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Voice Culture

Interview with Abhishek Raghuram

Acharyanet interviewed well-known Carnatic vocalist Abhishek Raghuram, as a part of our ongoing series on Voice Culture in Carnatic Music.
Question: Could you share your thoughts on voice culture and discuss some successful techniques you have adopted in your training ?

It is very imperative that a student of music, especially Carnatic music follow the practice of early morning ‘sadhaka’ or practice. An extremely useful exercise is to focus on producing a pure tone of ‘Shadjam’ for one hour. Yes, one hour. A very great musician once told me that this exercise is helpful to condition the tone to adhere to ‘sruti’ or pitch like paper to glue. Once that happens, everything else falls in place. This exercise is more effective in the early mornings and one can then sustain the tone on various other notes as well such as from lower or mandra sthayi panchamam to madhyama sthayi panchamam.

This exercise could be practiced on various scales and alternated so that all possible notes are covered over a period of time. There are several ways of practicing a scale. A good way is to practice without ‘gamakas’ or oscillations. [demonstrates] There are multiple ways to do this, one can experiment and try different approaches. Even when singing plain scales, one approach is to hit each note on the head or emphasize each note. [demonstrates] Its a process of discovery, the more you seek , the more you find.

One could also practice ‘sadhaka’ or practice phrases. [demonstrates] Sing simple phrases, then add the complexity. [demonstrates]

Question: Did you create this exercise?
No, one of my relatives created this particular one, but it can be done by anyone.

We can go beyond the standard varishais and come up with with our own patterns for practice using the same principles, practicing single notes, then double notes or ‘janta’ patterns , and even ‘daatu’ patterns or patterns that skip notes and go upwards or downwards.

Then we need to focus on ‘gamakas’ or oscillation of notes which are very specific to our system of Carnatic music.It is rather tricky in the sense that one could easily sing it incorrectly but once mastered, the concept of ‘gamakas’ could very well be fascinating. There is a lot of scope for interpretation of gamakas , once the notes are established. Gamakas are the crux of our system and we can use them effectively to even communicate with an emotional intent.

How does one teach Gamakas effectively to students?

I once asked a student to repeat the scale of a ragam, he proceeded to sing with the gamakas. I proceeded to correct him and asked him to first sing without gamakas. It is essential have an understanding of underlying notes before attempting to sing gamakas. When you listen to great masters, it seems as if the phrases come out effortlessly but a lot of effort has gone into perfecting them.

It is essential to sing with awareness and an open mind. Learning many songs and singing just the lyrics or even knowing the underlying swaras are not enough. A student should know about the mechanics of singing as well.

Can you explain what you mean by that?
Singing is essentially how you control the passage of air, how you use your vocal cords , which kind of tone to use etc. I believe there are four types of tones, one that originates from the abdomen area, from chest area, chin area and head.

When you sing in higher octaves, do you adopt some technique to modify your sound?
Every singer is born with a certain range and one should have a good understanding of that. The range can only be extended slightly and we should strive to work our possibilities within that range. Also, we don’t use ‘false voice’ in our system , but a knowledge of that is very helpful for aspiring performers.False voice is used in higher octaves where the normal voice does not give way for the singer to reach higher. It requires hours of practice from the singer , even then there are no guarantees to get it right. Achieving the right mix between normal and false voice is a tough practice but one must be aware of it.

Students can try to learn more about voice culture by looking up these topics online. Nowadays , there are many reality shows and singing competitions. Students have to chance to listen to the judges and have a scope to improve their own voice training. Singing is fundamental. Practice techniques specific to the system comes after that.

Is there one point you would like to stress to students?
Never do something that causes strain and pain. Vocal cords are very sensitive. If you feel discomfort during singing, something is wrong. It is better to improve your technique than to continue along the same line.

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