(June 27, 2023) Ishaan Leonard Rao was two years old when he hummed ragas with Pandit Ravi Shankar. He was much too young to remember the experience, but it’s an anecdote he has heard many times over the years from his parents. As it happens, quite a few of Ishaan’s early musical experiences predate his memories. The young piano prodigy is the son of two virtuosos – his father, Pandit Shubhendra Rao is a sitarist and a long-time disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar. His mother, Saskia Rao-de Haas is trained in both the Western and Hindustani styles, and designed the Indian cello, which she uses in her Hindustani concerts.
The young piano prodigy is not really given to talking about his achievements, which already make up quite a long list. He has trained in the piano for 12 years, and in the sitar for seven. “I was five when I fell in love with the piano and decided to make it my instrument,” he tells Global Indian. This month, during his break from Berklee, Ishaan will begin his solo tour across India, performing five concerts across Bengaluru, New Delhi and Mumbai. The tour will take him to some of India’s most prestigious cultural venues, including the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, the NCPA in Mumbai, the India International Centre in Delhi and the Bangalore International Centre.
“This programme will have a classical piano repertoire, with Hindustani and Carnatic-inspired music,” Ishaan says. “And some jazz I picked up last year at Berklee, along with some South American influences. I have really tried to show who I am as a musician,” he adds. His journey is only just beginning, but Ishaan is already crafting a style that is uniquely his own, inspired by his deep knowledge of Hindustani and Western classical music, as well as the many influences he encountered travelling with his parents as they performed around the world. In this concert, he will also combine elements of modal jazz, which has been studying at University, with ragas, as he explores John Coltrane (Naima), Dave Brubeck (Rondo A La Turk).
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A childhood steeped in music
Growing up in Delhi, music was always “a given for Ishaan Leonard Rao, which is not surprising, all things considered. “I didn’t know anything else through my childhood,” he remarks. Music isn’t merely a part of Ishaan’s world, something he loves or is good at – it is life itself. He was listening to music even before he was born and doesn’t even recall the first time he picked up an instrument. By the time he met Pandit Ravi Shankar, he had learned around 15 ragas, even though he was still a toddler. “My parents had taught me ragas by then, not necessarily in a regimented way but I had learned how to identify them.” When they sang him to sleep as a child, the lullaby would be based on a particular raga. It came naturally to him too.
“The unique combination of Hindustani and Western classical music has shaped me so that I can understand music quite intuitively. Indian music teaches you how to train your ear in relation to other notes, if you hear a ‘sa’, you know every other note in relation to that. Western music shapes your understanding of absolute pitch.” Although he’s comfortable with sheet music, the piano prodigy is happiest playing by ear.
That wasn’t all. Ishaan would also accompany his parents across the world, and has been meeting people from different cultures and heritages for as long as he can remember. “Hindustani and Western classical music are the most familiar to me but I have never really confined myself to a genre,” he says. From the time he was born till about the age of 15, Ishaan was on the road with his parents for a “good three to five months of the year.” Having a South Indian father and a Dutch mother also lent itself to cultural exploration – “I grew up speaking Kannada with my father and Dutch with my mum. And then I was travelling a lot. I became used to different cultures, am cognizant of my cultural heritage and find it very easy to acclimatise and feel at at home in either part of the world.” It lent itself also to his explorations as a musician.
A love story with the piano
Ishaan began training in the piano at the age of six, and showed great talent for it. “I have had four teachers along the way – Justin McCarthy, Raj Bhimani, Svetlana Radashkevich and Dimitris Lambrianos,” he says. He has also has also taken master classes by Polish pianist Raphael Lustchevsky, French pianist Martine Dellenbach and Dutch pianist Marianne Boer. Ishaan dedicated himself to the piano, going to class once a week and spending a couple of hours a day practicing. By the time he entered his teens, he knew beyond doubt that he wanted to be a pianist, not just a musician. “I’m really focussed on my instrument and I’m still in that process of completely mastery. That’s not something you ever really achieve, but you work as hard as you can to get there,” he says. And while he doesn’t claim mastery, Ishaan went on to become the youngest Indian ever to finish the ABRSM Grade 8 exam and the youngest to receive the ARSM performance diploma at the age of 12.
The young piano prodigy gave his first concert at the age of nine, performing the first movement of a Mozart sonata and a piece by Chopin. It’s a big achievement for someone so young, but he quickly says, “They weren’t particularly complex pieces. As a child, you tend to progress quite quickly through technical difficulty. Bringing out the music from that is as much of a journey,” he explains. “Being a classical pianist is about a lot more than technical mastery. He went on to perform in India, France and Australia before making his New York concert debut at the age of 14, as part of the Chhandayan All Night Concert at the Society for Ethical Cultures.
Bending genres, breaking rules
He names Chopin, Debussy and Bach as composers he admires deeply but Ishaan doesn’t want to confine himself in any way. It’s why he chose Berklee College over a conservatory like say, Juilliard. “I love the traditional piano repertoire but I don’t want to be confined to it. I’m in the process of developing my own musical voice, I would say.” At Berklee, he has trained in modal jazz, and is also in a Klezmer ensemble.
His parents always encouraged the exploration. “When I was growing up, I quite liked just following the path that was set for me. I didn’t realise that I instinctively wanted to go outside the path and break those rules. But you have to know the rules to break them. Over the last year, even though my primary focus has been on my classical repertoire, I feel a lot more comfortable with my own expression through them, rather than playing them the way they are supposed to be played.” This exploration also includes adapting the piano to ragas, although he does so differently from his mother, who designed the Indian cello to create an instrument better suited to playing Hindustani classical music.
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Ishaan Leonard Rao’s musical journey is a testament to his exceptional talent, dedication, and diverse musical influences. From his early exposure to Hindustani and Western classical music to his explorations in jazz and fusion genres at Berklee College, Ishaan has developed a unique musical voice that reflects his deep understanding of different traditions. His commitment to his instrument, the piano, is evident in his achievements and performances at a remarkably young age. With a blend of technical mastery and artistic expression, the piano prodigy is poised to make significant contributions to the world of music and continue to carve his own path as a musician.