School Music in Nepal (or the Luxury of U.S. Music Programs)

Sandra Kowalski • Commentary • October 4, 2017

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As the new school year begins you may be dreading all the anticipated challenges you will face; inadequate instruments, money for uniforms, getting the new kids up to speed, fear and worries over band competitions.

Maybe you’re tired, feeling unfulfilled, discouraged or unappreciated. Take heed, put things into perspective and know that what you are doing is meaningful! For those of you for whom music is life and breath, it may be hard to imagine that music is a luxury. It has been around since the caveman. Ancient Greek philosophers wrote about it thousands of years ago. Music spans the globe.

Every one of us was born after the invention of the phonograph and has benefited from its off-spring: the Walkman, a boom box, CD player, or iPod—all of which have given us portable music. In the USA, nearly every elementary school has music class and the higher schools almost all have a band and perhaps even an orchestra. In the summertime, it seems as if every town has free music in their parks and bands in every other bar. Any time of the year in every major city you go to in the USA, buskers can be found trying to make a living from their musical talents. Sometimes the need to express through music is greater than one’s resources, so creativity springs forth. People can be found playing “drums” made of five-gallon buckets or guitars made from items found in a dumpster. How much can I say that music is a luxury?

I’ve traveled far and wide and in many of the poorer countries where music, and particularly live music in any form, is hard to come by. Beyond the capital cities, people live very meager lives. They don’t have cars, so they can’t turn on the radio as they go from point A to B. A minority have radios in their homes. Even fewer have computers so Spotify isn’t an option, and in my travels to these places I never saw anyone walking around with an iPod. Their phones are basic and used for exactly what they were designed for — communicating through voice and, more often, text. If you find music in schools, it is often because it is a foreign-run school and these exist rarely outside of the big cities.

This is because state-funded schools can barely supply books and core subject teachers, so forget instruments. In the villages, where it’s not uncommon for students to have to walk up to two hours each way to and from school, the children are expected to help with the farming or other domestic chores before and after school. Even if they did have access to instruments, there would be no time for practice.

In Nepal, even during festivals, live music is rarely heard. Instead, a loud speaker connected to a boom box is carted around town and locals dance to prerecorded music. However, in tropical Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of Buddha, there is a hidden gem: Karuna Girls School, founded by a Canadian non-profit.

Tucked away at the end of a long dirt road, it has the only music program in the entire region. Music class is a brand new concept there, an extracurricular activity for stu dents between grades 6-12, and highly coveted. The sessions are held for one hour, twice a day — at 9:00, before school, and at 4:00, when the school day ends — three times per week. At the time of my visit, the music teacher was a young American volunteer who had just graduated from a fine arts academy. Although she was fresh and enthusiastic, her challenges were great.

The Challenges

To begin with, punctuality was an issue. Life in Nepal is hard. The girls that don’t live at the school have a lot of responsibilities at home, so getting to school early to participate in music can be a challenge. Plus, as mentioned before, some of them have to travel a fair distance to get there. The 14 girls that showed up for the morning session meandered in throughout the hour. At some point, you have to channel your inner Buddha and accept that it’s the Nepali way.

Since English isn’t their first language, even the simplest vocabulary words must be taught with excruciating patience. Strings, neck, fret, strum — these are new words, foreign words, for them to learn. Then there are the instruments, or thereof. When I arrived, the music class consisted of four guitars, two keyboards and two drums. There were no chairs but two low tables with pillows on the floor, and two large, unopened cardboard boxes. These were a surprise for the girls.

When they finally opened them, there were enough tambourines, triangles and shaker eggs for everyone. Instruments of elementary students in the USA, they were new and wondrous to these teenagers who shook them with glee as they danced around the classroom.

Finally, the music itself. Music is universal, you say. Yes, this is true. It has no gender, boundaries or language barriers. But even a classically trained musician can encounter such obstacles. You see, western music was completely unknown to these kids. When they heard it, and tried to learn it they didn’t connect.

But suggest Hindi music and their eyes light up, their bodies start to move and they get very excited. So, a successful music teacher will have to learn the genre to which the students can relate.

The Benefits

Just before the Diwali holiday, the girls had their first ever performance. It was put on for the board and founders visiting from Canada. They sang and played very basic guitar and drums. The day I was there, they got to watch the video of their performance for the first time. Not one girl criticized herself or others. In fact, they were all quite proud of it and happily declared that in two months they’d become musicians. It was a confidence booster and had opened their minds to other possibilities in life. In a country where the only goal and expectation of young women is to look beautiful so they can get married and have children, music can be life-changing.

The gift of music is one that stays for life. Even if the kids never do anything with it, they have a learned appreciation for it, a new ear for it, that will never leave them. That’s the beauty of education — you can’t un-learn something. You might forget but it’s always there on some level.

The Next Step

This is where I wanted to say, “Send your old, weary instruments to a third world country so that everyone can have the gift of music.” But this type of program doesn’t currently exist on an international level. Besides, they don’t just need instruments, but also someone who can teach them how to play. Unless you are willing to quit your life as you know it and go do this yourself, the next best thing is to encourage others to do it.

Perhaps, as an important influence in your students’ lives, you can plant the seed of this as a possibility in their future. When they find themselves floundering around after graduation, and they want to travel and make a difference in the world but don’t know how or doing what, this might be something for them. Music shouldn’t be a luxury because once you discover it, it becomes a necessity.

Sandra Kowalski is a freelance writer traveling around the world and writing about her experiences. For more information contact her at wordsworthysandra@gmail. com.

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