by Rajeswari Satish | Jun 25, 2019

Interested in beginning and sustaining Indian classical music education for your children? There are benefits for this rigorous music training at many levels, both artistic and cultural. As a parent, how can you go about facilitating quality musical education for your child while promoting artistic integrity and excellence?

How Carnatic Music Spread in America

Active propagation of Carnatic music began in the 1960s in various parts of America through the efforts of a few aficionados several of whom remain active even today. Concurrently, American universities started to diversify their academic departments by inviting experts to teach and perform, such as the renowned musicians T. Viswanathan and Trichy Sankaran. However, the greater presence of Carnatic music in Indian-American communities that we see now is the result of socio-economic changes that occurred over the last three decades. Friendly immigration policies in the eighties, followed by the software boom in the nineties resulted in a massive influx of young Indian professionals to the United States. As the demand for musical concerts increased, many among them took up organizing and volunteering in their spare time, giving rise to a number of sabhas across the country. Thanks to the tireless efforts of dedicated volunteers, we now have thriving Carnatic music communities in many American cities.

Diasporic communities such as ours attach immense value to preserving artistic, religious and cultural traditions. As a result, many South Indian immigrants sacrifice a great deal of time, money and effort for their children’s Carnatic music education. To some, it is an extension of their own childhood experiences or a path to realizing unfulfilled wishes. To others, it is a way to allay their latent fear of the next generation losing touch with their Indian roots. While they are interested in exposing their children to classical music lessons, Indian-American parents are also focused on having their children excel in academics. After high school, since many students move away from home for college, the consensus is that in order to achieve excellence in art forms they pursue, students need to learn and perform as much as possible before they leave for college.

At present, there are thousands of aspirants across the United States. A select few have taken up Carnatic music passionately and even matured into concert artists on par with professional artists from India. However, many of the enterprising parents and students lack the guidance to ensure that their endeavors for musical excellence are effective.

I share some perspectives to ensure success in the process of learning Carnatic music. As a parent, performer, and teacher of Carnatic music in America for nearly three decades, my hope is to kindle meaningful and constructive dialog among parents, fellow teachers, and students as we train and nurture the next generation of musicians and performers.

In the way that I analyze these issues, I gravitate towards maintaining artistic purity and imparting core musical values, over popular interpretations of teaching and learning Carnatic music. Vocal training is my main point of reference, but many of these considerations apply to instrumental music as well.

The learning environment
Selection of the guru

A common route taken by parents is to initially choose a less experienced or qualified teacher, and switch to a “superior” teacher for advanced lessons. This is a sure recipe for inadequate grounding in fundamental concepts, which is nearly impossible to rectify at later stages. Choosing a teacher that can mentor the student from beginning through advanced lessons in a technically correct manner cannot be emphasized enough.

Name brand teachers are a popular trend in Carnatic education, as parents believe that this leads to better opportunities. For this to work, several factors have to come together, and this rarely happens. Regular and focused lessons are scarce with many high profile teachers due to their packed schedules, especially if they are also concert performers. This is unfavorable, especially in the formative stages. While it is true that mentorship from top experts can be tremendously beneficial to many students, the readiness of a student to receive such elite guidance, and the stage of learning at which it is best done, need to be carefully considered.

Learning method

Can long-distance student-teacher relationships promote the same dedication or provide the strong grounding in fundamentals as face-to-face lessons? Remote learning through Skype and other technologies is fairly common now, especially in American towns where local teachers are not available. Even in cities where teachers are available, this practice is increasingly sought by parents who trust the “authenticity” of well-known artists in India over that of local teachers.

Typically, remote learning is productive only when lessons are supplemented with face-to-face lessons held periodically. Successful remote learners typically have a high degree of self-motivation, have advanced enough to pick up nuances even over poor Internet connections, and are keenly aware of the guru’s teaching style.

Especially in the initial stages, to acquire finesse in compositions, lessons need to be reinforced repetitively, and nuances need to be emphasized as the student progresses. A teacher must have the willingness and patience for this iterative process, which puts the student on a path to self-improvement. In my personal experience, the kritis that I reviewed countless times during lessons with my guru are not only never forgotten, but they are also the ones that I can render with greater confidence, insight, and beauty. I still vividly recall my lesson for “Bhajare re chitta” in Kalyani when my guru’s cat came and sat on my lap, during a particular sangati in the anupallavi!

Live classes create indelible memories of unspoken gestures such as a nod of appreciation, a raised eyebrow in concern, a pat on the shoulder, or a colorful bird outside the window. Can long-distance student-teacher relationships promote the same dedication or provide the strong grounding in fundamentals as face-to-face lessons? Glaring gaps that are often noticeable in student performances can be often attributed to remote learning. Instrumentalists too, struggle over remote lessons to learn the nuances, such as accompaniment techniques on the violin or mridangam. Pronunciation, voice projection, challenging talam exercises, and nuances of ragam are often lost in remote communication. When a student begins improvisation, the physical presence of a teacher can prevent a number of problems efficiently, such as minor slips in raga bhava that are painful to explain over a remote connection. This is by no means an attempt to completely disregard remote learning; it has undoubtedly brought more music into our communities. The intention is to call attention to those aspects detrimental to progress, that are overlooked in the eagerness to enroll in remote lessons.
Focus, practice and family support

Carnatic music, as many other art forms do, demands rigorous training. In order to sing a simple five-minute piece, one needs to acquire control over pitch, rhythm, the basics of the corresponding raga, and pronunciation. Students commence learning with a variety of expectations: to pursue singing as a hobby, to learn with commitment and eventually become a concert artist, to become an informed listener, or just as a cultural experience. However, good teachers would rather not have individually tailored approaches to achieve each of these end results.

Without a doubt, my experience has taught me that it is not advisable to compromise on the rigor of learning the fundamentals, regardless of what the end goal might be. This initial stage of going through the basic exercises, acquiring sufficient ear training to recognize, interpret, and reproduce notes in order to sing the most basic compositions, takes an average of three years.

Gentle encouragement from a family member can aid progress to a great extent at this stage. To all of us, exposure to Carnatic music in an alien culture, surrounded by multiple musical options, requires additional effort beyond the classroom. Progressing to a higher level requires regular and focused practice for the first few years. Though it may initially be just a “cultural experience,” or weekly activity, students do not get very far unless artistic focus comes into the picture at some point along the journey.

Listening: We have heard the pearl of wisdom that kelvi gnanam (knowledge acquired through listening) is the ultimate learning tool, and I incessantly repeat this to students and parents. Music lessons ought to be supplemented with enjoyable listening experiences that inspire and motivate. Live concerts create powerful experiences; recordings may fit the bill when this is unfeasible. It is important to select music of the greatest quality, especially for beginners. Listening gains even more importance as a student progresses to improvisation when rote practice is not enough. At this stage, listening transforms from a passive to an active, intentional process, when the brain deliberately works through the details heard. Additionally, listening creates self-awareness, providing a musical perspective in relation to peers and seniors, an impetus for further artistic growth.

Once you have selected the guru/gurus who can impart fundamentals and advanced lessons with felicity, helping them practice and exposing them to live performances and other listening opportunities will help them move forward in their musical journey. Next week, in the second part of this article, we will examine decisions related to performances, competitions and other aspects related to learning.

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.