 2008, and he collaborated with Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj on the album Ancient Sounds: Music of Iraq and India in 2009.
The Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra is preparing to perform a portion of Samaagam on June 2.