Aakash Saha, classical guitarist, chamber musician and composer, returned to India in December 2015 with a Bachelor’s of Music degree in Classical Guitar Performance from GFA winner and internationally acclaimed teacher Denis Azabagic’s studio at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University. He talks to us about his experience in a conservatory in the United States, his plans of introducing international pedagogy for classical guitar in India at the IGF Training Centre, and his recent concert-workshop tour of Sri Lanka.
What is it like to be taught by Denis Azabagic?
He’s extremely to the point and his razor-sharp attention to detail is amazing. Instead of saying “create a phrase” or “link these ideas”, he’d show me how – play this forte, play this piano, decrecendo here, separate these 2 notes, roll that chord… it’ll sound like a phrase. He’s really able to relate to everyone at their level! I would say that one has to be very very fortunate to have him as a teacher. While on the one hand it is finger-aching studentship, on the other it is thrilling to be guided to discover the nuanced beauty of guitar music, every class. If you are willing to work hard, he can take you to highest level you want to ascend.
How did he become your teacher?
In summer of 2010, I went on a tour of Europe to attend guitar festivals across the continent. The first one I went to was the Twents Gitaar Festival in Netherlands (at the time run by Bobby Rootveld) and that’s where, on the first day of the festival, I had my first masterclass with Denis. I played Study in B Minor by Sor and Lagrima by Tarrega for the class and he gave me a few pointers, which I still remember and teach to my students!
I took masterclasses with Denis at the other festivals I attended, too. At the end of that trip, in Koblenz, I told him I wanted to learn from him and only him and no one else and asked what I had to do to become his student. He suggested not just learning the guitar, but having an aim as well, like a university degree. So I went to the US that June and had a month’s worth of masterclasses with him to prepare for the entrance exam for the Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA).
What did you play for the conservatory entrance exam at CCPA?
I had to play 3 pieces of contrasting styles. I played Bach’s Prelude in D minor, a Sor study and another Romantic piece by an anonymous composer. My audition for CCPA was in January 2011 and I assume I did well because I got in and was also awarded a 50% scholarship.
What was your experience at CCPA?
When I went there, I thought I would just do music, but CCPA is part of Roosevelt University, so I had other electives like Intro to Psychology, Business, Visual Arts… I had to do 4 semesters of piano, 4 semesters of music theory, music history from ancient music, greek music to baroque, baroque to classical, classical to romantic, romantic to modern music which also included bands like Led Zeppelin and The Beatles!
I had a semester of counterpoint and how to compose Baroque music and it’s different styles. I also had a pedagogy class on how to teach my instrument and music in general. And a semester of conducting. For that class, my final was to conduct a section of Firebird by Stravinsky!
Did you experience any culture shock?
Not in the traditional sense, but it took me a while to get used to being around people completely obsessed with music. The students there were completely immersed in music, their conversation was full of music puns, and references to inside musical jokes.
When I was in Calcutta, I didn’t have the exposure to people like this. The first shock was when I saw Denis and his wife Eugenia Moliner (a professional, and incredibly talented flautist) practising 6-7 hours a day, but I kind of expected that because they are professional, touring musicians. My first day at college, I saw students practising from 8am in the morning, playing for 3 hours straight then taking a power nap in the practise room and continuing like that all the way upto 10 and 11 at night. I had never seen so much practising. It was a big thing for me, and it took a couple of years before I was able to put in those many hours myself.
Tell us about the Indian Guitar Federation Training Centre.
When I came back to India, six months ago, it was with the purpose of teaching classical guitar here and imparting the knowledge that I had received abroad, to the classical guitar students here. The IGF Training Centre is a music school innaugurated in April 2016 to facilitate this. I use the method I was taught by Denis Azabagic, and teach that to my students. For group lessons, we’ve collaborated with the Austin Classical Guitar Method. Mathew Hinsley of ACG has very kindly allowed us to use his method and arrangements of sheet music to teach student groups.
We have also been using the school as a venue for monthly classical guitar meet ups “addas” for the Calcutta Classical Guitar Society. And through the course of the year, we intend to hold workshops here by visiting guitarists.
You’re just back from Sri Lanka…
Yes, I had three concerts and two days of masterclasses in Colombo and Kandy. The tour was organised by the the Indian Cultural Centre under the stewardship of its Director, Mrs. Rajashree Behera and Mr. Amaranath Ranatunga, senior classical guitarist and teacher, who runs the Amaranath Guitar Academy.
The first concert was at the Overseas School, Colombo, the second concert was in the Russian Cultural Centre and the third was in Kandy at the Sri Chandananda Buddhist College. Masterclasses were held at the Indian Cultural Centre. Each day I would have to teach 2 batches of 15 students – 60 students over 2 days, from 10 in the morning till 8 in the evening.
What is the classical guitar scene like there?
Mr Amaranath Ranatunga is really the man behind it all. He is a legend there – the Segovia of Sri Lanka. He has single handedly brought classical guitar into the mainstream in Sri Lanka! I got prime time coverage on television talkshows, radio shows and newspaper write ups. The halls were full and I got standing ovations at the concerts. The students are eager to learn, and showed great respect for their teacher which is a sign of seriousness of the education.
The kind of respect and devotion towards a western classical musician that I received there is something that should be cultivated everywhere!
What have you been doing in Calcutta since your return?
Apart from teaching, I’ve been composing. I’m working on a film score for a movie, and arranging tracks with a few Bengali indie musicians.
I’m also getting ready for the Thailand International Classical Guitar Festival where I’ve been invited as a featured musician to play the opening concert.