Reviews of Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy
Natalie Weber, Music Matters April 2018
“A Very Out-of-the-Box Book for the Improv-Challenged Pianist. As I mentioned in my recent post about improvisation pianist Anna Ferraro, I spent years feeling stuck to the page in my piano playing. My early forays into improvisation felt very uncomfortable and unmusical. And frankly, I’m still not that great at it. It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut and not know how to climb back out. As I played through the book, “Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy” by John Pitts, I realized this could be a very useful tool for myself and anyone else in the same boat as me.
One of my biggest challenges is wanting what I play to sound “right.” Well, to my very Westernized ears, none of these Indian Raags sound “right.” I’m not that familiar with Indian music in general, and I’ve only heard the Indian sitar played several times. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to try to step out of the musical box I’m used to operating inside of and learn to appreciate some very unfamiliar sounds as they emerged from my fingertips.
The book begins with an overview of the scales upon which each raag is based. Each raag’s structure includes a rhythmically free improvisatory-type section (Alaap) followed by a composed melody in 4/4 time that can be read from the page (Gat) and ending with a short repetitive phrase that concludes the piece. Even the first section gives specific printed notes while encouraging a free pulse, relaxed playing, and the encouragement to mix up the bars at will. A perfect approach for someone who just can’t fully break away from the printed music yet!
Thankfully, there are also YouTube videos of the Easy Raags … that you can watch to get an idea of the style and structure of the music. Composer John Pitts makes this classic Indian music extremely accessible for any pianist who is either already interested in these Eastern tunes or brave enough to explore something new!”
Allan J. Cronin, New Music Buff April 2018
“Last year I reviewed Mr. Pitts’ How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano. It was an enthusiastic review and the book continues to have a valued place on my piano as it opens a whole world of ideas. Now the author has done a kind and useful service by issuing this simplified version of that work.
In fact this simplified version is more in line with the rather unpracticed keyboard skills of your humble reviewer. The author chooses 6 raags or ragas which provide a good starting point for similarly humble musicians to begin this approach to Hindustani music.
Hindustani music became pretty much ubiquitous, or at least familiarly cliché in western musical culture largely due to the efforts of Indian musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha. In fact it is an endlessly fascinating musical system whose logic has much to offer both musicians and composers.
In the past one had to learn traditional Indian instruments to gain much familiarity with these ancient musical systems but Pitts’ book offers an alternative to musicians whose familiarity is limited to the western keyboard. Purists may denigrate this approach but even if it does not perfectly represent all aspects of Hindustani musical theory at least it provides a manageable entry point for amateur musicians and professionals alike.
Having struggled somewhat with the previous book I was particularly delighted to have these simplified examples which fall nearer to my skills level. Even if I don’t wind up incorporating this into performance or compositional efforts I have no doubt that the exposure to the actual practice of this music will leave a valuable bit of programming in my neural circuits that will enhance my musical thinking and ability to appreciate other musics.
As with the first book, this too is highly recommended. Kudos Mr. Pitts!”
Andrew Eales, Piano Dao March 2018
” “And now for something completely different …”
… very handsomely produced … 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. …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!
…Thankfully, John proves to be not only an enthusiastic expert, but also a clever one, making each step immediately accessible and enjoyable. …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. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED“
Frances Wilson, Frans Piano Studio (Crosseyed Pianist) February 2018
“If you’ve always wanted to play traditional Indian classical music (“raags” or “ragas”) on piano but have no idea how to start, look no further than composer John Pitts’ new book Indian Raags for Piano Made Easy. This neat volume is a spin-off from John’s popular and acclaimed How To Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano, a comprehensive manual containing 24 raags, all newly composed by John within the raag genre, with detailed contextual information about the genre, step-by-step instructions to play each piece to enable pianists more used to playing western classical music to get started.
Recognising a gap in the market for a simplified volume, John’s latest offering is aimed at early students (children and adults) and teachers, and provides “an introductory experience of classical Indian music-making”. Attractively laid out, with clear text and clean, easy-to-read music examples, each raag is followed by a short piece incorporating that raag. Each piece offers encouragement to explore and improvise, something I found surprisingly easy once I’d got into the swing of the distinctly Indian sounds (especially the sparkling little runs of notes which imitate the shimmering sounds of the sitar). There are opportunities for teacher and student to play together, and plenty of advice on how to get started with improvising – an area some pianists are reluctant to explore. In addition, there are free MP3s of the music in the book available to download and listen to as additional support and inspiration.
