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12 Essential Qualities for an Aspiring Carnatic Musician

Carnatic Music is a dynamic art form that has something unique to offer everyone, the composer, performer, musicologist and Rasika(connoisseur) alike. Whether it’s melody, rhythm, vocal or instrumental; the possibilities are endless. Carnatic Music goes beyond mere entertainment. The amalgamation of melody, rhythm, and prose of the highest spiritual and philosophical ideas, elevates and transports the performer and listener alike to higher realms of bliss.

Carnatic Music which generously pleases also demands a set of necessary skills from the artist or performer. With rigorous sadhana (mindful practice) under the guidance of a knowledgeable Guru, one can develop into a promising musician capable of pleasing oneself as well as others.  The ultimate destination may not always be a visible one, but the journey in itself can be fulfilling. For the Nadopasaka (practitioner of Nada or divine sound) rewards come of their own accord, be it materialistic or spiritual. A journey that starts outward, eventually ending inwards towards self-realization is a fruitful one capable of bestowing happiness and life-long bliss. A path that is most suited for those who learn the art for the sake of music alone without expecting external rewards like money or fame.

The journey to becoming an accomplished Carnatic Musician can often be daunting, paved with doubt and misgivings. One must not only master the necessary technical skills but also assimilate a sense of aesthetics to create a musical personality of their own. No doubt, it is a long journey but an enjoyable one that one can achieve with the guidance of an able guru.

We have listed some essential skills for an aspiring Carnatic vocalist below. The skills seldom reside independently, overlapping with one another to influence the success or failure of each. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness, not only for students but others as well.

We will further explore the individual aspects in subsequent articles suggesting ways to strengthen and perfect them.

1) Shruti Shuddham and Swara Shuddham

Shruti shuddham in the pure sense refers to pitch perfection or being musically tuneful. Without a doubt, this is an absolute must, but in Carnatic music, the term widens to take into account the idiom of the music form itself.

Shruti shuddham moves beyond pitch perfection and refers to the purity of Shruti values in the rendition of a raga. Shruti values define the rules by which notes are rendered, owing to which the raga takes on a unique identity. For example, the Shruti value of the Dhaivatam in the raga Surutti is different from the same in Kedaragowla even though they occupy the same swara –sthana. (Same position on the scale) The Surutti dhaivatam is rendered slightly higher than the corresponding note in Kedaragowla owing to the difference in Shruti values in the two ragas.

Swara shuddham refers to maintaining the purity of a raga by only rendering notes allowed in that raga. For example, in the raga Thodi, while rendering the gamakam for the Sadharana Gandhara, there is a possibility for the Chaturashra Rishabha to creep in. This apa-swaram. (incorrect note) must be avoided to preserve swara- shuddham. The gamakam should instead originate from the shuddha rishabham taking care not to suggest the Chaturashra rishabham inadvertently.

Confidence with raga swaroopa and self-awareness can ensure that such mistakes are minimized thereby adding to the overall aesthetics as well.

2) Laya

If Shruti (melody) is compared to ‘mata'( mother), Laya (Rhythm) is associated with ‘pita’ (father) weighing in with equal importance. Laya is universally present, in nature and inside every one of us. Rhythm forms the backbone of music without which melody sounds lifeless and lacks form and expression.

Fundamental aspects of Laya like maintaining Kalapramanam (constant tempo) and ability to express a variety of speeds and gatis accurately is essential for any Carnatic Musician. These skills come naturally of their own accord when one focuses on strengthening laya from day one starting with the sarali varisais.

Mastery over laya comes through in every aspect of a musician’s presentation be it manodharma or compositions. Some musicians prefer to showcase their laya skills subtly, while others may explore to greater depths with dazzling and intricate kannakus. (mathematical patterns) The choice is made based on the comfort, personality, and style of the singer.

3) Voice Culture 

Voice culture occupies an important place in Carnatic music with many valuable insights provided by musical experts from past to present.

Voice culture consists of two components, the physical voice that executes the commands of the mind, and the mind, which creates the musical expressions. When both elements work together seamlessly, a whole new world opens up toward tremendous possibilities. The facile voice inspires more creative expressions in the mind and the mind, in turn, challenges the voice to keep up!

A good voice produces an open, clear tone devoid of wobbling and shaking . Breath control allows the singer to sustain long notes and phrases with confidence and skill. Some great vocalists can sing ‘tristhayi’ (3 octaves) effortlessly, although, for most purposes, it is sufficient to be able to sing from the mandra sthayi panchamam to tara sthayi panchamam.

Diction is also an important aspect for voice culture. The singer should be careful to avoid strain and tension by understanding the correct technique to pronounce consonants and vowels in musical phrases.

