One of the few classically trained pianists in Pakistan, Haroon Shad is one of the country’s most promising musicians, music teachers and composers. A founding member of the Lahore Music Teachers Association (LMTA), the young musician has made a veritable contribution to the field of instruction and education in music, in Pakistan.

1.           You are one of the founders of the Lahore Music Teachers Association (LMTA). Why did you think such an association was needed?

The was a great need for an association such as the LMTA because there were no organizations, mechanisms or laws in place to protect the rights and establish the responsibilities of music teachers. Measure had to be taken for the welfare of music teachers. It was also important to make sure that qualifications and requirements for music teachers were clearly defined so that only qualified people could become teachers of music. LMTA was founded to protect the right of both teachers and students of music, to ensure their well-being, and to promote music.

2.           What are the specific objectives of LMTA?

LMTA has four (4) primary objectives.

The first is to make sure that music instruction is regulated at a private, if not governmental, level. The second is to protect people who teach music and ensure their welfare. The third is to make sure that teachers of music are qualified, committed and capable. The fourth objective is to hold seminars, talks and conferences on music that are focused on teachers and students as opposed to listeners of music.

3.           How has LMTA made life better for students and teachers of music?

First and foremost, it has made the education of music both affordable and accessible. When a student of music approaches the LMTA, we make sure to find the right teacher for him based on his location, skill level and goals. We also make sure that the fees charged are reasonable. Secondly, we make sure that members of the LMTA are skilled, capable and competent. The world of music is full of charlatans who pretend to be Ustads (senior teachers of music) but never teach anything; their singular goals is to make money. The LMTA makes sure that no one but the best music teachers are given membership to the organization. The LMTA also holds seminars and conferences which benefit both students and teachers of music. We recently held a seminar on the fundamentals of Hindustani Sangeet, the music of Pakistan and Northern India. It was received very well. The material used in the seminar is now being used by teachers all over the city for the purpose of instruction.

4.           Is there a plan to start similar organizations in other cities of Pakistan?

Yes, there is a plan.

The LMTA has already started accepting members from cities other than Lahore. The hope is that these members will eventually set up chapters of the organization in their own cities. I personally think that we will have a number of sister organizations by the year 2020.

5.           The relationship between an Ustad and a Shagird (student) has historically been considered sacred in our culture. Does the hallowed nature of the relationship exist in modern-day Pakistan?

The relationship between an Ustad and a Shagird is sacred, truly sacrosanct and almost holy. An Ustad treats a student like his own son and, in addition to providing instruction, takes care of his spiritual, material, monetary and worldly needs. The shagird has complete devotion to his teacher and holds him in the highest regard. Historically, it has not been uncommon for students to kiss the feet of their teachers, lick their soles and drink water in which their teacher’s feet have been soaked. As society has moved away from spiritualism towards materialism, such pure relationships have become diluted. It is rare to find true Ustad-Shagird relationships in Pakistan today but they do exist. It is always heartwarming to see a teacher and his student exemplify the true Ustad-Shagird relationship. One just does not see it often enough.

On a personal level, I can tell you that I love a few of my students like my own children and they are truly devoted to me. I cherish those relationships and work very hard to live up to the traditions established by our forefathers.

6.           What are the greatest challenges that teachers and students of music face in Pakistan?

The biggest problem is the lack of inclusion of music in school curricula. The lack of governmental support is a real problem; almost any and everything done to improve education in music has to be done at a small level, by private individuals and organizations. Music teachers are often underpaid and sometimes truly impoverished. They, therefore, do not get a lot of respect in our materialistic society. As a result, students do not demonstrate requisite reverence. Another problem is the lack of patience in youngsters today. Instead of giving music the time that is required and working hard, they look for short-cuts and easy-way-outs. These do not exist in music which requires dedication, time, hard work and considerable effort.

7.           Why did you select the piano as your primary instrument?

I am attracted to the sound of the piano. It is rich, dramatic and mysterious. The sound of the piano lends itself to a lot of personalization and it can be highly expressive. I have never been moved by any sound in the manner that the sound of piano moves me. It is the piano’s rich sound that made me select it as my primary musical instrument.

