Learn about the basic practical exercises prescribed in the Perfecting Carnatic Music Level 1 Book published by IFCM.
Practical Exercises – Phase 1
This chapter is of equal importance to both students and teachers, since it explains a few vital things to be taught and practised, even before getting to the Sarali varishai stage, which is often taught from day one.
The concept of Shruthi: Rendering tuneful music is the most important aspect of any system. It is the primary source of musical joy. It is important to learn how to align oneself to the pitch. The first step is to procure a good tanpura or shruti box (manual or electronic), which will provide the basic notes, Sa and Pa. Listen carefully and try to register the notes in your mind.
Ideal pitch: The ideal pitch for voices and instruments depends on a variety of characteristics. You can seek your guru’s help in determining your ideal pitch, which enables you to traverse at least two octaves (from Pa in the lower octave to Pa in the higher octave) comfortably, over a period of time.
Now, try to sing the two constant notes, Sa and Pa tunefully. Make an effort to understand the relationship between them. Subsequently, the teacher will introduce the rest of the notes and here again, you should try to make yourself aware of their position, with respect to Sa. Usually, the teacher introduces notes of the raga, Mayamalavagowla, which are:
S R1 G3 M1 P D1 N3 S
Most teachers prefer to use this raga because it has different intervals between various notes.
Sustaining notes – Karvai:
One should try to hold every one of these notes tunefully, as long as possible. This sustenance of a note is called karvai. Attention should be given not only to singing in tune, but also, to holding one’s breath and releasing it with a good tone. This is a must, before the Sarali or other varishais are taught. This should be done without tala initially, till the students learn to sing or play the notes perfectly.
Karvais are used at all levels in Carnatic music and they can create a very soulful, tranquil and evocative atmosphere. At a very fundamental level, they build a scientific approach to the rest of the music that students will subsequently be introduced to. An artiste must be able to hold any note steadily and tunefully for at least 10-15 seconds and gradually increase this to around a minute.
Musical phrases: Gradually, simple combinations of notes can be tried. Teachers can introduce small musical phrases like – GM, – GMP, – DDP, – PMG, – MGR, – GMGRS – and so on. Over a few sessions, the phrases can get perceptibly sophisticated.
Akaram: After a few such sessions, the same phrases can be rendered using the vowel ‘a’ as in ‘America’. This is called akaram, a very integral part of Carnatic music, with particular reference to vocal music. Thus, exposure to akarams is very essential at this stage, albeit in a simple form.
Practical Exercises – Phase 2
The great composer Purandara Dasa , hailed as the Father of Carnatic music, created a set of fundamental exercises nearly 500 years ago, which are followed even today.These are of 5 types.
Sarali varishai: These fundamental sequences enable the student to get a feel of melody with rhythm. The logic is quite obvious here. The 1st varishai is plain ascent and descent of the notes of the raga; The 2nd varishai focuses on the second note from S, namely R (in the scent) and N (in the descent). The 3rd varishai concentrates on the third note G and D. The 4th varishai concentrates on the fourth note M and P. And this goes on up until 7th varishai. The last 3 are general exercises. Some books have split the last one into 5 parts, but singing it as single varishai is more desirable.
Jantai varishai: These sequences enable the student to gain felicity in a form of ornamentation called sphuritam, which is rendering a note twice, plain, the first time, and with force, from the previous note of the raga, the second time. This means that a phrase like G G in Mayamalavagowla will be quite different from the G G in Shankarabharanam, even though the notes appear to be the same. In Mayamalavagowla, the second G will be from R1, while in Shankarabharanam, the second G will be from R2. This is especially true for slower speeds.
Teachers must take care that the concept of sphuritam is very clearly embedded in the students’ minds. The tendency to render it in a bland and insipid manner should be avoided.
Melsthayi varishai: These are higher octave sequences, which increase the students’ vocal or instrumental range. Again, the logic is easy to comprehend. The first is the simplest, and every subsequent exercise adds a new phrase to the previous one. They progressively cover notes up to P in the higher octave. Similarly, there are exercises for practice in the lower octave too.
Datu varishai: These are zigzag sequences that increase the students’ overall command of notes.
Alankaram: Alankarams are multi-tala sequences composed in the 35 talas. But usually, 7 of these are selected and taught to the students.
Speeds in Carnatic music: In Carnatic music, speed is distinct from tempo. Speed is measured as the number of notes per beat of the tala, while tempo relates to the number of notes with respect to time. The 1st speed is rendering one note per unit of the tala. The 2nd speed is exactly double this, i.e., two notes per unit, the 3rd speed is four notes per unit, 4th is eight notes per unit, 5th is 16 per unit and 6th is 32 per unit.
Speed of the tala is rarely varied; only the speed of the music is. But even this is not accomplished in an arbitrary manner. There is a mathematical precision to it. For instance, the 2nd speed is exactly twice as fast as the first and the 3rd is exactly twice as fast as the second and so forth.
Students can be taught to render all the exercises in at least 3-4 speeds. Once they perfect this technique, they could practice most of them in the 3rd speed. It is ideal to render each twice, once with swaras, and again with akaram.