by Rajeswari Satish | Jun 27, 2019
Helping your children pursue Indian classical music and sustaining their interest through years of training and performance is no easy task. In the concluding part of her article on classical music education in America. musician Rajeswari Satish has laid out many aspects that are important in this journey.
The number of concert opportunities for Indian-American youth has skyrocketed in the last decade. As I write this, I estimate that there are hundreds of community organizations that promote young talent. There are values that they engender, such as encouragement and appreciation from the local music community, support, and inspiration from musical peers. For many students, such opportunities ease the pressure of having to travel to India and spare them the exhausting efforts to carve out concert opportunities there.
However, excellence is often equated with exposure. The two go hand in hand only when the latter is handled responsibly. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to get everyone performing at a certain age. While some may be ready to exhibit their prodigious talent at the age of eleven, others may take an additional ten years to gain maturity and confidence. While some are interested in performing, others are happy just learning. It is imperative that the teacher ascertains the readiness of each student for each available opportunity.
Arangetram concerts with professional accompanists are increasingly common. These can be positive experiences if the student has had years of steady learning in preparation for a full-length concert. In many instances, the entire learning process is aimed at performing an arangetram, after which the connection with the music is non-existent. Ironically, the marker of a lifelong musical journey becomes a parting ceremony!
Take a look at community concerts and musical productions. Are we paying attention to whether they promote musical excellence? Volunteers who are keen to preserve culture, are sometimes inadequately informed and initiate ventures that do not necessarily focus on the musical output. Don’t we all want public programs to go well beyond satisfying parents’ excessive eagerness to showcase their children?
Group singing, with ten, twenty or many more vocalists is routinely featured in many Carnatic music events. Many such community events welcome only group participation, to the exclusion of individual talent. This may be appropriate when the concept has a relevant musical message. The musical value of large groups presenting concert-style music is moot. With multiple instruments and voices vying for volume and attention, often with endless manipulations of sound systems, discerning audiences find group presentations rather tiresome and wanting in musical excellence. The presenters have to put in an enormous amount of rehearsal time to blend the voices well, a rare occurrence. One valid rationale is that such events create performance opportunities for individuals who otherwise might never get to a public stage, ensuring a guaranteed audience (consisting mainly of the parents of the performers). A few quality control measures would greatly enhance these endeavors. Teachers must bracket students of similar abilities, and make sure that each participant is capable of rendering their part solo and mistake-free so that the collective musical output is enjoyable. We do come across a few exemplary programs such as well-researched thematic presentations with lasting musical value. A model example that we can look up to is the impeccably synchronized group singing of Kamalamba Navavarana kritis by the senior students of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, headed by Mrs. Seetha Rajan. A flawless and neat recording from a few decades ago, this work succeeds in bringing out compositional nuances beautifully and serves as a learner’s reference. Notably, this is also an example of a fairly rare situation, suitable for certain composition suites, where group presentation is more powerful and effective than individual singing.
Finally, it would be beneficial to contemplate on whether public performance is the only incentive for learning. Wouldn’t it be more important to structure the learning environments towards creating love and understanding of the art form rather than fostering a “perform or perish” environment? For a musical community to thrive, we need performers, students, teachers, listeners, organizers, and critics —a community bound together by the love for the music. To any attendee, a performance must be a musical experience, not an obligation. Solutions could include limiting the number of programs during a given month in a given area, with each organization and music school consciously working to raise standards of performance rather than the number of performers and events. Programs could focus on introducing a variety of music-related issues such as language, philosophy, voice or instrumental training, organization, and critiquing, for students interested in these different areas. This requires detailed planning at the community level, in consultation with experts.
Competitions are huge confidence builders. Of course, it is possible to build a successful career without having entered a single competition, and they do become irrelevant in the long term. Nevertheless, they are breeding grounds for excellence and hard work. In competitions, we witness the emergence of new stars, who get an early career boost. However, they are not for everyone. There are equally talented students that either compete enthusiastically, or completely shy away from competing. Winning may guarantee opportunities, but unmistakable talent maybe eventually revealed through other avenues as well.
In America, competitions have unfortunately become high-stake affairs, and often the only route to qualify for concerts. The number of competitions has risen in almost all recognized events in the country now, and children as young as three are pushed into competing. In the mad rush to win a prize, little does the student or parent realize that there is much precious learning lost. The gravest misstep that I see is sending students to manodharma (improvisational) categories in competitions when they are far from ready. Well-meaning teachers get flak from parents for refusing to send students who are not yet ready. In order to present manodharma, students need to have the basic ability to create musical phrases on their own. It is not unusual to see a child barely eight years of age, having learned less than ten kritis in total, attempting ragam, neraval, and swaram. When canned swarams are delivered with no context or understanding, imagine the danger of forgetting a single note midway! Exceptional students may display aptitude for improvisation at a very young age. However, encouraging students who are not ready to take part does more damage than benefit in the long run. Senior experts recommend introducing manodharma only to those that have learned at least a hundred kritis. In addition to this guideline, it is advisable to teach at least two kritis in the particular ragam chosen for manodharma.
Rather than allowing a pre-packaged set to be delivered after months of rote practice, the adjudicators can test the improvisational ability of the competitors by posing a few judicious questions, nudging them in the right direction. In addition, written feedback can be provided to each participant. Mandatory interaction between the judges and the competitor ensures that each participant walks away with a positive learning experience. Let us focus on the real grand prize, a lifetime filled with music, not those won at competitions.
