Pandemic allowed us to reflect, review, and reimagine: Noted Jazz musicians Balani brothers

The Balani brothers, Aditya and Tarun, set up the Global Music Institute 10 years ago


Christina Dayal always wanted to play the saxophone. Growing up in Delhi, the 22-year-old was exposed to all genres of music by her father—from Bollywood songs to ghazals. She loved singing in her school choir group. Later, with her best friend Jason she went on to form a jazz and blues band in college.

Dayal commands a powerful presence in her four-member band called 'All Jazzed Up' for her New Orleans-style vocals. Even so, she couldn't muster the courage to pick up the saxophone. It was only when she completed her studies at the Global Music Institute (GMI) last year that she felt she knew how music really works and found the confidence to teach herself to play the sax. "I entered GMI as a vocalist and came out as a complete musician. Earlier, I could not bring myself to play the instrument because I hardly saw women pick it up. But when lockdown happened last year, I decided to just go with it and play the instrument. Now, it is a fixture in our band. And the audience absolutely loves the sax, even if you play little of it," says Dayal who has sung and played the sax in a number of live gigs in Delhi ever since the lockdown was lifted. "Studying under the amazing faculty of GMI like Tarun Balani, Ujwal Nagar, and others have really helped me evolve as a musician," she adds.

It has been 10 years since the Balani brothers, Aditya and Tarun, set up the GMI to introduce a more progressive idiom of teaching contemporary music, to resemble the training they received in their alma mater, the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The brothers have been praised for injecting freshness and verve into India's jazz scene and they continue to do so by roping in some of the best teaching staff at GMI which is now located in a pristine campus at Greater Noida. Aditya Balani talks to THE WEEK about how GMI has grown and the transformation wrought by the pandemic.

The playing field for students interested to study contemporary music is rather small and limited in India. How do you seek to fill this gap? How do you want to stand out?

The playing field is smaller when compared to other streams, but is growing steadily. As more career opportunities are evolving in the performing arts and entertainment industry, the field is getting more structured and gaining the attention of aspiring young professionals. One of the major changes we have seen in the last few years is that many students are eager to start their professional music education right after completing high school to get a head start. Earlier, it would be usually after finishing another academic college degree.

We constantly strive to bridge the professional world and the academic learning environment with seminars and workshops by visiting artists and professionals for students to gain insight into the workings of the industry. We also bring in internships with studios, media/production houses and performance opportunities at various cultural centers and venues for students to gain real world experience and build their professional portfolio.

We have also recently introduced the GMI Tribe, a global community of performing artists, industry professionals, music producers/composers, professional educators, advisors and mentors. The aim is to transcend cultural and geographical barriers by giving aspiring musicians and producers career development opportunities access to an even wider pool of international mentors.

In terms of standing out, we let the strength of our programmes and the professional work of alumni speak for itself and focus on building a stronger community of artists and musicians.

Our programmes are designed keeping the contemporary musician and modern music producer/composer in mind. We have kept certain international markers but have also curated courses with reference to the Indian context, especially courses like Hindustani music, and our professional development stream within our diploma programmes. We do have international partnerships for certain programmes where the curriculum is modeled along with another institution. For example GMI-Berklee track which allows transfer credits for select courses to Berklee College of Music in Boston, utilises a large portion of the core music courses taught at Berklee.

Can you tell us more about the teaching faculty at GMI and how different are their tutoring approaches?

Our faculty consists of musicians, performers, educators, composers, producers and business professionals from India and around the world. We look for very specific skills in our faculty and follow a stringent selection process to curate faculty for each term. We believe that all the individual approaches and backgrounds provide varied perspectives to the students and benefit their world view. It also unboxes their creativity as they learn that there isn’t one singular, standard approach when it comes to music.

What are some of the interesting takeaways for GMI after 2020? Has your location in Greater Noida ever been an impediment in attracting more students or organising/participating in events and recitals?

We have always wanted to create a focused and holistic learning environment for our students. Our Greater Noida campus is strategically placed at a comfortable distance from the city, allowing us to build a creative space for our community while being closely connected to all the performance spaces in the region. We also have a hostel facility that allows students and faculty to be completely immersed in music 24/7 and take a breather from the hustle and bustle of the city. The priority for us has always been to engage with students in a creative way, and to encourage their artistry. We have designed and developed our facilities keeping that in mind.

The pandemic gave us the opportunity to take a pause as well as allowed us to reflect, review, and reimagine the way we would have liked to move forward so as to ensure we were able to create offerings for our community, upholding the standards that GMI has always stood for. We wanted to make sure that whatever we do next is value driven and also helps our community engage and connect, which has always been the essence of GMI. Our programme format adapted to the times. Thus, while the October 2020 term was fully online, our current term is operational in a blended format with a mix of in-person classes on the campus while others continue to be online. Later in 2020, we introduced the GMI Tribe, giving aspiring musicians and producers access to some exceptional talent from around the world.

Now that the pandemic is a bit more manageable we are very glad to have opened the campus for our students, while maintaining all the essential health and safety guidelines of course. Unfortunately, due to the restrictions on travel, our international faculty are still in their respective countries so they continue to teach online. Thus, we have managed to uphold the quality of education that we pride ourselves with.

While the pandemic has made us value human engagement a lot more, it has also given an opportunity to explore alternative models of learning. Going forward, we see the two formats continue to blend and co-exist, thereby providing only enhanced value to the community. Of course, the transition phase is always challenging, but it is allowing us all to stretch our ideas and open up to more broader visions and perspectives.

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