Singing may seem like a laid-back activity, but if you think it’s all about relaxation, you might not be fully aware of the intense physical and mental effort it demands. This post is especially for Carnatic vocalists—those who truly understand the intricate dance of body and mind required in this art form. If you’re not a Carnatic singer, this might give a glimpse into the unique challenges and concerns that singers, particularly those in the Carnatic tradition, grapple with.

Ever think about the power we need to sustain those long phrases in Kamalamba navavaranams without breaking at all the wrong spots? Or the pounding our vocal cords go through when we launch into a brisk Kedaragowla to kick off a concert?  How about the endurance required to belt out those superfast Kambhoji brigas in the upper registers? As Carnatic singers, we subject our voices to intense strain, due to the challenging nature of the vocal movements, and the specific qualities expected in our voices. Consider yourselves elite vocal athletes, my friends. Just as athletes tend to their bodies, we too need proper warm up, exercise, recovery, and a generous dose of TLC!

I have navigated my own personal journey of over four decades of singing without considering the nuances of vocal care. Throughout this time, I’ve grappled with recurring cycles of vocal fatigue, hoarseness, and frequent upper respiratory infections. There have been instances when I have limited my practice sessions or hesitated to embark on certain vocal challenges. Due to the persistent anxiety of adversely affecting my voice, I have even been anxious about engaging in casual everyday conversations. I have consulted a succession of ENT specialists, laryngologists, and gastroenterologists, and gone down rabbit holes of information in my quest for solutions to a myriad of challenges.

Voice challenges are all too familiar to Carnatic vocalists at some point in their careers, irrespective of whether they are seasoned professionals or dedicated students. I frequently encounter young singers facing vocal health issues. It becomes imperative for us to acquire the knowledge and ability to employ our vocal power efficiently. There have existed, and continue to exist, professional Carnatic vocalists with powerful, resilient voices, impeccable tonal control, and vocal longevity. I would attribute such prowess to a combination of inherent vocal robustness, individual diligence, and keen awareness about proper voice use. However, let us acknowledge that a significant majority of Carnatic singers fall outside this category and find themselves in need of guidance and support.

Our pedagogy is endowed with a diverse array of exercises designed to facilitate incremental improvement, leading to the mastery of navigating the flow of various ragas. However, a common tendency is to just to get through these exercises with a certain mindlessness, as if they were meant only for absolute beginners. It’s crucial to dispel this misconception, as these exercises are far from elementary; they form an integral part of our ongoing musical development. Understanding the nuanced benefits of each exercise and the specific ways in which they contribute to our vocal enhancement is key to forming our own customized regimens to achieve targeted results.

Tyagaraja was aware about musical sound being powered from the diaphragm when he sang ‘NAbhi hrut kanTa rasana’ in SObhillu Saptasvara. Instead of referring to such wisdom in an esoteric sense, why not break it down for every Carnatic vocal student? If musicians and voice experts can collaborate, organize the information, and make it accessible, everyone can learn to be mindful about vocal quality, tonal clarity, and long-term vocal fitness.

It is becoming more common for professional Carnatic musicians to seek guidance from voice coaches to address specific issues—a positive trend. However, the emphasis appears to be on fixing damage that’s already done rather than proactively building robust voices and preventing problems. Comparatively, the wealth of information available to students of opera, jazz, and Western classical voice is striking. I strongly believe that integrating a voice coach into Carnatic vocal training and incorporating methods that include fundamental lessons on vocal anatomy and care are crucial. This approach can go a long way in not just correcting issues but also in fostering a culture of preventive care and holistic vocal development among Carnatic vocalists.

I am not an expert on vocal health by any means. I recognize that our voices are all unique, with unique strengths and weaknesses. I’m sharing these thoughts not to provide specific advice on voice matters but to highlight a few essential pointers based on my own experiences and open a discussion. My hope is that everyone feels empowered to safeguard and enhance their priceless musical instruments—their voices—and sustain their singing abilities for as long as they’re around. Let’s collectively cherish and nurture the longevity of our musical gifts!

Please do share your own thoughts, experiences, and wisdom in the comments!

Breath Support is the mother of all vocal power! When we sing, we must juggle where, when, how (nose or mouth), how intensely, and how long to breathe. That’s a lot of variables! Some of this comes instinctively to singers, but if we train ourselves to consciously prepare each time, the results are better. For example, I tell my students to remember to breathe before an approaching difficult or long phrase. Budgeting vocal energy over a prolonged period, as in a concert, is yet another application of breath support management. Daily routines can help build our capacity to breathe efficiently, fostering increased awareness of breath control overall.

Technique Let’s break down the technique jargon: chest voice, head voice, mix voice. But wait, isn’t that “weighty,” “open-throated” singing, straight out of the music critic’s handbook, the holy grail in the Carnatic world? We’ve all heard the term “kathi paadu,” urging singers to belt it out like they’re yelling. Ever wondered what this does to your vocal cords and how to get that “weighty” sound without sending your vocal cords into a tailspin?

Diet has a profound influence on voice. Sure, there might be a handful of vocal legends who can indulge in whatever they want whenever, but they are outliers! For most of us vocalists, acid reflux is enemy #1. Learning from several bad experiences, I have realized the importance of being mindful about when I eat and what I eat, especially before a singing gig.

Water! It is essential to maintain hydration throughout the day to keep the vocal cords moist, and this overall hydration should not be neglected. Did you know that the water you consume doesn’t immediately reach your vocal cords? We need to remember to stay hydrated both externally (especially in colder environments, consider using humidifiers when heating is on) and internally by drinking water consistently throughout the day.

