The Stanford University music department has 90 faculty members. Not surprisingly for a Silicon Valley school, there are 14 professors in the center for computer research in music and acoustics, many on loan from the engineering department. There are also six teachers of Western music composition, four flute instructors, six jazz instructors, and eight keyboard instructors. There are even instructors for various kinds of East Asian music, including Chinese Orchestral Music, Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, and Japanese Taiko drumming.

There is, however, only one professor with any connection to South Asia: Ethnomusicologist Anna Schultz. Professor Schultz knew that her students could never fully appreciate South Asian music just from reading books and hearing her lectures, and wanted them to experience what it was like to actually study this most challenging of musical art forms.

Fortunately, the great Ustad Amjad Ali Khan had a desire to reach out to western students, and the result was an agreement for Khan to teach a course at Stanford he called Indian Music: A Way of Life.

There was no question that this way of life was going to be as new to the students as the music itself. Khan has strong beliefs about the nature of music and its impact on our personal lives. “There are two fundamental kinds of music: pure sound and songs with words,” Khan told his students. “Pure sound connects you directly to God. Song has language and is thus connected to stories and text. Words like ‘Oh my darling, I love you, when will you come back?’ can make music popular, but it also makes it less universal. All music is based on singing. My main goal when I play is to make my sarod sing. But with all due respect to language, it creates barriers. Vocals without words are best. Once language is added to the voice, it becomes possible to manipulate people. Romney makes a speech, Obama makes a speech, and because of language somebody will win, and somebody will lose. Music is transparent. If I am out of tune, I cannot manipulate anyone. I thank God every day that I am fortunate enough to live and work in the world of pure sound.”

Before coming to Stanford, Khan had never taught anyone except sarod and sitar players who planned to devote their lives to playing the music he taught them. Khan responded to this devotion by following the traditional practice of never charging for lessons. His students at Stanford were a much more diverse lot. Many were fans of Indian classical music, including several sitar students, but they were all from the science and engineering departments. The music majors, in contrast, included opera singers, European-style violinists, and silver flute players, who habitually talked of “reading” and “writing” music.

Written music is not completely foreign to Indian music. However, there is no one notation system used by all musical gharanas (lineages or traditions), and such systems tend to be disparaged as a kind of crutch. Some gurus are openly hostile to the very idea of written music. When Khyal vocalist Laxmi Tewari showed up for his first lesson with a notebook, his guru held the book to his ear, said “I don’t hear this book making music!” and threw the book away. For the next five years, Tewari learned everything entirely by ear.

Amjad Ali Khan had a more open-minded attitude, even though he himself never uses any notation system. Suddaseel Sen, his Stanford teaching assistant, listened carefully to the melodies Khan sang, then provided notations on the spot using both western notation and an Indian system that placed  each note into a crosswordlike grid. Although the sitar students were permitted to play their instruments during a special session at the end of class, everyone else had to put their instruments aside and focus entirely on singing. “If you can’t sing what you are playing, then your knowledge is incomplete. I am also requiring everyone in my class to perform the lessons we learned in class in a live public concert,” said Khan. Although he encouraged his vocal majors to sing in the operatic style they were used to, and the concert undoubtedly showed that the students had worked hard to learn this new material, the concert was primarily for the performer’s benefit, not the audiences. But the benefit was real, even for those who would probably never perform such music again. “The insights into him as a performer is the main thing I gained from this class,” said one grateful student. “Things stop being abstract concepts when you actually try to do them. I now know how to keep taal, identify a tihai, and I can detect the contours of Raga Darbari Kanada now that I know that Re is the vadi and Pa is the samvadi. Reading about and listening to music is helpful, but you never get any really deep understanding unless you have the hands-on experience of trying to play and sing it.”


Perhaps the students who learned the most were those who performed the final movement of Khan’s concerto for sarod and orchestra in a “Mozart and More” concert at the end of the term. It was originally scored by conductor David Murphy from a CD of Khan’s precise vocalization of every instrumental part. First performed by Murphy’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it provided fresh challenges for the top student ensemble known as the Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra. Conductor Jindong Cai remarked on stage that all the musicians had to recalibrate their tuning to account for the difference between Indian tuning and the western compromise known as the well-tempered scale. Afterwards some of the musicians told me that the biggest challenge was learning to follow Khan as a performer. “In (European) classical music, you can keep your eye on the page and just follow the notes” said one violinist, “playing with the Sarod requires much more awareness of the moment.” “That’s because he often changes his parts, not just the phrasing but the actual notes,” added a cellist. “About a quarter of his performance was different for each run through, not just the phrasing but the actual notes.

But his rhythm was so impeccable that everything he played always fit with what we played.”

Teed Rockwell studied with Ali Akbar Khan for many years, and is the only person in the world to play Indian classical and popular music on his customized touchstyle veena. You can see and hear videos of his musical performances at