February 16, 2014

Teacher-Notions & Nostrums

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer shared his thoughts on music teaching in an interview with Editorial Associate SUJATHA VIJAYARAGHAVAN

What was your experience in learning music under the gurukula tradition?

The advantages in this system were many. Apart from what we learnt, we gained a lot by listening to our guru's music. Leading accompanists would play for him in his concerts. Thus we had the opportunity to listen to them. We could get rid of our stage fear. My guru introduced me to a number of his admirers who later on patronised me also, when I began my career.

In this system, did you have lessons every day?

You can't say we had daily lessons. The guru would sing every day. It was more important to listen to him. Some days he would teach, may be a kriti. Until we were thorough with it, he would not start a new item. While teaching a kriti it is necessary to begin with just the lyric (sahityam) and make the student learn it by rote.

Is that how you were taught?

We were not taught in this manner. But I have come to realise that this is the best way.

Why do you say so?

It is advisable to explain the meaning of the kriti and then teach the musical form. This would enable the students to enjoy the song themselves. [He uses the term svanubhuti].

According to the old method of teaching, it is conventional to start with the sarali varisai. This is not an easy method to learn, especially for children in a school. Particularly so ifthe sarali varisai is in the raga Mayamalavagoula. The children would tend to sing the same note for shadjam and rishabam and so on. I mean the children without a musical background. To avoid this, such children should at first be taught just shadjam-panchamam-shadjam and then trained to hold the notes. Then they may be taught little songs.

Like geetam-s?

Geetam-s, Tiruppugazh songs. There are several. For instance the song Sakti sahita Ganapatim, Sankaradi Sevitam.This is called a nottu swaram. The masters of yore have given the matter a lot of thought and have composed these songs with a purpose.

Are you referring to the matter of plain notes?

Yes. Dikshitar has, in this instance, chosen Sankarabharanam. For vocal music, a raga with notes with considerable intervals between each, would suit the purpose. Mayamalavagoula is better suited for the veena. One should proceed to sarali varisai after teaching little songs. The varisai is only a device for practice, to practice slow, medium and fast tempos vocally. The student may do akara sadhakam, also ikaram, ukaram.

Once I remember that you suggested Harikambhoji for sarali varisai.

Harikambhoji or [pauses]. . . Sankarabharanam is prevalent all the world over. Western music has adopted the equivalent of Sankarabharanam for its major notes. In Hindustani music Bilawal, again the equivalent of Sankarabharanam, has been adopted.

The teacher should gauge the capability of the students and make them reproduce the lessons vocally. It needs a lot of patience on the part of the teacher. With perseverance he can train even children who have no musical background.

Should the early lessons be taught individually to each child ? Or is it better to take them in a group?

Teaching in a group is alright upto a point. But they should also be given individual attention. Only then can the errors be spotted. It is better to teach individually.

Not everything can be taught. What matters is that the learner should listen a lot. Lakshyam is important. Lakshanam comes later. While teaching a varnam, the tutor must show the student how it should be sung. Thereupon the student, gaining further knowledge, starts to sing the varnam with relish. It is called poshithu paduthal, adding colour to the varnam. After this stage, kriti-s can be taught. And raga gnanam is imbibed by learning kriti-s.

Several in the same raga?

That would be boring. There should be variety in what is taught. It is not sufficient just to learn the kriti-s. The student should sing them every day—sing and sing and sing and sing and sing. Thereby he will acquire the ability to give polish to the composition. This alone would give vitality and vibrancy to the kriti-s.

Let us speak about the ambience for learning music. Villages are ideal. Undisturbed by the noises of cars, radio, tv and the like, the student can concentrate better. Only in such surroundings a style can be evolved. By style I mean the style of a school, a coterie, what you call Poochi Iyengar school, Tiger school and so on.

And then it will not do if the student merely learns to imitate. Each one must add his own imagination to the style of the school and evolve his own style. It would follow naturally.

What would you like to say regarding voice training?

Voice training has lost prominence in Carnatic music. The training is to be done by the student by holding each note as long as he can, with sruti alignment. Even here it is advisable to train the base, the mandara sthayi.