John has made an important contribution to the understanding and appreciation of Indian classical music, and both his books bring this important artform to a wider audience. In addition, he has added intriguing, attractive and engaging new music to the student piano repertoire.
Reviews of How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano
Dr Gail Fischler, Piano Bench Magazine December 2017
“Do you want to widen your personal improvisational skills? Perhaps build a compelling world improvisation or composition unit for your late intermediate to advanced students? John Pitts’ How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano might just be the ticket. It is truly bursting with information, ideas and advice-253 of them to be exact.
John is to be commended for tackling such a vast cultural form. Indian sitar players study for lifetimes to perfect their art. To attempt to explain it in a single book so that western musicians can use the elements of a Raag respectfully is a truly monumental task.
…How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano is written in five large sections plus a glossary. The Introduction contains background and general information as a basis for understanding the next 4 sections. The second section illustrates the components of Raag Kalyani and gives many examples to create an improvisation or composition. There are a lot of examples. So many that I found it overwhelming at first. But, once I took John’s advice and started with just one or two that were pleasing to me I had a lot of fun. …”
Christopher Norton (of MicroJazz fame) Christopher Norton – Composer October 2017
“Raag Time… The idea of playing Indian music on the piano is one that has occurred to me as an educator and writer for piano – there are students out there who know something of the sound of Indian classical music and who may well wonder if its flavour could be achieved on an inflexible instrument like the piano.
UK composer John Pitts started to become more familiar with the detail of Indian classical music while on a gap year in 1995. The end result of his research is a book – How To Play Indian Sitar Raags On The Piano. He’s taken on quite a task and I believe that he is up to that task! This book assumes basic reading (and playing) keyboard skills and introduces the scales and ornamentation typical of this distinctive world right away, with lots of instructions about playing freely and trying not to impose too much of a sense of pulse on your improvisations, as well as left and right hand chords and figures that sound “right”.
A variety of raags are introduced, with clear notes about how they are (loosely) constructed and how one might musically and imaginatively extend improvisations within these fluid forms. As a composer, I was immediately stimulated by the sounds and by the methods described to use those sounds. Everything “sounds” good – there is definitely a real composer at work here.
You will have to dig into the book to get out of it even a fraction of what John Pitts has put into it. He suggests taking a broad-brush approach with a particular piece, before going back over the unpacking parts. Use the shampoo, now here’s the science bit…You can do that, but you can also dip in and out of it and enjoy being taken out of yourself and your western sound-world and into a wholly different way of making music. On the piano.
Well done John – a lot of work, but a fascinating and unique product!”
Dr Angela Miller-Niles, American Music Teacher Magazine October 2017
“…a combination of a world music textbook, a ‘teach yourself’ book, and a repertoire book…” “…fascinating…” “This could be a fun experiment for someone interested in Indian music or just wanting to try something new.”
Dr Jonathan Katz, International Piano Magazine September 2017
“…there is much to praise in this book. Pitts meticulously and imaginatively sets out in staff notation numerous effective and convincing musical ideas in his range of Hindustani ragas. His recommendations for imitating the drone of the stringed tambura, and his suggested renderings of ornaments and portamento slides around notes, are ingenious, and work remarkably well, as evidenced in his own sample performances available through the website for this book (pianoraag.com). Despite its shortcomings in musical theory I strongly recommend the book to pianists with an eye and an ear to the East, and I look forward to hearing further performances by John Pitts.”
Jonathan Woolf,MusicWeb-International March 2017
“It’s not every day that I come across a book quite this specialised but I’ve enjoyed John Pitts’ compositions on disc and was curious to see how he would set about the task of encouraging the reader to explore North Indian sitar music on their Western pianos. The short answer is very entertainingly and encouragingly.
In this large size paperback, copiously illustrated with music examples, Pitts outlines the key ingredients of the raag (it literally means ‘colour’), India’s semi-improvised music, and how it can be transformed for use on solo or two pianos or indeed piano duet. There’s an enlightening and disarming introduction in which the whys and wherefores are honestly addressed – sample rhetorical question: ‘So, how can Indian music be played on a piano?’ – before the structural niceties of the raag genre are approached.
