Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan brings his teaching philosophy to Stanford

The Department of Music expands its non-Western musical offerings by hosting one of Northern India's greatest living musicians during the spring quarter. Maestro Khan will present a solo concert on the sarod, an Indian stringed instrument, on June 1. The Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra will perform a portion of his piece "Samaagam" on June 2.

Steve Fyffe

Maestro Amjad Ali Khan uses an oral approach, instructing without notations or a lesson plan.

When Stanford ethnomusicologist Anna Schultz got a phone call last April asking her to quickly find a tamboura player who could perform with renowned sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan and his sons that night at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, she tapped into her network of Bay Area musicians, found the right person for the job – and the show was saved.

That phone call was a sign. It prompted Schultz to follow up with Khan, whom she knew was interested in teaching in the United States, and invite him to be a visiting lecturer at Stanford. One year later, Khan arrived on campus to be the first Indian melody soloist to lecture at the university, and the first lecturer to teach music as a way of life.

Teaching sound

Maestro Khan's intention with his spring class is to teach student musicians to perform and appreciate North Indian classical music and to share his experiences as a classical musician raised in the traditional system of music discipleship. "I want to help them become better musicians, no matter what they are studying. I also want them to be compassionate and kind people," Khan said, asserting his belief in the link between music practice and a way of life. 

L.A. Cicero Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan in class

Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan teaches student musicians to perform and appreciate North Indian classical music and to share his experiences as a classical musician raised in the traditional system of music discipleship.

Because singing is foundational to all Indian classical music, the content of the class includes practical teaching of several ragas, talas, compositions and improvisations. There is also discussion of the musical culture of Indian classical music, with focus on the music of North India. What is not included is sarod instruction. He says he is not at Stanford to teach the sarod.  Rather, he is "teaching music as a common factor among all people."

There are two types of music, according to Khan. The first is pure sound without lyrics or written notation. The second is text utilizing lyrics and language, notes and scores. Khan recognizes the importance of both, but believes that text can create barriers. So, on the first day of class, he had the 30 students, all with some experience playing a musical instrument or singing in a variety of musical traditions but not necessarily Indian, sing a raga – which is something between a scale and a melody. The vocal sounds of the raga are what Khan calls "natural music," a kind of music that he says is easier to feel than understand.

He asks his students to clap the intricate rhythm and close their eyes when they sing to help them concentrate. His corrections of timing and pronunciation are firm but encouraging.

Khan teaches his Stanford class the same way he would teach a class in India. He hasn't watered down the content or the approach, which is to instruct without notations or even a lesson plan.  It is all oral, just like back home in Delhi.

Music is Khan's way of life

Padma Vibhushan Amjad Ali Khan comes from a long and illustrious lineage of musicians. His father, Haafiz Ali Khan, and grandfather, Ghulam Ali, were musicians in the vibrant North Indian courts of Gwalior and Rampur. Kahn said Ghulam Ali transformed the Afghan rabab into the sarod and was the first player of the sarod, which has become one of the most important instruments of North Indian classical music along with the sitar.

The sarod is a fretless stringed instrument with a teak frame, a goatskin soundtable, and a metal fingerboard with six to eight strings plus several sympathetic strings adding up to anywhere from 19 to 25 total. The instrument lends itself to improvisation and graceful expression because of the ability for the musician to slide and glide between notes, much like a human voice.

Khan gave his first sarod recital at the age of 6 and quickly rose to fame by the time he was a teenager. Known for his subtle and expressive raga improvisations, Khan brought a new lyricism and depth to the sarod. Today he engages audiences around the world with his interpretations of traditional and newly composed ragas, as well as with his cross-cultural music projects. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra premiered his sarod concerto, Samaagam, in 2008, and he collaborated with Iraqi oud player Rahim AlHaj on the album Ancient Sounds: Music of Iraq and India in 2009.

The Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra is preparing to perform a portion of Samaagam on June 2.

Khan lives in Delhi with his wife, dancer Subhalakshmi Khan, and his sons, Amman and Ayaan.

Expanding non-Western offerings at Stanford

The Stanford student population is diverse and increasingly mobile, and the Department of Music's offerings are in step with students' experiences and backgrounds. Schultz noted that there are several professors within and beyond the music department teaching courses in non-Western music.

Schultz was hired last year to bring ethnomusicological perspectives to the Stanford campus community. "We hope to provide students with a new awareness of musical diversity and of the social implications of music-making," she said.

Dovetailing with the Department of Music, there are several non-Western student ensembles on campus and Stanford Lively Arts does much to program non-Western music including the recent performance by Kronos Quartet with the Alim Qasimov Ensemble from Azerbaijan.


Khan's solo sarod concert is on June 1 at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Tickets are $38-$42 for adults and $15 for students. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the concert will begin at 8 p.m.

On June 2, the Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Jindong Cai, will perform a portion of Khan's piece Samaagam at the Mozart and More concert at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Tickets are $9-$10 for adults and $5 for students. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the concert will begin at 8 p.m.

Anna Schultz, Department of Music: (650) 723-0816

Delane Haro, Department of Music: (650) 430-0335

Robin Wander, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184