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Joel’s Travels: A Semester in India

McNally Smith Keyboard Performance major Joel Thielman blogs about his experience while studying abroad.

December 11

I leave SAM tonight. I’m extremely sad to say goodbye to this place and these people. The amount of knowledge I have gained from everyone here, not just about music, about life, is incredible. This place has really started to feel like home, with every person existing in a huge family. I can honestly say that I feel I’ve made a connection with every person here, and I can’t say that about any school I’ve ever been to. Spending this time here, I feel like I’ve learned so much about life and people in general. My classmates and teachers have all become my friends and I will work hard to keep in touch with everyone once I’m gone.

I guess I don’t have much to say for this final blog entry, except that studying at Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in India was one the of the best experiences of my life. Anybody reading this: if you’re considering studying abroad for any length of time before graduating, just know that the opportunity may not arise again for a very long time and if you get the chance, do it. I was unsure at first when I arrived here what kind of experience I would have. It turned out to be the most fulfilling “school” experience I’ve ever had. Going to the complete opposite side of the world made me really nervous at first, but once you get used to it, it’s not much different; people are people, wherever you are. I feel like I’ve made some lifelong friends here and I feel like I need to come back sometime in my life. For the most part, I’ve felt very “at home” in India. I can definitely see myself spending more time here.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, I want to say thank you. I try to choose important moments to me to write about. If there’s more you want to know about my experiences or the study abroad program, please email me at or find me on Facebook. I would be happy to share.

November 4

We survived Cyclone Nilam and it’s back to the daily grind. We’re now in the second term of the semester, which means we have an all-new set of faculty. They are Dario Boente (piano, Argentina), Juancho Herrera (guitar, Venezuela), Steve Zerlin (bass, USA), Phil Maturano (drums, USA), and Fjoralba Turku (voice, Albania). They are joined by Prasanna and Dr. S. Karthick, as well as Karina Colis (drum faculty from last term) who decided to stay for another term. Of course, having completely new teachers means that we’ll be having completely new courses. I signed up for Phil’s class on rhythm, Steve’s fusion class, and “Albanian Music” with Fjoralba. I wish I could take all the electives offered, but there is only room for three.

The first couple weeks of the new term have been pretty interesting, both in class and outside of class. Everyone knows about Hurricane Sandy’s effect on the east coast of the United States, but we had our own little storm to deal with here at SAM named Cyclone Nilam. Thankfully, there was very little physical damage, if any, around the campus. We did have to deal with pouring rain and winds strong enough to make the trees blow sideways. The storm hardly dampened anyone’s holiday spirits and we had a great Halloween party at Vice President Shyam Rao’s awesome apartment.
October 20I’m looking forward to seeing what exciting things will happen in my remaining five weeks here in India. It’s been awesome so far, but there’s plenty of time for more adventures.

October 20

“Jordan Rudess week” has ended here at SAM, and what an awesome week it was. I spent last weekend in Bangalore (10-hour bus trip each way) for a gig, and when we returned late Sunday night, we were already to learn from the Keyboard Wizard. Monday consisted of a sort of introduction presentation from Jordan where he performed some music for us and explained a little bit about his world. He performed with a Korg Kronos, grand piano, and a few of his own iPad apps including MorphWiz and Geo Synthesizer. After that, it was time for a piano lab with all the piano students. This was an interesting class, especially since it was our first one-on-one time with Mr. Rudess. Since all the piano students have different backgrounds and levels of playing ability, we were all given some seemingly simple exercises to practice moving between chords and work on finger dexterity. Depending on how fast we were grasping the concepts, he would show us a higher level to attempt.

Tuesday was a very fun day for me. We started the day with Dream Theater ensemble rehearsal with Jordan. We performed the three songs we had prepared (On The Backs Of Angels, The Spirit Carries On, and Breaking All Illusions) and he seemed very impressed. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous playing his music for him, but I quickly got over that as I got more comfortable around him. He told us some parts that he wanted to practice and we got down to it. After rehearsal, Jordan had an Improvisation Masterclass where he and Prasanna described their improvisation process and how they went about making music. About halfway through the class, he asked if someone wanted to come up and improvise with him, and I volunteered. Playing on stage with Jordan Rudess is not something I will soon forget. As if this day wasn’t awesome enough already, I still had my private lesson. Each piano student got an hour-long private lesson with Jordan where we could work on anything we wanted. I asked specifically about how he goes about programming his keyboard patches so we spent most of the time looking at some of his custom sounds. He also gave me some beginner synthesizer lessons with a cool iPad app.