Voices of male students break at a certain age. At that point it is very important to train the voice, not by belting out at the top octave all day long, but by practising a little every day and giving sufficient rest to the voice. Otherwise the voice would be ruined. One should always do the practice with sruti accompaniment. And practising raga-singing all the time is not good.


I refer to the student. If he practises ragam alone, he would be limited by the extent of his own imagination, whereas the kriti-s hold several rare sanchara-s or flights unknown to him. These sanchara-s, practised often, will virtually get embedded in the voice.

Singing of swara-s should not be just a spelling exercise.

Were you taught to sing raga, swara...?

These should be learnt only by listening. We were not taught. They [the guru-s] used to sing. We would also sing.We learnt merely by listening to them. You cannot learn these things by rote.

What about kanakku—mathematical permutations and combinations. Weren't you taught this?

This business of kanakku is but a recent development The old masters sang only sarvalaghu swara-s.

The mridanga vidwan is there to take care of calculations.Why should the main performer bother about them ? In a way, kanakku is but a stunt for the sake of applause. None of it would reach the heart. In the bargain the performer's voice will get strained.

Did Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar indulge in kanakku ? Have I done so ? But it is not that we were incapable of it.

There is a lot of kanakku or vyavaharam [complexity] in pallavi singing.

What is pallavi ? It is padam-layam-vinyasam. Take a phrase and sing to 4-kalai chaukkam, 8-kalai chaukkam and so on. One may sing in tisra or misra (triple or seven beats) gati. The singer agonises himself over these, thereby causing agony to the listener as well. Just a waste of energy. It is necessary that a musician should learn these aspects. He should know everything. But should not indulge in these all the time.

What about tanam singing?

The correct terminology is madhyama kalam. It is best suited for the veena. I cannot say that there was anyone who specialised in it except Iyengarval. He invariably sang tanam. I also do.

On occasion you have sung it in two speeds.

The right method is to sing it in the madhyama kalam. While I was in Trivandrum, a veena vidwan used to come home and play the tanam. I would sing along. I can expound it in a fairly decent manner.

When we started learning under you, I remember that you first taught the Navagraha and Navavama kriti-s. Was there any special reason?

None in particular. For those who sing well, it is the practice to teach these songs.

I don't mean that. Is there something about these songs which would help in training the voice?

These songs can be learnt only after the voice is trained and becomes versatile. Not all can learn them. Especially when the teaching-learning is at a school. There one should teach songs suited to the capacity of the students. If they are unable to reproduce a sangati, the teacher should persevere with patience until they are able to do it.

I have said that musicians should sing in a manner that would appeal to the audience. The same principle would apply to teaching also. While teaching there is no point if the guru goes on singing in a manner which the student is unable to follow. It is important to sing in a manner easy to follow.

Today the musicians have a large repertoire and learn fromdifferent sources. In those days about 50 to 60 songs werepopularly known and handled. We learnt directly from the guru. Never wrote down or learnt from books.

Didn't you write down the musical notations?

We wrote down after learning the song. The notes were for reference, in case we forgot.

What about teaching music in schools? At what age can a child be started on music lessons?

There is no particular age for initiation. If the students have the aptitude, they would learn automatically If there is an atmosphere of music at home, the little ones would take to it naturally . . . Then there is the lineage factor. A child belonging to a family with a musical tradition will learn fast.

What do you have to say about the teaching in music colleges?

The prevalent practice today is to have periods of one hour duration. From this one hour deduct the time taken by the teacher to reach the class room, the time taken by students to arrive and settle down, the time taken for tuning the tambura. The time remaining may be about half an hour.

Let me tell you what I did in Trivandrum. I taught only the senior students in the final year. I made it a point to be in the classroom immediately after prayer. And my class would last three hours at a stretch. First I would ask the students to sing. Then I would teach them songs, swara-s, etc. It is difficult to teach a raga. Hence I would sing a raga or a few raga-s in an elaborate manner. Maybe I would take up a song, sing some niraval, swara-s.

What in your opinion is the optimum number of students in a music class?

