Some years ago, I attended a workshop conducted in Bangalore by teachers from the Royal College of Music, Stockholm. One memorable session was on teaching percussion to a fairly large group of students. A teacher sat in a corner of the room, beating out a rhythm on a small drum. As the students trickled into the class, they were free to pick up whatever instruments were available, or to sit where they chose and join in the rhythm by clapping or tapping—no coercion, no instruction—the beat was there and each student took his or her own time to settle in to it.

One of the biggest challenges for a novice teacher is the difficulty of establishing order in the classroom. It is fairly common to see teachers struggling with a class of disorderly children, trying in vain to establish a modicum of silence so that the lesson can begin. Giving instructions seems to be a test of who can shout the loudest. The Swedish teacher preferred to let his instrument do the talking for him. And the students listened.

Often in a music class, students are asked to stop reading the notes they are playing, and instead walk to the beat, and only when they have got it into their system, do they actually translate it into a tune on their instruments. Tuning into rhythm is an extremely effective means of establishing a link between the movement of the mind and what students can feel at a deep level in their bodies. While teachers of music have actively worked towards establishing this connection between body and mind, most classroom situations at best pay lip service to this connection.

As a teacher of Literature, I clearly remember having an undergraduate class of over a hundred students who had the daunting task of extracting meaning from some lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. How was one to quell the near panic of first-time literature students who were suddenly looking at a language which had very little connection with what they knew of as English? It seemed pointless to tell them that Chaucer was writing in the language of everyday people! The best bet seemed to be to shut the books and get the students to tap out the rhythm of the lines with their pencils. As I read the lines out loud, the comfortable jog trot of the iambic pentameter, and the tapping of a hundred pencils, took on the rhythm of the horses on the way to Canterbury, with the pilgrims inside the coach regaling each other with their stories. Rhythm created a democratic space for all of us to drop our fears of the text, and participate in the form of the poem, the skeleton, as it were, which could take on flesh and blood, once the students were comfortable.

Of course fear of the text is not the only dynamic which operates in a classroom situation. Interpersonal conflicts are the stuff of which student worlds are made!

I clearly remember one classroom in 2006. It was rife with all the tensions and inter-group warfare that assume epic proportions in a teenager’s world. My task was to teach them T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. It was rather close to Christmas, and with a couple of guitars and an available keyboard, the class divided itself into instrumentalists and singers, and three adventurous souls took on the characters of the Magi. Before long the rest of the school was being regaled with a spirited rendition of ‘We Three Kings of Orient are…’ The class bonded and the mood was set for the greater complexities of Eliot’s poem. And yet, at the level of the senses, and simple surface meanings, the poem was more than half done. After class was over, one of the students who had played the guitar commented on the aptness of using the minor key for the carol. The sadness of the Magi’s recollections of an epiphanic moment, which also held an awareness of alienation and death to come, was perfectly in tune with the carol’s modulation between major and minor chords—the plaintive minor predominating.

Quite apart from the sheer entertainment value of these excursions into a different art form, music offers much greater possibilities of allowing the students to connect emotionally with the text. I am reminded of a line from an essay by E M Forster: ‘Music lies deep beneath the arts…and makes minor artists of us all.’ Perhaps it is only when we can put young people in touch with what is very deep in themselves, that we can get them to experience at first hand, the world of a creative artist.

Another aspect that keeps coming up in the classroom is the skill of memorization. Many of my students struggle with having to remember lines from a poem or a play, to be able to quote them in an exam. Thinking about this takes me back in time to my schooldays in Delhi, when Russian was being offered as a third language, in the heyday of Indo-USSR friendship. We started the course with a very traditional teacher who threw terrifying rules of grammar at us. To this day I’m blessed if I can remember the rules for those conjugations. At most I can make it to, ‘Ya znayu, thi znaesh, on/ona znayeth’ (I know, you know, he/she knows). But the next teacher we had was every child’s dream come true. Little more than a schoolgirl herself, she charmed her way into our hearts with her spirited dances (of course, all the boys joined in) and she insisted that we all dance to the songs she taught us. Thirty years later my sister and I found ourselves singing those songs as we cut vegetables in her kitchen. Not a word had been lost.

Still further back is an incident that took place in a Sunday School classroom. I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven at the time. Our teacher was ill, and a stranger walked into our class. She was obviously horrified at the spectacle we presented. Shoes kicked off, hair ribbons trailing in the melee of a vigorous game of ‘seven tiles’—all pretences of Sunday attire and piety had been abandoned. Mrs. M decided to quiz us on the extent of our Bible knowledge, and asked us if even one of us knew the Nicene Creed. All of us stared back at her in blank mystification. When our regular teacher came back the following week, all of us gheraoed her for clarifications. ‘What did that strange lady want from us?’ ‘Oh, you mean she wanted to hear the I Believe? Why didn’t she say so?’ The raggle-taggle group was word perfect on the Nicene Creed. All she had to do was to ask us to sing the words!

Establishing quietness as a readiness for learning, dealing with student fears, adding atmosphere to the text, facilitating memory—all these are worthy classroom ambitions. And doubtless there are many strategies which experienced teachers use to enhance learning. What is it that makes the use of music so important to me? Why do I use it at every opportunity I get? I’m no concert performer. The training I’ve had has at best been sporadic, and much of my excursions into music have been the moving around of a creature ‘in worlds not realized’. And yet I find that there is something very deep in me which responds to something that music represents. Perhaps I would do well to use the words of the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim to sum up my thoughts at this point.

If we are to understand the phenomena of nature, or the qualities of human beings, or the relationship to a God or to some different spiritual experience, we can learn much through music. Music is so very important and interesting to me because it is at the same time everything and nothing. If you wish to learn to live in a democratic society, then you would do well to play in an orchestra. For when you do so, you know when to lead and when to follow. You leave space for others and at the same time you have no inhibitions about claiming a space for yourself.

In the last twenty years of my life as a teacher, I have found myself in varied relationships with students who, like me, are groping for meaning, grasping at beauty in art, literature, music; trying to make sense of the world, and to hold their own end up. And these relationships are, by their very nature, dynamic. I lead… they follow… they lead… I follow… sometimes we walk together, at other times alone.