Pitts includes 24 raags, newly composed, though like a master chef encouraging his novice bakers, he also includes a pick ‘n’ mix section to allow ingredient mixing by fusing raag elements or indeed taking the plunge and composing one’s own. After the introduction, Pitts presents his first raag interspersing instruction, explication and suggestion so as to get the reader au fait with the salient features of the raag – it’s very complex and ornate – after which he devotes fully 46 pages to explaining elements such as drone effects, improvised melodies, decoration, the use of the interlude, and the whole nature of the raag’s structure. Only a thorough study of the instructions will reveal the detail and the profuse help offered to the player and the help is presented with clarity. All the hundreds of musical examples are clear and clean and the interspersed advice on performance equally so: no scrunched or bunched text or music here.
The novice will also receive a non-didactic crash course in terminology and in the music’s pitches and its context, as each raag is associated with a particular mood and this also extends to the time of the day when particular raags are played. There’s a fascinating ‘time frame’ table showing which is the best time to play the 24 rags.
So really this is a cornucopia of raag-related information for the intrepid traveller into the world of raag-piano. The text is broken up by photographs, some rather grainy given the print, that range from a picture of the author himself in a deprecatingly entitled picture called ‘How not to hold a sitar’ to a ruddy goose. You don’t get that in biographies of Mahler.
If you have any interest in this esoteric arena, in improvising from a Classical or jazz background, or even from an ill-defined background, and want to face the challenge of encompassing twenty scales, I can’t imagine a better primer than this.”
Allan Cronin, NewMusicBuff February 2017
“I recall with nostalgia my first hearing of Yehudi Menuhin’s collaboration with Ravi Shankar titled, “East Meets West”. I was in high school and had not yet heard the exotic sound of the sitar. Menuhin’s ability to grasp and communicate world music to an audience schooled in the Western European classical traditions is a treasured part of his legacy.Along comes composer pianist John Pitts (1976- ) who encountered raga scales and Hindustani classical forms during a “gap year” in his musical studies in 1995. This encounter subsequently spurred him to write the present book, a seemingly obvious idea but one that has not been attempted in quite this way as far as I can determine. Pitts is a highly skilled pianist and composer.
This book assumes no more than a basic grounding in western classical music and at least a modicum of skill at the keyboard. With that and the present text the interested reader/player will be brought to a fine introduction to Hindustani scales and forms and have a method by which at least some of these ideas can be applied to the ubiquitous piano thereby providing another perspective.
Of course the microtonal aspects of this music cannot be reproduced on a piano but the basic concepts of the scales and the improvisational methodology will surely enhance the imagination and skills of any interested musician. The book introduces these concepts in a lucid manner and provides notation and methods enabling one to play a variety of ragas at the keyboard in a fairly short time.
I have lived with this book for several weeks now and find it endlessly fascinating. Even with my limited keyboard skills I have been able to scratch the surface and begin to explore some of the essence of this ancient musical system. Very likely this text will do much to enhance the compositional imagination as well as one’s keyboard skills. Some may recall, for example, that Philip Glass developed his mature compositional style after his encounter with this musical system in his work with the same Ravi Shankar whose mastery inspired Sir Yehudi Menuhin to bring this music to a western audience.
Recordings have made so much world music with its varied scales, rhythmic structures and tuning systems available to a much wider audience but much less has been done to provide interested musicians with a more hands on experience. This book does much to address this gap. It does not pretend to be a definitive exposition of this musical system nor does it attempt to create more than a basic pedagogy which will encourage further exploration. This book is very much a continuation of the interest begun by Menuhin, Glass and their followers.
Bravo, Mr. Pitts!”
Dr Mark Polishook, lulu.com January 2017
“This is a great book. The author conveys a real sense of how to begin improvising with raags. He does that by explaining the subject matter with enormous clarity and insight. And he brings a fantastic understanding of process to what he explains. There are a lot of books about improvisation out there. But this one’s the real deal. And it’s about improvising in a style that by and large isn’t accessible unless you have access to a master practitioner and teacher. What else is there to say? I’d give it 11 stars if Lulu gave us that option!”
Robert Matthew-Walker, Editor, ‘Musical Opinion’
“a very well produced and informative book”
John Pitt, New Classics
“unique and fascinating book”