Importance of deep training
In an environment obsessed with rushing to the concert stage, let us not overlook long term musical growth. Students need time to devote to regular lessons, and time is often the scarcest resource. Multiple events crammed into weekends cut into learning and practice times. For a musician who aspires to higher performance levels, breadth in repertoire and depth in the knowledge of raga (“raga jnanam”) are goals to be chased meticulously. Raga is a dynamic concept in Carnatic music, and it’s understanding must grow as training progresses. A wide repertoire in the same raga, combined with a critical thought process enables a musician to explore it in many fresh ways. Advanced level training should include challenging rhythmic exercises, a crucial skill that helps when performing with accompanying musicians on stage. Singers with laya (rhythmically) oriented styles typically work further to enrich their vocal presentation with complex rhythmic ideas.
Performance-based learning and practice put the kind of pressure that is beneficial only over short bursts of time. Students need long and enjoyable periods of learning, contemplation, practice, and experimentation without a concert constantly looming. Unless learning is ceaseless, a musician risks stagnation.
Social media such as Facebook are extensively used for publicity in the Carnatic music world. It is also a favored way for both established and aspiring musicians to network with peers and fans. Concert clippings are shared online on a routine basis. Fans, friends and relatives often feel obliged to acknowledge the postings. Though most feelings are genuine, most of you would agree that it isn’t always about the music. Ever so subtly, the quality of music is translated to the number of “likes,” and the line between mediocrity and true excellence is blurred. It can be misleading to students when praise comes easily. Social media can be useful publicity tools, but it is important to look to credible sources for constructive and critical feedback and to focus on pushing artistic boundaries.
Trusting the Guru
The music teacher is the best person to gauge the readiness of a student for the stage, be it a competition or concert. The most vociferous gripe from teachers is that parents do not let the guru weigh in on this important decision. Colleagues have shared with me outrageous instances involving parents of four-year-old kids demanding lessons with a future arangetram date in mind.
A child’s interest and musical capacity have to be carefully appraised by a teacher before embarking on a serious musical journey. Teachers find it necessary to turn some students away purely because of their apathy, lack of commitment, and in rare cases, total musical incapacity. To train students of all levels, a teacher’s nurturing and patient care is essential. The guru, assessing the capacity of the student at each stage, is responsible for selecting a suitable repertoire. The guru must also be the authority to decide if the student is ready for a public performance or competition. Parents place teachers in touchy situations when they demand that a certain complex kriti be taught (when the student is clearly not ready), or that the student be enrolled in manodharma competitions when they are not even able to mimic phrases. Ditto when parents ask that the student be prepared for a concert that would look good in a college application. The lack of a formalized syllabus in Carnatic music, and extensive variation in individual approaches makes such decisions even more complicated. In exceptional cases, students from families with absolutely no musical orientation do excel. However, in these successful cases, dedication, hard work and complete trust in the guru’s decisions are evident.
This discussion would be incomplete if I didn’t point out the objectionable practice of scrapping the first guru. It is an unfortunate practice of students not acknowledging and sometimes completely severing connection with the first teacher that painstakingly imparted the fundamentals, to associate themselves exclusively with the later, more acclaimed teacher. Students would do well to acknowledge the role of every teacher that has aided their musical journey.
What can teachers do?
Risking repetition, I consolidate the points here on how teachers can contribute to a healthier environment. Our first and foremost focus must be to instill in the students (and parents) the benefits of involved musical training. Never overlook training on the fundamental aspects of raga and tala and constantly aim to gain proficiency in these. The teacher, student, and parents must all concur on lesson policies, practice schedules and level of commitment before lessons begin. Clear communication of learning/teaching approaches to the parents must happen, making sure that the parents understand the perils of premature performances. If large group settings are the norm, individual teaching and monitoring must happen from time to time to ensure that learning is effective. Teachers must include lyrics, language, context, and meaning in classroom discussions. Creative incentives to encourage listening to concerts, such as trips together, fun post-concert quizzes and discussions, are often helpful. Encourage students to actively support their peers from other schools, and to develop an awareness of varied styles.
Spreading the music
We are privileged to have a beautifully evolved, strong, traditional system of music. In spite of the multicultural settings we find ourselves in, Carnatic music remains firmly embedded within Indian-American communities and remains largely unknown outside. Perhaps we could take small steps towards sharing our tradition with those beyond our confines. Many young Indian Americans learning Carnatic music also learn Western classical music and participate in musical endeavors that involve popular, jazz, R&B, and other musical genres. They are connected with the larger musical world out there in a way that their immigrant parents aren’t. They are in a better position to bring attention to the music from the outside and expand its audience base. Organizations can take this aspect into consideration, collaborate with local musicians, and come up with innovative solutions to stage Carnatic music for newer audiences.
Carnatic music in the US now enjoys more popularity and more participants than ever before. Upon a quick glance, it appears healthy as we see the exploding number of artists and broader access to music. For the long-term survival of the true values of Carnatic music, we need to spread awareness of its finer aspects. To that end, it is crucial to identify and correct any missteps that may escalate in the longer term. The supportive environment that the current young Indian American generation enjoys is unparalleled. The abundant human and financial resources available now can be mobilized to the maximum — in projecting the music to the general public, in welcoming new participants, and in fostering a better long-term commitment from teachers, students, and practitioners. A better-informed population, and attentively thought out processes in learning, teaching and disseminating the art form will ensure a better future for the young Carnatic ecosystem in America.
Rajeswari Satish is a Carnatic vocalist based in New Jersey. She has performed concerts in India, USA, and the UK since 1985. In her teaching career that began in 1992, she has trained students at all levels, molding several of them into full-fledged concert artists. Her gurus include M.A. Venugopal, C.S. Krishna Iyer, P.S. Narayanaswamy and Suguna Varadachari. Currently, she is pursuing a doctoral degree in Ethnomusicology at The City University of New York.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to my good friend Raja Bala, performing musician and teacher from Rochester, NY for all the conversations on this topic, for critically reading this article, and shaping and extending my thoughts on various issues.