Not more than 10. If there are 20 or 30, they should be divided into smaller groups. Each period of class should be of two hours duration at least. Otherwise one cannot give individual attention to each student.

Now there are gadgets like cassette recorders and players. How far, do you think, can they be used in teaching music?

I am not sure. Lot of people learn from cassettes. I sometimes find singers referring to notes in front of them during concerts.

When a student learns a song he might tape his guru's rendering and learn it at home. What do you think of it?

That might give place to negligence. The tape should be used only for reference after the song is learnt thoroughly from the master. Otherwise the student won't get a proper finish. Maybe some smart ones are capable of acquiring the finish from tapes. In this respect I am a novice.

Now you find people learning from cassettes, books. Do you find the sanctity of the music of old masters in these ? The sanctity that is imparted by learning face to face from a guru ?

Do you mean that the tape recorder gives no feedback? Corrects no errors?

Guidance is important. A guru is required for guidance. Whatever I learnt in my youth I still remember. What I learn now does not stay in memory. We listen to all sorts of things. Our elders never permitted us to listen to all and sundry.


The young students may be attracted towards this and that and start wavering. We were allowed to listen to certain musicians and barred from listening to others. But music assaults our ears today wherever we go . . . .

True. Such control is not practicable today... Do you advise your students about what they should listen to?

Yes, I do. But there are some amazing performers today. It may not be possible for everyone to sing like them due to limitations in voice. What purpose is served by listening to them ?

Please elaborate on swara singing.

It is not an array of mere notes. The raga is not just upward or downward scale. It resides in the asaivu (shake). The special feature in our music is this. If one note is straight, the adjacent note would have an asaivu. All these should be reflected in swara-singing. It is amazing to listen to the swaraprastara-s of some of the present-day singers. Still it is necessary to ensure that these don't become exercises in syllable singing.

There are students with different voice capabilities. Some limited, others more versatile. Would you modify the sangati-s [variations] according to the voice while teaching?

No. The songs will remain as they are. The teachers should strive to instill each nuance into the student. Maybe if a variation is in a faster pace, the teacher could teach it at a slower speed and accelerate gradually until the student acquires the given speed.

Do you consider it essential to learn the theory of music?

Certainly ! Most certainly. It is essential to know the lakshanam, the grammar.

At what stage should one start learning theory?

Raga lakshana should be taught while teaching songs. Apart from this, one can learn sangeeta sastra. For this, it is essential to have a sound knowledge of languages like Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil and Kannada. For a senior musician it is good to know languages. Especially if he wants to be an authority on the subject. But it can't be said that everyone learns all these things.

Were you taught theory by your guru-s or did you have to learn it on your own?

What little I learnt, I did on my own. The masters of the old days explained the grammar and structure of the raga-s while they taught us the songs. Thereafter we gained experience by listening to other musicians and so on.

How will you teach foreigners who come from the West?

So far no foreigner has come to me. Even if any comes, I will not accept to teach because I don't know any foreign language.

Do you think that music should be included as a subject in the school curriculum?

Most certainly. It can be made an optional subject. Children who sing well will help other classmates to acquire a taste for music.

You mentioned that we should teach simple songs like nursery rhymes to little children. Shouldn't such songs be in languages the children can understand?

It can be in any language. There can be music without language. But language needs music. It is common to all languages and can combine with any.

What is your advice to students of music today?

They should dedicate themselves to this pursuit. However,they have varied activities to engage them. What more can one say in such a situation ? Those who are able to succeed will do so eventually.

Will anyone who learns music be able to perform on stage?

How can it be possible ?

Then, what in your opinion, should be their motive in learning music?

They should look upon music as an art and learn it for its own sake. They may or may not make the grade as concert artist.

If every student aspires to become a great performer?

Everyone has this aspiration, whether he is good or not But each one has the knowledge in himself. He should tape his own music, listen to it and assess how good it is. No one will tell him to his face if he is not good. There was this incident where a musician visited a friend's house. The friend's daughter sang and the musician was asked to give his opinion. "What can I say if you ask me like this ? I have to say that it is good," replied the musician. There are so many aspects to be considered, you know.

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