A Humming Heart spoke to Sahil Vasudeva, a very talented artist excelling at the dying art form of playing a piano. He started playing at an innocent age and since then, he has been trying to evolve ways to give more attention to this form of western classical music. One of the interesting ways he has adopted is combining the melodies to the backdrop of the far more attractive (rather unfairly) art of photography. Seeing the brilliant collection of music to his name, we decided that we needed to delve into the life of Opus.
At what age did you start playing the Western classical tunes? How did you go about learning the skill?
My mother had a bought a baby grand piano from Mussoorie from an antique dealer who claimed that it was from an old British lady who could no longer play it. That was my introduction to the piano. At age 7, my mother sent my brother and I for piano lessons and I did private lessons with many teachers in Delhi, including the Delhi School of Music. I continued to learn right up to college. However, life rolled by and honestly speaking, I never trained seriously. It was only in 2012 when I quit my full time job that I decided to focus on my training and technique.
What do you think is the most important aspect of playing the piano?
Developing an acute sensibility for music and sensitivity to emotion and experiences and then to be able to express it on the sound board of the hammers and strings is probably the most important skill. Obviously, i’m taking into consideration that having sound technique and form is important, but for me personally, if you can develop the right sound and sensibility, the technique can eventually follow suit.
You not only play the piano, but you also teach your students how to play it. Which one of these is more gratifying for you, the playing or the teaching?
I’m teaching very few students right now and focusing currently on my learning and performance. The formative years in piano are very critical and I know the impact they can have if problem areas are not addressed. I never had a dedicated teacher and I developed habits which I am still battling to change. I intend to take up teaching more seriously soon once I have the necessary knowledge to teach, as that is a different skill set.
Do you also collaborate with other artists in your acts? If not, are there any artists that you would like to collaborate with?
Yes, I always feature an artist in my act on a couple of pieces. I try to do a different instrument each time – thus far I have done tabla, a vocalist, and guitar. I intend to work with strings (cello and violin) and am currently working on including electronic elements as well. I also collaborate with artists across mediums – and have done a couple of pieces with photography. Eventually, I wish to explore the relationship between them and the piano and continue to evolve my act.
The combination of your music with Sohrab’s photography brings the two art forms together wonderfully. What was the idea behind this alliance?
How to make classical music relevant and local is a question I have to address as a performer, especially in India. I had been thinking of using a visual stimulus as a means to tackle that. Sohrab is a friend of mine and his work and style had always resonated with me. Eventually, I worked with Sohrab’s piece ‘River of Lost Time’ and juxtaposed it with ‘June’ by Tchaikovsky from the Seasons, which is a Barcarolle or a traditional Venetian boat song sung by the gondoliers. Our presentation is still a boat song, except that the visual narrative takes place in Varanasi. I’ve collaborated with Sohrab on another piece from his book and a prelude by Chopin.
Besides music, what other things interest you?
I’m quite a huge sports fan – both playing and watching! I did quite a lot of theatre as a child and my brother is an actor. So, quite naturally, I try to catch a good play if its happening in the city or attend a music performance. I love finding the new great kebab in town.
Do you find it difficult to find an audience appreciative of western classical music?
Of course, it is one of the main challenges. To start off, we have not been able to produce a local consistent classical performer (speaking of the piano) and the few concerts that take place in India, typically involve a foreigner behind the keys. Second, the listening of classical music itself is limited here coupled with not much knowledge of the form. Many people will not even know who Chopin is – but that’s also a thrill in its own way. Somehow, it attaches a sense of purpose to it. There is a lot of depth in classical composition and I wish to build an audience that will as a beginning, just listen – appreciation will take place eventually as a natural outcome. I am convinced that if people are exposed to the form enough, appreciation will follow suit.
What are the obstacles you have had to face so far in your career as a pianist?
I am extremely young in performance – I only started performing last year really. In that time I can amass quite a few obstacles – it starts with the lack of presence of the instrument. People have sometimes not even seen an acoustic piano or touched one. Venues are not willing to bring in acoustic pianos and it is an expensive instrument to purchase and maintain. Second, there are very few performance venues. Third, I think the manner in which listening takes place now coupled with certain type of digital music has really changed the conditioning process of listening. The cafe/restaurant model eventually just cannot sustain a serious performance space. As the instrument is seen more and the sound of it becomes more prevalent, the first baby steps will be taken care of in the process. Obstacles with respect to a career in music are already quite obvious in India – they just increase a few fold when it comes to this form!
Do you worry that the piano is a dying instrument in a world where the guitar is probably the most popular?
I alluded to part of this question previously so won’t go into detail here. Of course it worries me! hahaha Although, at the end of the day, all i need to worry about is becoming more proficient at my instrument. I think its important to develop a core skill set and classical piano definitely provides the training in that. In India, since there are not many performers of it, it can be a unique skill set. Guitarists are cool too p.s!
Do you listen to Bollywood music? If so, who are your favourite musicians in the industry? What is your take on the industry?
I don’t listen to Bollywood music that much. Bollywood is producing a style of filmmaking that I don’t always relate to and their motives cater to needs beyond the medium of filmmaking itself. As an independent industry blooms, I definitely think music in film will also change. Although, beyond the songs, the scores of some of the films are really good. I like Amit Trivedi’s work and AR Rahman has definitely produced some really good music in his career.
Would you like to give a piece of advice to those who are beginners in the world of music in general and piano in specific?
First, include playing an instrument in your life no matter what. The release and gratification is incomparable. To play the piano seriously requires a serious investment of time and dedication. The discipline and patience that it demands in itself can be of great learning. The digital technique will always make accessibility easier but use it as a tool to become a better musician, and not take shortcuts. Most importantly, enjoy the music and be passionate about it, to the point of obsession.
What do you see in your future? What will be Opus up to five years down the line?
My mission is to make the piano more accessible, relevant and less exclusive. I’m going to continue performing as much as I can in traditional and unconventional spaces and build on experience. hopefully classical piano won’t be compartmentalised and be more a part of the independent industry here and eventually move into the mainstream – that would be amazing! I am working towards building an ‘act’ that I am chipping away at slowly. I will have it in place next year.