On Wednesday, we had another Dream Theater ensemble rehearsal, this time preceded by an hour of cool warm-ups that were very rhythmically confusing, in classic Dream Theater style. After our three days with Jordan, more students arrived for the “Connecting The Dots” two-day camp, during which we got a lot of the same presentations from Jordan and Prasanna. Thursday night was ensemble performance night, which featured performances from all the student ensembles, including my Dream Theater ensemble. This was a very exciting night for everybody, since Jordan Rudess would be sitting there watching everybody. It was truly an honor performing his music for him and I hope we did it justice. After the show, I asked him “Did I do OK?” and he replied with “Totally f***ing awesome.” One of the best feelings in the world. The next day, he signed my Dream Theater sheet music book with “Great job playing my keyboard!”

October 5th

Things have been pretty much the same here for the last week or so. We had a long weekend for Gandhi Jayanthi, and then it was right back to classes. We’re now starting the last week of the term, which means more tests and quizzes. After this week, the current set of faculty will leave and Jordan Rudess will be here for a week. “Jordan Rudess week” is what I’ve been the most excited for and it’s basically what made me decide to come here. Monday – Wednesday of that week will be exclusively for the diploma students (me and my classmates) and Thursday – Friday will be the “Connecting The Dots” workshop camp with Jordan and Prasanna. Campus will be much more crowded for those two days and I’m very much looking forward to see what will be in store for us.

Besides classes, we’ve been doing other things just for fun. Last week, a bunch of us took a bus to Pondicherry (about an hour and a half away) to hang out and get some food. We went to the beach and I saw the ocean for the first time (not from a plane, anyway). It was dark out, so I couldn’t see much, but it was still cool. We went to a pretty nice restaurant on the beach called Promenade and ate lots of food. I need to have calamari again sometime soon.

In my last post, I mentioned that I had a gig in Chennai with the SAM Project Band. We performed at the end of an all-day “battle of the bands” event. I think most of the people there were a little confused by our performance of Afro-Peruvian and jazz-influenced music, as the whole day was filled with rock and metal performances. One guy in the audience even heckled us. Despite this slightly awkward performance, it was still a great day overall.

September 22nd

We just finished the 5-Day Intensive Camp at SAM and it’s time to get back to regular classes. The camp had specialized classes every day with the faculty. There were master-classes in harmony, South American music, Carnatic music, and much more. Each member of the faculty has so much to offer and it was nice getting a mix of new classes every day. Some of my favorites of the week were Evolution of Jazz Piano and The Math and Myth Behind Carnatic Grooves. The weeklong workshop also brought a slew of new ensembles for everyone. There were 12 camp students in addition to the regular students and new ensembles were created for everyone and they all performed throughout the week. There’s always an awesome fusion of styles going on here due to the different backgrounds and cultures of the people. This past week, I heard a Brazilian “choro” featuring Carnatic-style vocals, a funk/rock version of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t,” and lots of other fantastic performances. The highlight of the week for me was the Carnatic concert on Thursday night. The show started with a performance by the Kriti Performance ensemble (which I am a part of), then went on to feature performances by guitarists Conrad Reeves (USA) and Max Clouth (Germany).

Tomorrow (Sept. 23) evening, I will be performing in Chennai with the SAM Project Band. We will be playing original music composed and arranged by Conrad Reeves, Yuri Juarez, Arthur Kell, and myself. We’ve been working especially hard in this ensemble in order to get the music up to performance level; I’ve been working with some really brilliant musicians here. Let’s not forget my third (and final) ensemble: Dream Theater! We’ve started having early morning rehearsals as often as we can to get ready for when Jordan Rudess arrives at SAM in mid-October. I’m starting to get nervous about that. Practice, practice, practice…

September 10th

So classes are now in full swing and it’s the beginning of test week #1. Today I took my first “Intro To Carnatic Music” exam, which is the subject that drew me to SAM in the first place. While taking the test, I realized that I would need to immerse myself way more into the music and the history in order to fully understand it. So far, the class I’m most enjoying is Konnakol (the art of vocal percussion in Indian music). We’re learning things about rhythm that I never even thought about. There’s some seriously awesome stuff going on here. I’m learning new ways to count rhythms, subdivide grooves, and feel comfortable grooving in 11/8.

