PRINCETON, N.J. — There is nothing else Raghav Merhotra rather do than play drums. “Music is life,” the 15-year-old drumming prodigy says on his website. And a look into a timeline of what the rising sophomore has achieved in his young life, it’s not hard to believe that the teen does live and breathe music.
From his first show at a coffee shop at age 5, to performing on several prestigious venues with legendary musicians, and from Broadway to a gig on “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” Raghav has an impressive record. And along with support from his family, resources and a lot of luck, Raghav is headed in the right direction, where there seems to be lots and lots of playing drums on the horizon.
Sitting in a shopping mall in Princeton, New Jersey, Raghav, who was accompanied by his parents Pooja and Gaurav Merhotra, seemed like any 15-year-old. But as he began talking about his work and the gigs he has done and recounting his experiences, his eyes sparkled and the teenage awkwardness gradually disappeared.
Drumming Before Walking
Raghav’s first introduction to music came through his parents. Then a toddler, Raghav says his parents recall stories of him “jamming” around the house to music they played. His musical accompaniments then would be pots and pans.
His parents soon realized that their son had “some kind of sense for music,” Raghav says. He remembers getting a floor tom-tom for his third birthday. “And it took off from there,” he says. He says he loved banging the drum, and the love and passion for music eventually grew to a point where he began experimenting for hours with different rhythms.
At three and a half, Raghav graduated from a tom-tom to a mini drum set and began taking drum lessons. When he turned four, Raghav graduated to a junior Ludwig drum kit. He progressed quickly, and eventually his family enrolled him at Princeton’s School of Rock, “where it all began.”
A Turning Point
After enrolling at the Princeton School of Rock, Raghav started doing shows, first through school and then outside of it. “The more shows I did, it became easier to perform live,” Raghav says. “And it became more fun.” It was “a big turning point in how comfortable I was playing live,” he remembers.
Raghav was selected for the school’s All-Stars program, which gave him a chance to play with kids from all over the U.S. and also travel for shows. It was after doing a few shows that Raghav soon realized that he didn’t want to do too much else than play drums. “I would come home, spend four hours just playing drums and listening to music,” he says, adding that it made him realize that playing the drums is what he wants to do. “It’s definitely something I want to pursue in life,” he says.
It was around the time he was performing through the rock school that Broadway happened. Recounting his journey to the sets of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony-nominated “School of Rock the Musical,” Raghav says his parents signed up for the audition thinking it was “just a gig to play drums and do music.”
He learned the “School of Rock” soundtrack in a day or two and went for the open call audition. After he played his bit, the makers loved it and wanted to know whether Raghav sang. When he answered in the negative, Raghav left and thought that was it. But to his surprise, he got a call a few weeks later and Raghav, then 12, entered Broadway.
A Whole New World
Raghav began his Broadway journey as a vacation swing, meaning that when someone went on a vacation, he understudied for them. And from there he eventually moved up to the full role of Freddie, who’s a drummer.
Broadway also provided him a platform to get more gigs. Some of the notable ones are performing with Doung Wimbish, a bassist with the rock band Living Colour. With Brandon ‘Taz’ Niederauer, the lead guitarist on “School of Rock,” Raghav performed at a half-time show at a Nicks game at Madison Square Garden and also at a semi-final of a college football game.
“Performing in front of 19,000 people (at the college football semi-final) in the middle of an area, was an absolute dream,” Raghav says.
Last year, Raghav reunited with Webber, performing with Sarah Brightman at the 30th anniversary celebration of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Raghav’s stint with the “School of Rock” did not just expose him to the world of music and glamour, it also taught him some important life lessons like time management. It was a regular school year and Raghav commuted to the city daily after attending full-time school, his father Gaurav Merhotra says. It was this balancing act that taught the pre-teen how to manage time and do justice to school and to his work.
Raghav remembers how he would utilize the time in the train while traveling to New York City or the time between sets to finish his school homework and assignments. And that experience also made him more determined. Not just to perform, but also to excel in school and everything else he does, like touring and working with organizations to give back to the community.
But along with all that’s going on, Raghav says he’s sure of one thing: “School comes first.” Something his parents immediately concur with.
Qualities of a Rising Star
What makes the 15-year-old stand out other than his passion and commitment to playing drums, is his humility and gratitude, qualities that will help him in the long run. “I’m just a kid who is very lucky,” he says.
He acknowledges the value of the chances he has gotten so far and says he realizes that “bigger the audience, the more opportunity one gets.” On his website he writes: “You know you are extremely fortunate when you see yourself on a Time Square billboard and there is an emoji modeled after you.”
He credits the social media for playing a role in his exposure and visibility. He says that although there’s a downside to it, social media is a “good tool” to get visibility. But for that, he says, you got to ignore the haters. “Got to keep moving and stay positive with what you are doing,” he says.
“Social media is a great way to spread your music and you can become an overnight success.” Raghav also credits his father for starting his now popular YouTube channel when he was 3, where he kept uploading clips and gaining visibility. “People who are blessed to have to support behind them, blessed to have the resources, you got to keep putting stuff out there,” he says.
What Lies Ahead
While he believes in integrating all kinds of music in his repertoire, Raghav says that as an Indian-American, he never felt the pressure or obligation to integrate Indian rhythms with the music he plays or creates. But at the same time, Raghav says he has dabbled with Indian rhythms and thinks that it’s a “cool idea” and a “good resource.”
His introduction to Indian music was in the initial years where he took tabla lessons, but didn’t pursue them. Now his younger brother learns the tabla and is Raghav’s go to resource at home.
Although his family has a good ear for music, Raghav says it is his 9-year-old brother who is his guide and critic at home. Raghav says he shares a recoding with him and asks him about some notes and takes his advice on changing it or improvising.
Raghav says that in the future he can see himself touring and performing as a musician, make albums and perform in big venues like the Madison Square Garden in New York City or the Wembley Stadium in London. His parents agree.
They believe that the important thing is to have the passion for what you want to pursue, and everything will fall in place. His advice for budding musicians: Practice not until you get it right, but practice until you don’t get it wrong.” Seems like a mantra that has served the talented teen in good stead.