Cultural melodies

Looking into three different MVHS students who play traditional instruments

Sophia Chen, Copy Editor

Whether playing the tabla, veena or sheng, the following MVHS students practice and play instruments that stem from their culture. These are their experiences.


Sophomore Shourish Mukherjee

“I was at a concert, and my dad noticed me tapping along to the person who was playing the tabla at the concert. So we went for lessons there.”

After attending a concert in May of 2009, sophomore Shourish Mukherjee had become interested in playing the tabla, a traditional Indian percussion instrument. He began to play the following month and has been playing ever since.

“I do like playing it because with all musical instruments, it’s relaxing,” Mukherjee said.
“And, well, banging on drums is kind of cathartic.”

According to Mukherjee, the tabla is comprised of two drums, one for each hand. The right-hand drum is made out of wood, while the left-hand drum is made out of metal.

“It can make several different sounds, some of them sound flat. Others are like a bell, kind of?”

Mukherjee takes tabla lessons every Sunday and used to practice almost daily when he was in middle school, but now practices weekly. Due to the difficulty of the rhythms, he first practices and memorizes the piece by clapping before playing it on the tabla with the help of a metronome.

“We first clap out the rhythms, and see if we’re doing anything wrong, and we correct that,” Mukherjee said. “Then we actually play the rhythms, and if we’re doing anything wrong, we correct that. And then from classes, onwards, we just keep playing it until the day of the performance, where it’s just muscle memory at that point.”

While the tabla can be played solo, it is typically an accompaniment for other instruments like the harmonium or the sitar as well as vocals. The following is a recording from a tabla concert from May of 2019 in which Mukherjee performed with other instrument players.

Video courtesy of Shourish Mukherjee | Used with permission

Besides the tabla, Mukherjee also has played the trumpet since 6th grade and is currently in MVHS’ Symphonic Band. He has found that playing the tabla has helped him with the rhythms for trumpets. Besides the fact that the trumpet is a wind instrument which produces sound through blowing air into a mouthpiece, he also points out other differences between playing the two.

“But for the tabla, everything is just memorization,” Mukherjee said. “We get to play these minute-long pieces from memorization and at the speed that the tabla players are going, that’s like … Yeah, you have to memorize quite a lot for the tabla. For the trumpet, not nearly as much.”

Between Western and Indian classical music, he prefers Western classical music.

“I enjoy listening to Western classical more,” Mukherjee said. “But if a tabla comes in a Western piece, then I’ll be like ‘Oh hey, that’s new.’ Because it did once. And I was very surprised by it.”

To anybody who wants to pursue learning the tabla, he advises that knowing right from left is important, and getting a good teacher “set[s] you up for success.”

“Because there are a lot of ways to play the tabla which are wrong, and not a lot of ways to play it right,” Mukherjee said. “Because all the wrong ways can lead to strain on muscles, injuries and horrible sound, but a few ways to play it right, well you avoid all of that. Which is, I suppose true for almost any instrument.”

Music credits: Neel Taal Presentation May 2020, May 2019 tabla concert

Audio courtesy of Shourish Mukherjee | Used with permission


Junior Hiranya Sundar

“Ever since I could remember, we’d always have a veena in the house, and right now we have like four or five sitting over there. So, when I was younger, I’d see my mom playing it and I’d be like, ‘What is this instrument? It’s like five feet tall.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s so big and so interesting to see.’ So that’s what got me inspired to actually play the veena, and my mom’s actually a music teacher so after a while she was like, ‘You guys are obsessed about this instrument,’ so she taught us how to play it.”

Ever since she was a child, junior Hiranya Sundar has been playing the veena, a South Indian classical stringed instrument that plays Carnatic music, alongside her sister.

“I definitely enjoy playing the veena because it’s very cathartic,” Sundar said. “It’s kind of like playing any instrument. Like, you can literally just let out your soul and it just feels really nice to just play.”

She and her twin sister, junior Lavi Sundar, typically performed at concerts once a month pre-pandemic, and now do Zoom concerts about once every two months. Besides numerous national-level competitions, they have traveled all around California and also performed at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, an Indian classical music festival in Cleveland, Ohio. They have also been a part of a TV show that has been broadcast nationally in India.

