Home » Art & Literature » In Conversation with a Musical Prodigy – Ishaan Leonard Rao

In Conversation with a Musical Prodigy – Ishaan Leonard Rao

New Delhi, India

3 mins read

On a balmy Saturday evening, on 1st July 2023, India International Center, New Delhi will play host to a young musical genius – pianist and composer Ishaan Leonard Rao. All of 18 years old, but already with a resume that matches that of seasoned maestros.  His latest being his selection from over 70 countries, as the only Indian to become a Sony Music Group Global Scholar.

Ishaan is a child prodigy. At 3 years of age, he was leaning to play the sitar and cello. He wrote his first composition when 5 years old and started learning to play the piano by age 6. It is indeed a marvel as to how such talent can manifest in someone so small, even if he is born to music royalty, Sitar player Pandit Shubhendra Rao and Dutch cellist Saskia Rao-de Haas, who is also the inventor of the Indian Cello. One cannot help but find similarities with some of the other musical child prodigies such as Mozart, Bellini, Chopin, Yo-Yo Ma. Mozart created his first musical compositions by age 4. By age 3 Yo-Yo Ma learned to play the violin and the next year he learned the Cello. Bellini got music theory lessons at age 2, because he could sing an aria when he was just 18 months! Such talent is not something one can inherit via the gene pool. It is inborn. A musical journey continued in the cycle of rebirth.

Ishaan Leonard Rao.
Photo Credit – Bandeep Singh

Ishaan  was fortunate in getting exposure to mixed cultures and music forms like Indian Classical, South Indian rhythms, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Jazz.  He created music for the program ‘Bach to Bhupali’ at the Alliance Française, variations on Philips Glass’ Metamorphosis for piano and Indian cello, Indian traditional devotional songs and ‘Bartok in Bangalore’, a Carnatic-inspired composition of his. His many achievements and works are listed at www.ishanleonardrao.com.

We wanted to know more about Ishaan Leonard Rao, beyond his many achievements; and asked him a few direct questions. Our curiosity about his baby years could only be quelled by his mother, the Maestro Saskia Rao-de Haas. Here is an exclusive.

Your musical journey started very early in your toddler years. Did little Ishaan want also to become anything else too? Say, a fireman or pilot etc.

Saskia de Haas Rao, Ishaan Leonard Rao, Shubhendru Rao
Photo Credit – Sanjit Debroy

Ishaan Leonard Rao– Growing up surrounded by music, I can’t really name any distinct point at which I decided I wanted to become a musician. It was more of an unsaid inevitability that I didn’t even realise myself until much later. However, past the childlike dreams of becoming a cricket player or a paleontologist, I don’t think I ever had any tangible alternatives to music.

As the son of such accomplished musicians, did you feel any pressure to follow the same path?

Ishaan Leonard Rao – I think I actually felt more pressure not to become a musician! Since my parents both know the profession and the sacrifice and unwavering commitment it requires to be a musician, they wanted to be sure I was doing it for myself and not for them. Their only goal was to foster a love for music in me, and past that was completely my own choice. When I did eventually decide to pursue music, they guided me and told me what was necessary to reach where I wanted to go, and they helped me in the day-to-day routine of practice and goal setting, but the overarching direction of my life has always been my own choice,

You are yet very young and have already made giant strides in your musical career. What are your plans for the next decade of your life? Is it all to do with music?

Ishaan with Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia

Ishaan Leonard Rao – I want to continue my musical journey and continue growing as a performer and a composer! I’m about to start my second year at Berklee College of Music, where I’m pursuing majors in both piano performance as well as contemporary writing and production, which I feel will all enhance my skills and enable me as a complete musician. I want to dive deeper into my instrument of choice, the piano, and use it as a medium to learn styles of music from around the world and integrate them into my musical sphere. Because of my deep rootedness in both Indian classical music as well as classical piano repertoire and as an extension Western art music, I have a unique and varied musical foundation that I don’t like to define by genre. Moreover, the skill sets these have provided me with combined with my lifelong varied musical exposure enable me to learn and integrate other genres of music, such as jazz and klezmer music which I have learnt over my first year at Berklee. Through this, I want to continue developing my own unique musical expression, since I believe that everyone has their own distinct musical voice that they use to communicate, and it is a lovely thing to find.

You are already adept with the sitar, cello and piano. Which was harder learning?