Mastering the piano takes a lot of time, effort and hard work but, surprisingly, the early stages of learning are relatively easy and very rewarding. One is able make reasonably melodious sounds on the piano even after a few days of instruction because the instrument has ready-made pitches. It takes months, and sometimes years, to produce pleasing sounds on most other instruments.

One more thing. The piano provides both melody and harmony and can, therefore, be played solo. Accompaniment is not necessary. This is not true for most other musical instruments that produce only the melody line and always require accompaniment.

I think the use of piano in Indian and Pakistani films also made the instrument very alluring for me. I was fascinated by actors sitting on the piano and singing for others, in films. I wanted to develop the ability to sit and entertain crowds using music.

8.           Who was your teacher?

I studied the piano with Zahra David.

9.           How did you learn about Hindustani Sangeet?

I studied classical music at the Lahore Arts Council.

10.      Do you find it difficult to play South Asian music on a western instrument?

No, not really. If anything, I find it easier because there is no established tradition of playing raag (melodic modes) on the piano that I need to follow. I, therefore, have more freedom to play, interpret and explore raag than I would if I played the sarangi, sitar or sarod.

11.      What do you think are the main differences between you and pianists who play purely Western music?

The piano can be played, at a high level, in one of two ways: ‘sight-reading’ or ‘by-the-ear.’

Sight reading is the performance of music using notation of music on a sheet of paper. Playing piano by ear means playing without referencing sheet music and figuring out pieces by aural reference.

Pianists who play purely Western music tend to play by sight reading. I play both by the ear and by sight reading. That is probably the biggest difference between me and Western pianists.

12.      Does using both techniques, sight-reading and by-the-ear, make your music better?

Yes, I believe that it does.

13.      How does it make it better?

I believe that the two techniques are not mutually exclusive and that both must be used to create both music. I use both techniques but have a slight bias towards playing by the ear because it helps develop good aural skills which, I believe, are absolutely essential for good musicianship. Since I played by the ear for many years, I have an ability to anticipate future movements in pieces that I play. Consequently, I don’t need to read every single thing on the sheet. Playing by the ear has actually helped me become good at reading sheet music.

14.      Your facility in both techniques must also help with proprioception?

It most certainly does. Proprioception is the ability to find one’s way around the keyboard without having to look at the keys. Sight reading trains one to not look down at the keys whereas playing by the ear teaches one to not read while playing the piano. The two techniques together allow one to develop the brain’s ability to know where the body is in space. That ability is key to good proprioception.

15.      As a pianist, do you have to take special care of your fingers?

Yes, I do, to make an understatement. I have to pay a lot of attention to the appearance, hygiene, health and training of my hands and fingers.

People pay attention to the hands of pianists. It is important that they are neat, clean and well-groomed.

The health of the hands and fingers is very important as well. I cannot take part in sports activities that have the potential of hurting my hand or my fingers. I also have to take care of eating and exercising correctly to avoid tendonitis and tunnel syndromes. I have a carefully developed exercise regimen that allows me to develop stamina without damaging my fingers.

Fingers, hands, elbows and shoulders – these are my tools of trade. I have no choice but to take very good care of them.

16.      Piano keys are made of plastic instead of ivory these days. Do they become slippery in Pakistan’s heat?

Piano keys used to be covered with ivory up until the nineteen thirties when plastic key covers were introduced. Over years, plastic has gained popularity and, with a ban on ivory in place since the nineteen eighties, almost all new pianos use plastic key covers.

Ivory absorbs sweat; therefore, ivory keys help when a pianist sweats. They also tend to be more tactile and have greater friction than plastic keys. However, they are increasingly difficult to find, easy to damage and very difficult to maintain. I like playing with plastic keys. They do feel comparatively slippery but that helps in the playing of quick notes. I also try to play in air conditioned venues where sweating is limited. As a side note, let me mention that a piano should always be stored and played in temperature-controlled rooms. This helps protect the instrument and keeps it tuned for longer periods of time. 

