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STEAMing Ahead

By Poornima Apte Email By Poornima Apte
November 2019
STEAMing Ahead

(Photo: Tiffany Walling-McGarity)

Anita Aysola is a part-time math teacher at an Atlanta high school. But she goes beyond STEM. A singer and songwriter, Aysola recently drew attention with a “Heartbeat” anthem that protests Georgia’s abortion law. Her influences range from traditional Indian melodies to jazz and blues. Inspired to create and perform music that speaks to our times, she also teaches the craft of songwriting to her students. The Harvard-educated mother of two shares her thoughts on the creative process and on finding work-family balance.

What prompted your early interest in music?
I always loved music—my parents told me that I was singing before speaking and used to sing myself to sleep. My parents started taking me to piano lessons at age 5, and Carnatic/Hindustani vocals shortly after that. They loved music, too, and I was surrounded by music all the time. So I was fortunate to have been exposed to a lot of music between formal training and just singing and listening to music constantly around the house.

How did you mold that interest in the United States? How did the two cultures affect your process and outcome?
While living in Michigan, I studied Hindustani classical vocals and Western classical piano, both from a very young age. I also studied sitar, sang bhajans regularly with a local Indian religious group and had the opportunity to study Hindustani vocals with Ali Akbar Khan in Northern California. Both my classical training and more informal experience sparked my ability to play a diverse array of music by ear, including both Western and Eastern music of all genres. I began experimenting with jazz and blues as well, and pursued formal study while incorporating these varied influences into my writing. I’ve continued to train in Hindustani vocals and jazz piano—in the world of ragas and jazz there are an endless amount of things to learn, and I love discovering more about each of these traditions and refining my art.

Why do you believe music is an effective vehicle for political activism?
I don’t deliberately write music in an effort to be politically active. I write about topics that inspire me. Whether it’s about love or my children or about the political climate, I write to tell a story. The more honest I am in the process of storytelling, I find that the stories connect with other people. People feel and can relate to the stories we tell, whether they are political or not. Right now in the United States, many of us are in a constant state of shock and dismay at the atrocities being committed at the hands of our government. Music is a way to rise up, protest, and give a voice to our concerns.

What does that process from being galvanized by the news to the final product actually look like?
It usually starts with me first calling and writing to my representatives, and also donating to organizations that support the causes I believe in—making sure I’m fully active as a citizen in the ways I can. However, under this administration, those efforts fell short, and we still have witnessed disturbing legislation on a daily basis. Then I go to my piano. In the case of the song “Heartbeat,” the Georgia “Heartbeat” bill was signed, and then shortly after the egregious Alabama bill was signed. The aggressive manner in which women’s rights were being stripped away was beyond what I could tolerate. I found myself asking, “What about us? What about women? Can you hear our heartbeat?” With that question the song was born. I wanted that to be the echo: “Can you hear our heartbeat?” I started thinking about all of us, about the women marching, about all the mothers, and the daughters, and our women representatives in office, how we should have the rights to our own lives. Our lives, our health, our voices are important and need to be heard.

I also like to co-write and have been co-writing with my husband more recently. In addition to the song “Heartbeat,” I co-wrote the song titled “Rumpelstiltskin” with him in response to the border crisis. This song was released on October 18.

How do you ensure that you're not preaching only to the choir as it were?
I don’t write with the intent to change minds, but with the intent to stand against injustice. And honestly, I also write because I am upset about what's happening, and I want to harness that into something positive. Those of us who have the opportunity to do something should raise our voices for those who can’t.

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(Photo: Tiffany Walling-McGarity)

How do you balance music with your other work? Where do you make room for both?
It’s extremely tough and it keeps getting tougher! I am also a high school teacher and a mother of two. A few years ago, I committed to only teaching part time, which was essential to my musical progress. It takes a lot of organization and simultaneously a lot of patience and commitment. I also am extremely fortunate to have a supportive husband, who can hold down the fort when I have to travel to record or perform. Still, it keeps getting increasingly difficult to balance music, teaching, and motherhood. As a parent, it’s especially tough to truly find balance, but that struggle is a natural part of life.

 

What are the most rewarding aspects of sharing your process with teenagers?
I’ve been teaching math for years, but once I joined Paideia I had the unique opportunity to offer a monthlong songwriting course every year. In order to write and share your work you have to be willing to make yourself very vulnerable. I try to share my process with students, but also my struggles with writing as well. It’s important to demonstrate that songwriting takes a great deal of effort and time. There’s no one way and there’s no one easy formula. You just have to put in the time. I have found it truly rewarding each year to witness students starting from scratch and working until a point where their song is “born,” and then developed further until it is performance-ready. Each year I am just blown away and so proud when I watch the students perform their final creations.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?
The future is filled with possibilities. I always like to believe that the sky's the limit. I can picture a lot of great things, but I’ve learned to embrace the wonder of the unknown and letting life unfold. If you asked me this question 20 years ago, I probably would have said, “I don’t know, but I see myself writing and creating music.” I am grateful that creating music is exactly what I am doing now. I know that whatever else changes around me, music will be a constant.


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Poornima Apte is an award-winning writer and editor. Find her on Twitter @booksnfreshair.



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