When presenting compositions, a basic understanding of the language is necessary to ensure correct pronunciation and intonation. The composition meaning and underlying sentiments of the composer should also be understood clearly by the singer to help create bhava. (emotion) Otherwise, the music will sound dry and lifeless.

When the voice is capable of expressing everything the mind throws at it, there is also a danger of over embellishing. Care must be taken to project the style and intent of the composer or the raga bhava accurately. Thyagaraja’s compositions are known for their sangati oriented approach whereas Dikshitar’s are contemplative and should be rendered as such with minimum frills.

The second aspect of voice culture is mind culture. The mind must be cultivated to appreciate and convey musical thoughts of a high order. This skill comes from developing a well-rounded aesthetic sense with in-depth knowledge of ragas, learning from knowledgeable gurus and listening to the refined music of the great masters.

By balancing the two aspects of voice culture, one may be able to navigate challenges effectively. For example, if the natural voice is weak one day, one may choose to focus on other inherent strengths like gyanam (knowledge). This is how many great artistes have also overcome their voice limitations with intelligence and determination. The advent of mics has also changed the nature of voice dynamics significantly. Singers in the earlier days were trained to project to a huge audience without the aid of mics. This enabled them to adopt techniques characterized by open-throatedness and honesty. Being aware of correct singing techniques when singing with a mic can help prevent strain and damage to the vocal chords.

Finally, the voice is an extremely delicate instrument, and care should be taken to practice with the right techniques to avoid permanent damage.

4) Kelvi Gyanam (Listening Skills)

For one, on the dedicated path to learning, listening and observation are valuable skills to have. One can develop this facility from a young age by listening to great musicians and being surrounded by a conducive musical atmosphere. Passive listening helps to create interest and curiosity in the earlier stages. This ultimately transitions to active listening when one directly starts learning from a guru.

Students have to listen intently and repeat carefully what the guru teaches. In olden days, when audio recorders were unavailable, students would have no choice but to listen with rapt attention and commit phrases to memory within a short time. They would not have the luxury of recording, analyzing and learning at a later time. Consequently, the traditional practice helped the singer develop good concentration and memory retention skills which were vitally important.

The listening skills may further expand as one starts attending live concerts or actively starts listening to recordings of great yesteryear singers. One can develop the practice of observing the nuances and dynamics of refined music, assimilate, and choose desirable aspects to blend into ones own musical personality and expression. Live concerts offer a far more enriching experience than listening to recorded music. In a live concert, the listener becomes fully attentive, trying his/her hand at identifying ragas, kanakkus and other intricate happenings within a short time .. to keep pace with the story unfolding on stage. While a Rasika mostly listens with an ear for appreciation, a student of music must also listen with an ear for seeking knowledge and take away valuable lessons from a concert.

The art of listening is given equal importance to practice and learning from a guru in Carnatic Music.

5) Reading and Writing Notation

Notation skills in Carnatic Music require a deep understanding of raga and tala. In the earlier days, when recording facilities were unavailable, students would have to quickly notate songs as they learned for future reference. Over a period, as the gyanam (knowledge) blossomed, notation writing skills were also perfected. Notation writing helps develop several essential skills also like kelvi gyanam, swara gyanam, laya gym and raga gyanam. The benefits are numerous. Some even say that writing notation is equivalent to singing a song ten times and the best way to memorize a composition for long-term retention.

Unfortunately, due to the ‘instant’ nature in which technology has made many things available readily today, students miss out on this excellent opportunity for self-improvement.

6) Concert Skills 

Learning numerous compositions, practicing diligently and listening to great music alone is not enough to make a complete musician. Stage performance is another essential skill that helps develop a musician in complementary ways. The skills gained from the performance can only be learned on stage, gradually improving over time with experience. Stage performance also allows for the unique experience of sharing the joy between the singer and an appreciative audience, inspiring the singer to give their best.

A concert must be planned well keeping in mind the nature of the audience, the duration of the concert and the song list. The song list should be chosen well to include a variety of ragas, talas, and compositions. Having a wide repertoire helps in planning the concert list.

The musician should also be ready for spontaneous creativity. A singer needs to be able to handle the request for songs from the audience, the need to shorten or lengthen the concert duration or being able to fine-tune the concert to the pulse of the audience eloquently. One can cultivate this skill with experience. Manodharma should never be a limiting capability. The musician should be confident enough to present succinctly or elaborately depending on the situation.

Stage performance also helps develop the ability to sing comfortably with accompanists, to maintain kalapramanam, to sing with confidence and dynamism minimizing ugly stage mannerisms.