17.      What kind of piano do you enjoy playing?

The grand piano, without a doubt. I sometimes practice on uprights and electronic pianos but, for a performance, I always want the grand piano.

18.      Why?

Grand pianos are larger in size and produce richer sound with more dimension, weight and gravitas. The pure tone of the grand piano cannot be matched by the more compact uprights and electronic pianos. Since the strings in a grand piano are longer, the overtones are varied and more interesting. The vibrations are superior and the tones purer. Grand pianos afford pianists the softest of pianissimos (low tones) and the most vibrant of fortissimos (loud tones). The playability of grand pianos cannot be matched by other pianos. The keys in grand pianos tend to be more responsive. Grand pianos have three pedals and, therefore, offer a greater range of musical effects. Professional pianists prefer grand pianos all over the world. As a result, manufacturers craft these instruments with the utmost attention to detail, workmanship and quality. The best pianos are always the gran pianos.

19.      They also look very good.

They sure do. The stylish curves, attractive woodwork and majestic size of grand pianos make them the most good-looking of musical instruments. They light up the stage and look great in homes.

20.      How do you prepare for a concert?

I practice a great deal, playing the program pieces in different keys and in different tempos. I also approaching the pieces in multiple manners and settle on the one that brings alive their emotional essence.

I like to check the performance environment well before the concert. Discovering problems at the last minute can ruin one’s mood and consequently the performance. I make sure that I sleep well the night before a performance. I eat and drink carefully on the day of the performance. I also make sure that my performance clothes and shoes fit well and are comfortable. A few hours before the concert, I try to be alone and not talk to others. I need these final hours to focus and mentally prepare for my performance. 

21.      You always have a smile on your face when playing the piano.

Yes, I do. I enjoy playing the piano and it shows on my face.

22.      When is a performance successful?

A performance is successful when I am able to reach out to my listeners, connect with them and help them contribute to my performance. 

23.      How does the audience contribute to your performance?

An audience can make or break a performance. It contributes by giving me so much love, affection and attention that I am forced to put my heart and soul into my performance and give it all I that have. Once I am connected with my audience, I let it guide me. I do not play for myself at that stage and let the audience take me wherever it wants. An engaged audience is the best one. I cannot perform well for a disinterested audience.

24.      What are the individual merits of composition and improvisation in music?

The two contribute, in almost equal measure, to good music. 

Composition makes a performance disciplined, technically sound and musically accurate. Improvisation gives it energy, newness and vigor. Composition is planned whereas improvisation is spontaneous. A good performance has both planning and spontaneity. Composition demonstrates the education, preparation and knowledge of a pianist. Improvisation shows his creativity, imagination and intelligence. The two elements are important.

25.      You said that composition and improvisation contribute in ‘almost’ equal measure to good. Why ‘almost?’

‘Almost’ because, in my personal opinion, improvisation is a little more important. Improvisation allows the pianist to involve the audience and let it lead the way. That, as I said earlier, is a key component of a successful performance. It is not possible bring one’s personal emotions into the music by sticking to composition and not improvising. Composition can make a performance great but improvisation is needed to make it truly brilliant.

26.      A large number of youngsters flock to see your concerts. How do you get them to attend your concerts?

I market my concerts extensively using social media because youngsters tend to spend time on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like. I also advertise in schools and colleges. I ask friends and family members to help spread the word. It helps that my repertoire includes a lot of popular items in addition to classical pieces. I am also able to engage youngsters by understanding their tastes and modifying my music, if you will, to suite their taste. It is never easy but I am almost always able to attract young people to my concerts.

27.      What can Pakistani parents do to cultivate a love and appreciation of good music in their children?

Good parenting is the way to cultivate a love and appreciation of good music in their children.

Pakistani parents should spend time with their children instead of spending money on them. They should teach them the virtues of patience, moderation and kindness. They should read the right books to them and have good libraries set up in their homes. They should monitor the movies and television programs their children watch. They should include children in their own social activities. They should focus on good manners and decorum. Children should be raised listening to good music at home. None of this, of course, is easy but it is essential nonetheless. Otherwise, we will raise generations without the right values, tastes and morals.

*Photographs by Amir Nasir