”And now for something completely different …”
John Pitts’ book How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano was undoubtedly one of the most unique publications submitted for review last year, and as I browsed through the 260-page volume, I have to admit that I was somewhat overwhelmed by the depth and quantity of information in it – to the extent that I felt genuinely unqualified to write a review.
How happy I was, then, to learn that John has written a prequel called Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy, suitable for players from easy to intermediate level (around Grades 1+ to 4 in my view).
This, surely, would be the collection that I needed in order to jump in and have a go at exploring this extraordinary and diverse music! So, how did that work out?
Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy is a very handsomely produced self-publication via the composer’s own Intensely Pleasant Music company.
The book itself is A4 sized, its 36 pages printed on white paper, with sturdy staple binding. The beautiful cover deliciously evokes the content, and is printed on gloss card.
In the author’s Introduction, he explains;
“This book is a collection of six Indian raags, re-imagined for piano, and simplified of fledgling pianists (both children and adults). The purpose is to provide an introductory experience of classical Indian music-making in an easy, hands-on way at a piano, offering a very accessible first encounter with improvisation.”
The first three pieces are included in three versions, “really easy”, “easy” and “quite easy”. This allow students and teachers to quickly find the best fit for their level, and add complexity when ready. The remaining three pieces come as a single version, and are “easy”, “quite easy” and “slightly less easy” respectively.
Three of the six raags originate from North India (Hindustani – Todi, Patdeep, and Desh) and three from South India (Carnatic – Latangi, Madhuvanti and Vachaspati). John Pitts explains:
“In selecting these particular raags, out of countless contenders, I was seeking to choose raags with scales and phrasing that have an immediately eastern feel to them. To keep them as simple as possible I have put them into keys with only one or two black notes.”
There’s a lot of information to help with the performance of each of the 12 pieces, and pages can initially seem cramped. But this is deceptive – in use the presentation is crystal clear, and the inclusion of ample instruction is not only to be applauded – it proves to be essential!
As you will see from the reproduction of the cover above, the book boasts Free MP3 downloads for all the pieces. There are also YouTube video demonstrations by the composer, and again these prove to be essential in that they communicate the essence of the music and its performance sound before symbol.
Here then, while you read on, is your chance to listen to all 12 pieces included in the collection:
As I mentioned at the start of this review, I am no expert in Indian classical music, and even approaching this ”made easy” collection I felt I was on a quick learning curve.
Thankfully, John proves to be not only an enthusiastic expert, but also a clever one, making each step immediately accessible and enjoyable.
Each of the raags follows a similar pattern – an opening Alaap section includes pitches without rhythms, which must be played freely by the player, followed by a Gat section which is fully scored in conventional western notation, and thirdly a short improvised section leading into the Ending.
I started by having a good listen to John’s video demonstration, score in hand. Taking the first piece, Raag Latangi, I then played each of the three supplied versions, noting how they gently gain complexity.
Although the score might look intimidating to the complete novice, I found that by watching the video and following the given instructions, each piece was quickly accomplished. And I was utterly enchanted by the music!
The only point I would stress about the level is that I think it would be difficult to introduce even the easiest versions before at least Grade 1 – the pieces don’t easily lend themselves to learning by ear, unless one is already attuned to Indian classical music, and the notation requires knowledge not expected much before Grade 1 level.
As I played through the subsequent pieces in the collection, I began to appreciate the musical variety, the growing complexity even in simplified arrangements, and the riches of this amazing musical tradition.
When writing any review here, my starting point is to ask myself who is this publication aimed at? In the case of Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy, that is a more difficult question to answer than usual, such is the novelty of the publication.
Certainly the music here is suitable for elementary to intermediate players, but even as a professional I found myself absorbed in learning new skills and discovering a fabulously colourful and rich new sound world. In that sense, I would recommend the book to players of a much higher level too.
To be gaining practical experience in playing this music was ultimately a brilliant boon – the main thing, for me, was simply discovering this stunning music, and exploring it from the inside out!
The book also offers an interesting and accessible way into the art of improvisation. The final section of each piece includes a few guide notes and suggestions which are easy to follow, and should prove possible even for beginners.
In short, I think this book is an essential purchase for any player, at any level, who as an interest in discovering the heritage of Indian classical music.
”And now for something completely different …?”
This is as different as it gets! And as good.
For more information, downloads, and to purchase directly from the publisher, visit his the Piano Raags website here.
For more background about John Pitts’ interest in Indian classical music, read his enlightening Guest Post here.