Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Giulia's Fifth Day - Neeraj Interview

Our guest blogger and volunteer from Italy, Giulia Molteni, reflects on her 5th day with the YOURS Project:

In a music program involved in a social commitment, as the YOURS Project is, it's common to find dedicated people who take time out of their busy everyday life and want to volunteer.  
Today I'd like to share with you the experience of Neeraj Saraiya, a process engineer who volunteered at Hibbard as a low brass instructor for an entire year. 
Giulia: Neeraj, you're an engineer with a strong passion for music. What made you want to delve into a field radically different from your everyday profession, joining the YOURS Project? 
Neeraj: Well, I think it's more about who I am as a person.  I cannot see myself as simply a scientist - it's far too limiting.  I've been involved with music for such a long time, that being without some form of musical outlet can be confining.  Unfortunately, I stopped playing when I began graduate school at Northwestern in my field of study (Chemistry). However, about 5 years ago, I picked it back up again and began to really enjoy the experience - it reminded me of why I started in the first place - musicianship makes you feel alive.  There's a sense of community - working as a group to make notes on a page come to life and leave an audience caught in your magic.  Being involved in music is a great way for me to relax and meditate on just enjoying life.  It's the natural counterpoint as a scientist who normally sees from an analytical point of view.  The arts, and music in particular, allow one to feel and appreciate the emotional nuances of living - in essence, enjoying humanity.  It is only natural to want to pass these feelings and experiences of pure enjoyment onto others, especially those who are younger and looking at the world with fresh eyes.  When one of my friends, who also volunteers with the YOURS project, told me about the program, I jumped in feet first!  Although it may appear that music and the sciences are radically different, I would argue they work in concert. There are a lot of approaches from science that are inspired through some of the concepts and themes in music and vice versa.  Perhaps, it is a commentary on society's current approach to separate everything to their specific mechanics.  I think that's an error, because in the end, we overlook the similarities that help one area of discipline with the other.  Personally, being involved with YOURS and music gives me a sense of balance. 
G: Yesterday, at the meeting, the YOURS Projec Director Albert Oppenheimer reminded us all that the mission of an El Sistema-inspired program is to study the Venezuelan model and apply its principles, making music change the life of the students. It's a challenging task! As a volunteer, what does this commitment mean to you? 
N: I believe the El Sistema methodology is very special.  I compare it to the athletic programs popular in many countries, including here, in the United States.  The idea is that through hard work, dedication, and working together, goals can be achieved that also have the added benefit of bettering the lives of the participants and the communities in which they live.  Instead of using sport, we use music as our vehicle for achieving social benefit.  In all honesty, when I started, I was not fully aware of what the El Sistema methodology really was - however, my past year's experience has given me a new found appreciation of what it has accomplished in the various incarnations in South America and what it can and will do for the students who participate in YOURS.  For me personally, it is a chance to build a community with the fellow teachers, students, and their families while using music as the common thread.  Through our work, musical accomplishment is something that can be felt and heard - it's something tangible which resonates for the individual, ensemble, and the community in which they live.  I do find it is a challenge to make sure all elements are always covered - however, it's a good challenge to have and one I am more than happy to portray, whether it's musicianship, comraderie, or simply being a positive role model.  The thing I hope most it that their station in life, along with their own personal well being will continue to grow and improve the more they discover how unique and wonderful they are to their communities, families, school, orchestra, etc.
G: Neeraj, you volunteered an entire year. Would you share with us some significant episodes of your experience? 
N: As far as some experiences - there were many to reference.  I have never really taught before in a musical setting - most of my teaching experience is from the science arena - be it lectures, labs, or recitation periods.  Even though I was a volunteer, I was involved with the students on a regular basis since I came to Hibbard 3 days a week.  I really enjoyed the various opportunities I had to try and run private lessons and sectionals.  I have no conducting experience, so running sectionals was a challenge - but definitely something I would love to try again should the opportunity present itself.  For me, my favorite activities were private lessons - this would involve borrowing a low brass player (or any brass player for that matter) from one of the three ensembles and running through passages they were having difficulty with, or trying different approaches with their pieces so they could understand what was going on thematically as well as the impression it had on them.  Of course, this varies in degree with the level of the student's abilities.  For the younger kids, we would work on basic fundamentals of getting a good sound and reading rhythms as well as singing the pitches to get an early idea of musical lines and phrases.  With the intermediate students, I would also cover fundamentals, but also allowing a little more character into their playing - shaping tonal qualities, and really getting into the character of their part.  We would also work on technical exercises that pertained to the music they were playing.  The advanced players would get a full battery of fundamentals, solo playing, and musicality exercises.  We would also work on the more difficult passages within pieces as well.  I would often try to get parts from the bassoons or cellos - the trombone parts were sometimes a little bare and it allowed the player, in this case, Luis, to hear different parts of the piece and also develop some of the nuances inherent in those parts.  Overall, most of the activities were about developing a relationship with the students so that they know they would feel natural talking about different musical concepts.  Naturally, they would also feel comfortable discussing what's going on in their own lives.  If anything, that would be the part I enjoyed the most. As I mentioned earlier, teaching sectionals was more of a challenge - instead of the more intimate setting of private lessons, there were more variables to be aware of.  All the kids have to be engaged - so working parts within the different sections can be tough - but I learned that shortening the amount of rest or breaks between passages allowed us to stay focused and let the kids work on their playing while bolstering self-confidence.  Of course, not everyone is always on board, but that just takes a little work in either changing the approach, changing the method, or getting help from the other faculty members to help you when there is difficulty.  For me, the end result (mastery of the piece ) is always important, but so is involvement from all of the individuals in the ensemble.

-Giulia Molteni 

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