From the melodica to the saxophone, Kochi’s youngsters are picking up new and unusual musical instruments to express themselves. Tune in as their instructors break it down to the basics and tell Esther Elias what it takes to reach artistic proficiency
Alternatively called the melodion, pianica or melodia depending on brand variants, the melodica is a handheld 32-note keyboard with a blow pipe attached. While its timbre is like a piano’s, its volume varies by the strength of air exhaled. “It’s a great instrument for pre-schoolers just introduced to music, because it’s small, acoustic and easy to play. Getting them to sit at a piano and practice daily isn’t easy. But they can carry this around wherever they want to and still learn the basics of playing a piano,” says pianist and teacher Antony P. Allesh from Virtuoso Music. For senior students, the melodica can help them learn the techniques of soloing. “It is frequently used in jazz, reggae and even old Hindi songs. Its reed sound fits solos well, so even pianists who want to become better soloists can practise improvising on the melodica,” says Antony.
Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI)
In the mid 70s, American trumpeter Nyle Steiner conceived of a wind instrument whose music was made electronically, but whose fingering and playing style was like regular wind instruments. The EWI today comes either with a synthesizer attached or with a USB port which can be connected to an external synth, thus enabling it to sound like a clarinet, flute, trombone or any other brass or woodwind instrument you’d fancy. “For beginners of woodwind, fingering is often the hardest hurdle because a small difference in finger placing changes the tone greatly. But the EWI doesn’t have touch-sensitive keys, so however you hold the note, it plays. It also helps children get confident about their musical abilities faster,” says Manoj Jons, CEO at Virtuoso Music. The EWI in Kochi, however, is priced at a steep Rs. 26,000 and is currently available only through online home-delivery portals.
The saxophone, for decades now, has been mainstay of most jazz and ambient music but few youngsters have chosen to learn it because of the large frame and heavy weight. “The first step is perfecting breathing techniques, which use tongue movements and lip shapes to generate sound. After that, students learn fingering patterns, which are slightly complicated as they traverse 32 different keys,” says saxophonist and teacher Rejeev George, who comes into Kochi from Chalakudy twice a week to train students. The saxophone is as much about its unique sound as the visual impact it creates when played believes Rajeev. “It’s one of the few instruments where your playing style is as important as your technical ability. Once you learn it, it can hold its own in most blues, jazz and rock music,” he says.
Violins are often called the king of all instruments for the sheer effort it takes to attain prowess. So learning the cello, which comes within the family of violins, is no easy task says cellist and teacher Sunil C. George from Ardra Institute of Music. “Those who choose to learn the cello, usually have some prior experience with string instruments like the violin or viola. It’s better that way because once you understand the key to holding strings and bowing, the same techniques, with variations, apply to the cello,” says Sunil. What differs from the violin though, are that the strings are much thicker calling for a harder touch, the fingers need to spread wider while playing and the stance of performance is completely changed. Since the cello plays more bass notes than the violin, Sunil says cellists can soon play great duets with violinists and even do string quartets with the viola and double bass.
The djembe is essentially an African drum that has found its way into American, Arabic and Indian music. It’s played either seated with the legs wrapped around the slender lower half, or standing up with it strapped around the neck. “It comes in various tones such as bass, tenor and mid-range depending on the width of the drum skin and the drum’s depth. So when you put different djembes together you get a varied percussion ensemble,” says percussionist and teacher Jerry Peter from Wooden Shield Academy of Music. Most djembe players currently come with a base in rhythm theory having learnt the Western drums first. But Jerry says chenda and mridangam players pick up the djembe faster because they have a more ‘free’ hand since all the notes are created with wrist, palm and finger movements on the djembe too. Currently, djembes are easily available in Kochi’s music shops but its goatskin surface and maintenance are tough to come by.