Speaking of 11/8, we’ve begun working on a new composition by Ayman Boujlida (international student from Tunisia) which utilizes a variation on an Arabic mode and switches between meters like 11/8, 6/4, and 19/8, and the solo section happens over a 21/8 vamp. We’re playing this composition in the SAM Project Band, one of my ensembles, which is made up of three international students and two faculty members. So, between all my classes, ensembles, and private lessons, I’m definitely keeping busy. I’m still managing to find a little time for exploration, though. Today, I went to a Hindu temple with Conrad Reeves (international student from Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio). We were given a short tour of the temple, where we saw awesome statues and art. We took part in some sort of ritual and were given bindis (green dots) on our foreheads. It was a really cool experience.

September 2nd

I just finished my first week of classes at SAM. I’m taking a good mix of courses focusing on carnatic music (south Indian classical music), Latin music, composition and performance. A lot of my “free” time is spent in the practice rooms working on music for my three ensembles. I’m part of the Dream Theater ensemble, the SAM Project Band and the Kriti Performance ensemble. The SAM Project Band is made up of two other “advanced stream” students and myself and we decide what we’ll play and how we’ll play it. The Kriti Performance ensemble focuses on playing the compositions (kritis) of the three main carnatic composers:  Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. This ensemble is made up piano, electric guitar, tabla, and drum set, none of which are traditional carnatic instruments. It will be very interesting to see how we arrange the music.

I’ve only been here two weeks, but I’ve already learned so much. The faculty members are all world-class performers, composers, and arrangers. They are Deanna Witkowski (piano, USA), Yuri Juarez (guitar, Peru), Sofia Tosello (voice, Argentina), Karina Colis (percussion, Mexico), and Arthur Kell (bass, USA). At the end of October, this faculty will leave and be replaced by a whole new set for the second half of the semester. The faculty member I’m most excited to work with, Jordan Rudess, will be here for one week in October to work with our ensembles.

August 23rd

I made it to India, safe and sound. I’m still experiencing a little bit of culture shock, I think. My first night in India (Monday the 20th) was rough, due to language/accent barriers. I did end up staying in a hotel in Mumbai rather than sitting in the airport for nine hours, even if I did pay more money than I would’ve liked to. I arrived at the school on August 21st and all I wanted to do was sleep (I’m still working on adjusting my sleep schedule). Since I’ve been here, almost everything has been a completely new experience: food, living quarters, bathrooms. It’s tough being away from my family and friends, but everyone here at SAM is very friendly and I think I’ll fit right in.

In the last few days, I’ve been a part of two mass jam sessions, where anyone can go up on stage and play anything with anyone. The first had a lot of blues jams, and the second one had a bit more experimental music going on. The president of the school, Prasanna, has talked to us all a lot about his own personal experiences growing up in India playing guitar and he took part in the jam sessions as well. I’m really looking forward to when the faculty arrives here and I can’t wait to learn from some world-class musicians. I’m especially looking forward to meeting Jordan Rudess (keyboardist from Dream Theater) when he arrives. He will be working with the Dream Theater ensemble that I will be in charge of and playing with.

August 18th

Hello friends. I’m a fifth-semester keyboard student at McNally Smith College Of Music. I’m leaving for India tomorrow (Aug. 19) to study at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, located in Marg Swarnabhoomi on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. I’ll be studying the art of carnatic music and konnokol under the direction of a wide variety of world-class faculty, including Jordan Rudess, keyboardist for my favorite band Dream Theater. I’m the first student from McNally Smith to travel to SAM, and students from SAM will be coming to McNally Smith next semester.

I’ve never traveled out of the United States before and I don¹t really know what to expect. It’ll be quite the culture shock. I’m hoping to learn as much as I can about Indian music and culture, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of impact the experience will have on my musical career and otherwise.