Ishaan with Tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain

Ishaan Leonard Rao – I am primarily a pianist, and have also learnt the sitar for seven years, but unfortunately, I haven’t played or learnt the cello in a very long time. I’d say that each instrument is different and presents its own challenges, and that difficulty depends on your musical background. For example, to an ear used to symphonic works and piano sonatas, the traditional sitar’s monophonic approach to and depth in melody would be much harder to learn than the piano’s unique coordination and near-limitless possibilities. I think that each instrument is easy to learn, the hardest part is learning how to learn an instrument and putting in the hours of practice, as well as the cultural context of that instrument and how that differs from your own context.

What other instrument fascinates you or are you learning?

Ishaan Leonard Rao – I love trying out every instrument I can get my hands on! I have a ukulele which I play for fun quite often. I also took a lab in traditional Malinese djembe techniques in my second semester at Berklee. My roommate in Berklee had multiple guitars and bass guitars that I would take for myself and mess around with quite regularly as well. Apart from a short three month stint in tabla as a five year old while my parents and I were on tour in the United States, I haven’t formally learnt any other instruments.

Ishaan Leonard Rao
Photo Credit – Bandeep Singh

As parents, did you have to ensure young Ishaan’s practice and training, considering children find it hard to sit still.

Saskia Rao-de Haas – Ishaan is what one calls a born musician. When he was 18 months old, my violin builder gifted him with a tiny little cello and my husband’s sitar builder gifted him a tiny sitar. He immediately took to the music and it was a game for him. Music was not taught in a way of ‘sit still and listen’, but it was something completely ingrained in our family life . I think that’s a misconception that that is how children learn music; in a formal music class. I find that when brought in the right way, ALL children respond to music. We need to bring music, especially classical music, to children in a way that corresponds with their age and state of development. Who says that you cannot move to music and still learn? Even while bringing a child to bed, you can infuse that with music. My husband composed a whole series of lullabies in different ragas for baby Ishaan when he would bring him to bed.

To ensure that music is taught in a more child-friendly way, I created the Sangeet4All a complete music curriculum for children from 20 months onwards that has impacted over a 100000 children and teachers. We always need to teach from a space of joy. And: please allow young children that need that to move with the music as well! Each child had their own unique musicality. We need to offer music to interact with, to listen to AND to sing together! Many young parents don’t sing with their young children, because they believe that they don’t sing well. But music is a sharing art before it becomes a performing art. A lot of work needs to be done in this field, because the benefits of music are immense. Ishaan spoke 5 languages by age 2. He finished ALL Roald Dahl’s books at age 4. At that time, I realized that he was developing at his own pace. Music helped him immensely in that.

When did you spot Ishaan’s talent? (I do believe that one can inherit everything else, but not talent)

Saskia Rao-de Haas  – Before he could talk, he could sing. He created his own little melodies, singing in this

Ishaan with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Sukanya Shankar

ethereal high, perfect pitch from that young onwards. It was really remarkable. Ishaan would ALWAYS sing. Every year, Shubhendra’s sitar guru, Bharat Ratna Ravi Shankar would come to India. One priceless memory is when he quizzed 3 year old Ishaan on different ragas. Ishaan recognized all! Then the 90 year old maestr and little Ishaan sang the beautiful Prabhu ji together. When he was playing with his toys, when he was playing outdoors. The days he would not sing, was a tell to me that something was wrong. He also progressed really quickly with his piano. When he was 9 years old, he gave his first public performance. When he was 11 years old, he did his grade 8 for the ABRSM and performed at the high scorers concerts in India as well. From that time onwards, he also started composing and performing with me and later with the three of us as the Rao Trio. As always, he followed his own time-line. The school was always very supportive of allowing him to tour around the world with us for our concerts.

With such illustrious musicians as parents, do you have to work extra hard to ease the pressure on Ishaan to measure up?

Performing Mozart for the Austrian Embassy at IHC Delhi

Saskia Rao-de Haas – He found the perfect solution by himself for that when he was all of 5 years old; he told us that he loved the cello and sitar, but was now ready for his own instrument. He had decided that it should be the piano. So, that was it! We were lucky to find wonderful teachers in Delhi in pianist and Bharatnatyam dancer Justin McCarthy and later pianist and pedagogue Ms Svetlana Radashkevitch, music teacher at the British school. With pianist Raj Bhimani in New York and Dimitris Lambrianos in South India, Ishaan prepared during covid for his new phase in his life as a full-time musician and music student at Berklee college of music. He has already been awarded the outstanding achievement award there by the piano department and the SONY music global scholar. These recognitions hopefully show him that he is on his own path. Something we have always conveyed is that it is most important in life to be a well-rounded and happy, confident person. From that space, your own unique talent can shine and light up the world. So proud that Ishaan is doing just that. As an artist and as a wonderful, kind human being.



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