“Performing with my sister is really fun because … I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just like you’re in the moment, it’s just nice to hear your own playing reflected back at you, you’re just … just a way to brand yourself, I guess,” Sundar said.

Video courtesy of Hiranya Sundar | Used with permission

After eighth grade, Sundar and her sister learn to decode and understand the songs that they play by themselves as well as play impromptu music. Lessons were more structured prior to that.

“When you’re starting off playing the veena, you do these things called ‘Sarali Varisais’ and ‘Alankarams,’” Sundar said. “And it might be a little hard to understand I guess, but basically, those are like the practice things to get you to know how to play the veena and learn songs. And then you graduate to learning these types of small songs called Geethams. And then you learn the actual songs after that. So it’s kind of like a progression, but basically, you learn more and more complex songs until you get to the actual hardcore songs.”

One way Sundar is able to connect to the music is through the song’s lyrics.

“Most of the music, what we do is that we first learn the lyrics called the ‘sahithyam’ and then we delve into translating the sahithyam into English words so we can understand the relationship, and typically they’re religious songs,” Sundar said. “So being of the Hindu faith, we kind of relate to it. So it’s just easy to relate to the songs.” 

If given the option, Sundar likes the idea of incorporating non-Western instruments into middle school or high school bands.

“Actually, when I was in sixth and seventh grades, I kind of wanted to be part of band,” Sundar said. “But I never could because I was like, ‘I’m already playing the veena,’ and if you play the veena, you actually get these callouses at the tops of your fingers that makes it hard to play other stringed instruments. So I was like, ‘I cannot play another stringed instrument because I’m already playing the veena. So if the veena was a part of the band, then I could be actually part of a band, but I could play an instrument that I already know how to play. So I would love it if there was more diversity among instruments in the band.”

Music credits: Veena Twins Thanam in Surutti, Neerada Sama Neela Krishna (Veena Duet)

Audio courtesy of Hira Sundar | Used with permission


Senior William Huang

“So I went to a concert offered by CYCS, which is the California Youth Chinese Symphony. And I saw someone playing the sheng, and I was really entranced by the noise that it made. And after that, I asked my mom to enroll me in some sheng lessons. It all started from there.”

After attending the California Youth Chinese Symphony concert when he was 11-12 years old, senior William Huang began to play the sheng, a Chinese wind instrument. 

“I enjoy playing the sheng currently, because I feel that there’s not really another instrument that sounds like the sheng, and the way that it’s played you can play multiple notes at the same time,” Huang said. “You don’t just have to exhale. You can also inhale and have a note play. That’s what I like about it — you don’t have to stop playing to breathe.”

Prior to playing the sheng, Huang had played and eventually quit the piano as well as the suona, which he described was like the “Chinese version of an oboe.” He explains that parts of playing the sheng is more difficult than playing the piano.

“I think something that’s difficult is that you don’t know where the notes are placed at first, so you have to sort of memorize it and use muscle memory,” Huang said. “If you were to play a song normally on piano, you know that each of the notes are going to be increasing in pitch as you go, right? But for sheng, it’s not necessarily the case. I mean, generally it follows a trend where it gets deeper as you go to the middle. But, you still have to sort of muscle-memory your way through that.”

Video courtesy of William Huang | Used with permission

Huang now plays for the California Youth Chinese Symphony and takes two hour one-on-one classes every Sunday to learn and practice musical pieces. He performs at concerts every few months as well as at an annual concert. The symphony typically plays Chinese traditional music and occasionally other musical pieces.

“One time, our whole symphony, there was an encore and then we played the ‘Angry Birds’ theme,” Huang said. “That was really fun.”

Overall he’s enjoyed playing in the California Youth Chinese Symphony and has made a lot of friends through it. He has also been able to “realize [his] cultural roots better.”

“Growing up, I wasn’t particularly super invested in my own Chinese culture, but I think as I started playing the sheng and then seeing what the songs actually meant and their significance of Chinese culture, I was able to perceive my culture better,” Huang said.

Music credits: 彩雲追月 加州青年國樂團 (CYCS) 線上音樂會, Ensemble合奏 《貝加爾湖的清晨》

Audio courtesy of William Huang | Used with permission


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