By Jan Mercker

Veena Pandiri is a classically trained singer, an engineer and the Indian-born mom of a very American teen musician. Pandiri also is the founder of Notes n’ Beats, a music school in Ashburn that specializes in blending Indian and Western musical traditions in fun and engaging ways.

This year, instead of a traditional recital, Pandiri wanted to do something different to energize students after a tough pandemic. She and her team of instructors decided on a reality show-style competition.

“We were trying to see how to get the excitement going,” Pandiri said. “We said, ‘We’ve got to do something different. We’ve got to really stir things up.’”

Notes n’ Beats will broadcast the grand finale of its Indian Fusion Music Festival competition Saturday, June 26. It features 45 finalists in five categories: Indian vocals, western vocals, guitar, drums and piano. 

The school’s students come from a range of backgrounds, but most are American-born children of Indian parents, Pandiri said. And her approach to teaching has struck a chord in Loudoun’s south Asian community. It helps kids tap into family musical traditions while also celebrating western styles they absorb from pop culture and school music programming—and finding overlap between the two styles.

Like Pandiri, many parents of students at the school grew up in India and are raising children born in the U.S. Their Northern Virginia kids are soaking up Bollywood music at home and in cars and engaging with grandparents in India while watching American reality TV shows like “The Voice” and listening to pop and rock with friends.

The school offers training in both Indian classical and Western vocals, guitar, piano, and drums.

Notes n’ Beats instructors come from a range of backgrounds and most are not of Indian descent, Pandiri said, which creates a cool multicultural vibe. At the heart of the school’s programming is Indian and Western classical music using fun arrangements that keep kids engaged. In the past year, Pandiri and her instructors have been doing a deep dive in exploring the overlap between Indian and western classical music, delivering fusion instruction to American kids with a foot in two cultures.

“I think they have the best of both worlds as far as music goes and even culturally,” Pandiri said. “Our school is in a unique position…. we explore these two powerful styles of music. Our children are in the middle of it where they have access to both these cultures. They have this beautiful blend.”

Pandiri is a self-described math and science person, an engineer who came to the U.S. to get her master’s degree and worked in the tech sector for 15 years. But her mother was a professional singer in India and made sure music and singing was part of Pandiri’s life from early childhood.

A visit from her mother when her daughter was born 15 years ago inspired Pandiri to start offering singing lessons in her home. The classes caught on in Loudoun’s Indian-American community, and Pandiri launched Notes n’ Beats in 2012 at a studio space in Ashburn.

Pandiri’s daughter Nidhi Kolluri is a classic example of a young musician inspired by both her Indian roots and American pop culture. The 15-year-old is a rising sophomore at Independence High School and the Academy of Science and a drummer, singer, and guitarist. Kolluri is a rocker at heart, known for her high-energy percussion performances. But as a finalist in the upcoming competition, she chose an Indian Fibonacci konnakol piece full of intricate rhythms. 

With a music teacher mom, Kolluri has been surrounded by music her entire life and said music is a mental refuge for kids in academically challenging high school programs. 

“Being surrounded by music my whole life, it’s just a part of who I am now,” she said. “It’s something that’s always there if you need to go to it.”

Manya Mamidi, 15, is a finalist in the Western Vocals category. A rising sophomore at Briar Woods and the Academy of Engineering and Technology, Mamidi has been studying at Notes n’ Beats since she was 5. She started learning Indian classical vocals with Pandiri as a kindergartener, then moved on to piano and in middle school started western vocals. 

Mamidi said music is a needed break from the challenging academic environment at ATE.

“It’s a lot of work. … I really find that music is an outlet for me and for my creativity,” she said.

Mamidi is an active member of the Briar Woods choral program and also has done musical theater. She says the foundations she got at Notes n’ Beats have helped her with breath control and precision. Notes n’ Beats has been a huge part of her childhood, and the musical community offers a support network as she moves through her teen years. 

Mamidi will be doing a pop-inspired piece on piano and vocals for the competition and said the competitive format makes it extra fun after a challenging school year. She’s in it to win it, but says competition among fellow students is 100 percent friendly.

“I think it pushes me more,” she said. “It’s super exciting”

That spirit of friendly competition also is in play for drummer Arnav Nanduri, a rising sophomore at Chantilly High School and another finalist in the Drums competition. Nanduri was rehearsing his competition piece last week, a high-energy percussion piece traditionally associated with the Hindu Ganesh festival in India. The piece’s infectious, celebratory vibe captures what Nanduri loves about the drums.

“It’s super fun, very upbeat,” he said.

Drumming is a consuming passion for Nanduri, who’s also a member of his school marching band’s percussion section, and Notes n’ Beats is where it all started. 

“The teaching is very personal. They genuinely care about what you’re learning,” he said. “I look forward to going to class every time. I really, really love this place.”

Indu Gnanaprakasam has two sons enrolled at Notes n’ Beats. Shravan, 11, plays drums and percussion, while his 10-year-old brother Gautham studies drums, guitar and Western vocals. The boys make music together at home and are part of an in-house band at the school. It’s an extracurricular they always look forward to, Gnanaprakasam said. She also appreciates the public service aspect of the school. Notes n’ Beats launched a nonprofit arm, The Stage, that helps students leverage their musical talent to serve the community, performing at Loudoun senior centers pre-pandemic and doing fundraisers for area nonprofits.

Gnanaprakasam said the competition has inspired and engaged her boys and takes things up a notch from the standard recital.

“It’s a motivator,” she said. “I don’t even have to remind them to practice.”

For more information about Notes n’ Beats music studio, go to notesnbeats.com or facebook.com/notesnbeats.

To check out the Indian Fusion Music festival via YouTube on June 26 and participate in audience voting, go to notesnbeats.com/2021finals.