An Advocate for Music Education

Iris C F Gomes

It is a rare breed of humans who look for more than establishing their own worth and engaging in the pursuit of ambition. Indian-American Lara Saldanha is one of that rare breed. 14 January 2018 saw her playing a benefit concert for Goa’s own Child’s Play (India) Foundation, which was founded by Dr Luis Dias to bring the skill of reproducing Western Classical to underprivileged children on the lines of El Sistema. The 25-year-old pianist entertained the audience with a programme that included works by Bach, Haydn, Clara Schumann, and Messiaen.

Lara Saldanha has a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance and studied under the acclaimed pianist Alan Chow. She has an additional bachelor’s degree in Economics from Northwestern University, USA and is at present in the process of attaining a Master of Music at The New School’s Mannes School of Music in New York City, being mentored by Vladimir Valjarević.

An accomplished pianist in her own right, Lara has won prizes at competitions such as Geneva Conservatory Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Schumann Competition; Geneva Conservatory Chopin Competition; Ohio Music Teachers’ Association Buckeye Competition and others. After having performed in USA, Switzerland, France, Germany, and China, Lara made her debut in India in January 2017 at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, the Kala Academy in Goa, and Mazda Hall for the Pune Music Society, as well as the Child’s Play (India) Foundation benefit concert.

Lara is of Goan origin and hence joins a diaspora of enterprising Goan-origin achievers who are making a difference in the world in their own field of expertise. Her grandparents were Goan, with both her grandfathers coming from Saligao and her maternal and paternal grandmothers coming from Assonora and Benaulim.

Although Lara has no particular first memory of music, she recalls her parents constantly played CDs and tapes on their stereo all the time and her first piano lesson the week she turned 6 years old. The love for classical music is something that seems to have come naturally to Lara. Of the other musical people in her family, there is her sister who took piano lessons along with Lara while growing up and one of their grandfathers had a swing band. Her parents, however, do not play any musical instrument. She says, ‘The method books that kids learn from have a mixture of folk tunes, popular songs, jazz and blues influenced pieces, and classical. I was always just more drawn to the classical pieces. I don't have a single reason why – maybe it was the beauty of the melodies, the balance of the construction, or simply that I enjoyed the technical challenges that classical pieces present. By the age of 10 it was pretty clear that I liked classical, so we switched to a teacher who focused on that.’

Choosing a favourite composer is an impossible task, as Lara says, ‘There is an endless amount of great music. I love going to live performances, and every time I go there is always a new piece I fall in love with or a new take on a piece I know that makes me see it in a new light.’ For her own performances, she has a preference for pieces from the Baroque (1685-1750) and Classical (1750-1820) eras. The challenge these pieces present is that they were written for the ancestors of the piano: the harpsichord, clavichord, organ, and fortepiano. These are instruments that are fairly unlike the piano and therefore test Lara’s musical skills in interpreting the music using the piano without losing the essence of the original scores that the composers wanted to convey. ‘Figuring out how to play that music on a different instrument while still staying true to the meaning and expressiveness of the piece is a puzzle that is endlessly fascinating to me,’ says Lara.

There seems to have been a considerable growth of education in Western classical music, as Lara has observed in the last one-and-a-half year that she has become involved in the music scene. Progress in the pace of musical education is paramount to the progress of Western classical music. She says, ‘Unfortunately, people often pick up this perception about classical music that it’s elitist or irrelevant to today’s world when they get older. Children don’t come to music lessons with these prejudices. The process of learning an instrument opens up their minds to how universal the great works of art are, and how they are still as alive and exciting hundreds of years later.’

Lara is a music educator herself with a Teaching Fellowship (awarded in 2017) at the New School. She teaches a studio of 20 young students at Keys to Success NYC as well. As a ‘teaching artist’, Lara finds that being a performer and a teacher complement each other, wherein she is able to improve her music practice through the simplification of music that she works out for her students. Sharping her own musical and technical abilities in turn prompts her to find ways to present her personal discoveries in an uncomplicated manner to her students.

Being able to share what she loves doing most in the world is Lara’s greatest joy as a music teacher. Apart from the fact that it has been proved through research that studying music enhances the development of children's brains, resulting in advanced language skills, focus, creativity, etc. ‘It's really exciting to see over a period of a year or more how much a child can learn and grow both in music and outside,’ she says.

The best compliment Lara could receive as a performer is someone telling her that they could relate to the piece she had played and were drawn in by the expressiveness and creativity displayed, despite the fact that Western classical music is not a genre that they typically listen to. She goes on to say, ‘Then both as a student and a teacher, it's always wonderful to hear that someone hears progress in a performance…performing is a constant process of trying to improve.’

Besides her musical prowess, Lara is dedicated to philanthropic works. She says, ‘Giving your time to the less fortunate is a value that has been instilled in me since I was a child. I come from a family of teachers who are very giving of their time and talents, particularly to underprivileged children who are working hard to educate themselves. It's easy to become self-involved as a musician, since so much of our time is spent in practice rooms by ourselves honing our craft. Being involved in the community is an excellent reminder that playing flawlessly is not the point – it’s about offering your talents in the service of others.’

In the past, Lara has raised funds for the Snehasadan homes for street children in Mumbai. She has worked with various organisations through her schools, built homes through Habitat for Humanity, tutored students for whom English is not their first language, and taught music to children.

Lara met Dr Luis Dias last year when she was performing in Goa. She was glad to sit in on some of the classes conducted by Child’s Play (India) Foundation that he invited her to. She says, ‘I believe every child should have access to music education. It's a challenge that exists in all parts of the world, so I was so happy to find that there is someone who is tackling it head-on in my ancestral state.’

Of her experience of performing the benefit concert for Child’s Play, Lara says, ‘It was a wonderful experience! It was my first time playing at the Institute Menezes Braganza. It's always a privilege to get a concert engagement, but all the more rewarding when that concert will be able to benefit a cause that I truly believe in – access to music education for all.’

On her visit last year, Lara found that Goa is abounding in music infrastructure and potential, with its fine-looking concert halls, pianos, educational resources and so forth. ‘Dr Luis has told me that what is missing is teachers. Children can't learn to play music from a book or an instrument alone, no matter how smart or talented they are. It's not an easy problem to solve, and I wouldn't presume to suggest solutions having not grown up in Goa, but I'm working on learning more in order to help as much as I can.’

Read more about Child's Play (India) Foundation at Music to Make a Difference