On the teaching of music

Written by Krishnan Sivaramakrishnan on 14 October 2021

Indian classical music rides on improvisation. No two rides of the same raga or even the same composition feel the same. The artist is free to explore, feel, interpret, and convey what she or he feels at that moment on stage. Creativity flows in real time.

Questions, therefore, raise their hands. Can such an art form be taught? How does a music teacher teach such an art form? Can the teacher even compose a curriculum for this art form? 

The teaching of classical music, over the past several hundreds of years, has been free-flowing, personal, interactive. The teacher puts forth an idea; the student catches that idea. It is an oral tradition where no two teachers teach the same way.

This tradition has its advantages. You watch, listen, learn from your teacher, from close quarters. Science enthusiasts have a word for this way of learning—Osmosis; that is the way even intern doctors learn from senior doctors in hospital rounds.

But, in this tradition, not everyone learns equally well. First, music is caught, not taught; how well you learn depends on how well you catch. Next, the art does not reach as many learners as it can and as it ought to. Knowledge of music reaches a chosen few—those who meet the teacher’s standards of quality.

Joy of Music—the three-word mission of the Shankar Mahadevan Academy promises to transform all of this. It says simply and clearly: Music is for all. 

Tradition will now have a larger heart. 

That is the topic of this conversation with Dr Prakash Sontakke, Advisor to the Shankar Mahadevan Academy. Prakash is a versatile instrument artist who specialises in the slide guitar, a composer, a vocalist—but a musician, first.

How is music taught in India?

Music in India has travelled a very long journey—to be precise, a few 100 years. Like in most traditional subjects, teaching of music too has been based on a very personal and interactive space, passing down through generations by word of mouth. 

In the recent past, we are seeing how, with the increase of technology and communications, all traditional subjects are taking an interesting turn. Subjects are getting demystified and a greater sense of understanding has been welcomed.

Is the Shankar Mahadevan Academy consciously trying to change the way music is taught in India? 

Yes absolutely. If we understand the philosophy of Shankar Mahadevan Academy (SMA), we can understand that Shankar Mahadevan, an icon in his own way, made traditional music so accessible and in such a psitive and such an ear-friendly way that people admired his sense of fusion and accepted it wholeheartedly. 

Shankarji’s very simple approach of bringing all elements of all forms of music under one beautiful sonic landscape is pretty much unique to himself. 

As we realise Shankarji, being such a successful film-music composer, always insists on building one's own creativity. And that creativity also helps in naturally demystifying the subject of music. 

What is that one thing SMA has done to change the way Indian music is taught? 

“You can be revered but you can’t be loved.” It is love that leads to universal acceptance. Today, in this modern world of communication, the Guru (teacher) is a friend, philosopher and guide moving with you at every step of your learning rather than distancing himself by being revered. 

Students of SMA are given this amazing seed of thought where creating compositions is taught in a very friendly and empowering manner. The students pick up the art of composing themselves, which also enables them to understand traditional compositions as they are familiar with the art of composing.  

This leads to greater understanding of traditional music, which makes the process of demystifying and admiring the work much easier.


The teachers of SMA largely come from traditional backgrounds as do all other music practitioners. At SMA, a unique teaching methodology which has evolved with time, and courses which are designed with all the above aspects welcome them. The teacher evolves with the teaching methodology and this teaching methodology also helps in bringing out the best from the teachers. 

In all the other technical aspects is hidden the most important aspect of teaching music—to experience the joy which music brings. It’s a joy of learning only when it’s taught in a way so as to appreciate the subject and feel enabled to reach out to the subject. 

The teachers are enablers and friends who help you reach joy through music and making you discover the music within yourself. Everything is possible only if you try. And there is Joy when you try.

What is the impact it is having on those who learn Indian music?

The impact has been incredible as we see students feel so confident and wanting to participate in activities which makes them even more confident. Activities-based learning happens all the time with students and teachers sometimes working as a team, and sometimes students taking the lead in making compositions. 

Teachers and students sometimes perform together where students take the lead, and sometimes they work in tandem with each other. 

Every composition leads to a better understanding of the subject of study as it is a performing art. Performances are not an isolated  destination but an indulgent journey.