Warm up: I consistently advise my students against starting their warmup sessions by singing varnams. Varnams may be effective starting pieces your performance, but they are demanding and intricate pieces that require our voices to be already warmed up! My personal routine is to start humming soft and slow, and not sing gamakams or brigas until fully warmed up.

Exercises: Don’t we all agree that physical fitness boosts our singing? I strongly believe that whether it is yoga, cardiovascular exercises, or strength training, or a combination, a personalized routine that we can sustain will enhance our singing abilities, besides of course, maintaining overall health. What exercises work for you?

Age and gender: Our vocal cords a lot more TLC as we age, and the journey can sometimes feel isolating as we grapple with individual challenges. It’s high time we foster more open discussions about the unique hurdles female vocalists encounter during life cycle changes. On the other end of the spectrum, young men undergoing the voice changes that come with puberty require special guidance. The question becomes, where do we turn for the right kind of support to navigate these distinct challenges?

Stress stands out as a seriously underrated factor that directly affects voice quality and the heightened mental focus needed to craft and deliver our musical ideas. If you’re naturally prone to anxiety (like I am) or if stress tends to tag along with various aspects of your life, it becomes crucial to master the art of stress management before diving into practice or stepping onto the stage. I’ve always envied those who have nailed this skill.

Rest: Don’t underestimate sleep! Have you noticed how much better your singing is on a day that you have had good sleep, and how challenging it is to sing well on a day you are not well rested? While we’re all familiar with the wisdom of resting our voices before a performance, what about afterward? I’ve learned the hard way by chatting away after lengthy concerts or intense practice sessions, only to wake up with a completely lost voice or a pesky sore throat the next day. Lesson learned: our voices deserve some R&R after those killer vocal workouts!

7 replies
  1. Rajeswari Satish says:

    Of course, I understand and agree. You and I are trying to say that talking about/acknowledging these concerns is necessary, and vocal techniques and health are important. Like you say, maybe we can start with sharing individual experiences and urge the future generations to pay attention to it.

  2. Raj Rajagopalan says:

    Just to be clear, I don’t mean any disrespect to our gurus at all. They taught us what they knew. Armed with my newfound knowledge I tried to analyze the voice techniques used by prominent Carnatic singers. What I observed is that some singers are actually quite well-aligned with the techniques that I have learned, and others have cleverly found the techniques that were compatible with their voice constraints. But it seems that they have never _talked_ about these things (even in private settings). My guess is that many great singers of yore learned these truths instinctively from their own experience. How they navigated the complex landscape of voice changes in puberty, voice overuse, physical constraints, etc, remains largely unknown to us. However, each singer has a unique set of needs because our voices are all unique. And because voice is such an individual psycho-physical experience, the insights of our musical ancestors cannot be effectively transmitted from one generation to the next without a systematic vocabulary, application, and pedagogy. We may never know what Tyagaraja actually meant by “singing from the navel” because it is an experiential thing, not an anatomical thing. But we can all find our own individual version of that experience and _share_ it with future generations of aspirants.

  3. Rajeswari Satish says:

    Hi Raj, It is good to hear from you! Thank you for sharing experiences from your journey. This is exactly the kind of contribution that I think is valuable in furthering the conversation on this important topic. I think that everyone focuses on developing their musical skills guided by their gurus, and many years go by until they reach a point when it sinks in that they need the support from their voices to do what the mind tells them to. While they may be able to give a few pointers based on their experience, they (even vidwans and vidushis whose music we respect) may not be equipped to provide advice to a wider body of students with diverse voice needs. Happy to hear that you found a voice teacher who could help you with your voice, and even happier to know that you have designed workshops that are more genre-specific. I would love to hear more about this, and will be in touch!

  4. Raj Rajagopalan says:

    Hi Rajeswari, you have broached a topic close to my heart. My own journey with my voice has been similarly checkered and thrilling. I was very frustrated myself with the troubles I faced with my voice — the range, the stamina, the tonal quality, etc — but could not find any vidwan who could answer basic questions. I would nag visiting Carnatic musicians with the question “how should I practice so that my voice is not tired or I dont sound strained” etc etc. I got non-answers like “if you follow our tradition then everything will be ok or everything will take care of itself”. This in the face of the fact that I was following traditional practices up to that point and yet I was asking these questions. I once told a visiting Vidwan that I was interested in finding out if there is help to be had in western music. The answer was one for the ages “Why do you want to mix uppuma and pasta?” This, from a vidwan, who was primarily a violinist though he also taught vocal. He went to great lengths to acquire an expensive violin in the US! 🙂

    Fast forward I finally took the plunge and started taking voice lessons from my children’s music teacher. His response was equally legendary in the opposite direction. He said I have never listened to any Indian music in my life. How can I teach you what is right?” I told him I was just looking for voice technique, not musical content per se, to which he said, “but I am afraid that you may no longer sound authentic to your tradition”. I told him I am not afraid, I am willing to go wherever my quest takes me. Thus started the second part of my voice journey that completely transformed my outlook on singing and related matters.

    This teacher taught me everything from how to breathe while singing, how to warm up my voice, how to relax my entire body while singing, and many many more things.

    This post has already become very long. Separately I will describe what I learned, how I gave a Carnatic concert with piano accompaniment (using my new voice technique), and taught a couple of zoom workshops on how to properly train the voice for young Indian singers.

  5. Venkataraman KN says:

    Namaskaram. I have to admit my extreme ignorance on the challenges faced by vocalists. Chaitanya my son, went through immense hardships when he was training.. how I wish that we had the benefit of your insights at that time. Very useful info. Thank you.

  6. Neyveli Ramalakshmi says:

    Dear Rajeswari, I enjoyed reading your article. How true each and every statement is and I can relate to each one of them! Can I shared this link with all our local Dallas Carnatic Vocalists and also Neyveli Sir’s disciples?

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