A well-rounded training rooted in classicism and strong fundamentals, rigorous practice, vast repertoire, the guidance of a knowledgable guru and continued practice helps perfect all the essential aspects of stage performance.

7) Raskitavam (Enjoyment)

Even after one masters all technicalities, music remains lifeless if one does not enjoy or immerse themselves completely. This aspect is called Rasikatvam. Why is it that the music of the great legends appeals to us at a sublime level? We could understand what they were trying to communicate through the Bhava or emotive feeling. Where the idiom of the music, singer’s musical personality, sentiments of the composer, singer’s gyanam (knowledge) and aesthetics meet, there you will find beauty and Bhava. Without immersion or self-enjoyment, the music will neither have the capability to appeal to the listener or the singer.

8) Knowledge of Theory/Lakshana

Theory/Lakshana is to music as grammar is to language. A musician must have a solid understanding of musical theory for completeness and clarity. Without having a proper knowledge of theory, it is difficult to achieve credibility in thoughts and convictions necessary for one’s self-development and for conveying to others.

Musical theory includes historical facts related to the evolution of musical concepts, knowledge of Carnatic music composers, details of raga lakshanas and fundamentals of laya. One may give importance to theory to the extent as needed, based on the scope of study and availability of time. A performer must focus less on theory (Lakshana) and more on practice (lakshya) whereas a musicologist or scholar might follow the converse. The great composers like Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, Shyama Sastri were immensely knowledgeable in the sastra (works) of music, and their compositions serve to guide us not only in lakshya (aesthetics) but Lakshana (grammar or theory) as well.

9)  Creativity

Manodharma is an essential aspect of Carnatic Music where the free expression and creativity of the musician comes into play. A creativity that is abundant but defined to operate within the boundaries of established guidelines to preserve the beauty and purity of Carnatic music. Manodharma comprises the words ‘manas’ which means mind and ‘dharma’ meaning rules. So the mind creates within the boundaries of established rules.

Creativity in Carnatic Music can be melody centric, rhythm-centric or a combination of both. The most common aspects of improvisation are Raga Alapana, Neraval, Kalpanaswara, Tanam, Pallavi, Viruttam. The percussionist also performs a Tani Avartanam, a form of pure rhythmic improvisation to display their virtuosity in laya aspects.

To venture into the realms of Manodharma, one must have a strong understanding of various aspects of creativity, drawing inspiration and inferences from the repertoire of great Vaggeyekaras(composers) like the Trinity, Oottukakdu Venkata Kavi, Purandara Dasa and many others.

Theres is a wealth of information in compositions, right from the simply structured ones like geethams going upto varnams, krithis and even padams. One can understand concepts like raga moorchanas (contours), tanam , swara patterns, yatis, application of kalapramanam and many more. The kalpita sangeetam (composed music) must be learned thoroughly with the right understanding from a suitable guru to help develop the skill for Kalpana sangeetham. (created music) . Finally, knowledge, spontaneity, and instinct must all come together to create beautiful music with confidence which only comes with consistent practice and hard work.

When a musician goes above and beyond the fundamental requirements of a musical ideology, carving a special place in the hearts of the listeners, they may have said to have carved out a unique unimitable style or ‘bani.’ Bani is the mark of the musican’s unique personality and style and cannot be imitated.

10) Teaching Ability

Teaching is a beautiful skill that comes more naturally to some people. Not only does a teacher need to be knowledgeable and communicate well, but must also enjoy teaching. An amicable temperament, humility for the art, patience, kindness and good humor are great traits to have as a teacher. One who inspires, motivates and ultimately helps the shishya (student) see the light of knowledge, becomes a Guru.

In the process of communicating and explaining to others, the teacher’s knowledge also solidifies and expands. The Guru is highly regarded in Indian culture, especially more in classical music. Taking the role of a Guru as one continues to learn themselves, is a unique and enriching experience.

11) Instrument Knowledge

A vocalist can improve their skills by learning to play an instrument as well. This ability provides a precise understanding of the swara sthanas and nature of gamakas., helping the vocalist sing with clarity and confidence.

12) Positive attitude 

Having a positive mindset, reverence, pride, and love for the art form is essential to achieve progress and succeed. This attitude also includes trust in one’s Guru who plays the most significant role, steering the student towards success in the arduous journey, that is music learning, which can span several years or decades. The Guru encourages the student positively when all efforts seem futile with dejection looming in, while at other times he/she gives constructive feedback for improvement when the student is unaware of mistakes. Recognition, fame, and money come of their own accord to a talented musician, but the ultimate reward of inner peace and bliss come only to those who rise to higher levels of perfection, becoming one with the music!

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