musings on music and life

July 22, 2015


Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 10:59 am

Education is the key to mankind’s salvation, but will ultimately lead to it’s destruction.

July 13, 2015

thoughts on Carnatic music education, part 2

Filed under: Carnatic Music — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 1:28 pm

The first post in this series is here, but that post became a little biographical and I got distracted from my original intent, which was to write about my take on teaching Carnatic music.

Now, I have been teaching Carnatic music (mrudangam, or percussion), for the past 10 years, and have gained a deep understanding of the learning curve involved, as well as the pitfalls most commonly faced by students.

Whenever prospective families ask me to take a family member for lessons (these may not be kids- I’ve had older students as well), I always sit them down for about half an hour and lay out my expectations as clearly as possible. My philosophy is that learning music is like a 3-legged stool; there should be cooperation between the teacher, student, and the parents. Our job as teachers is to teach the appropriate lessons in the right progression so that they can be thoroughly assimilated by the students. The students in turn are expected to practice diligently, absorb the material, and come appropriately prepared for the next class. The parents’ responsibility in turn is to make sure the child practices consistently and cultivate an atmosphere at home conducive to learning music. In the case of older students, the responsibility lies entirely on themselves to make sure they practice.

Another reason for explicitly saying all of this is to appropriately set the expectations of progress. What I teach is a classical art form, and thus cannot be learned quickly in a matter of hours, weeks, or months. It will take years, and the progress will be very slow. Part of the reason why there are no shortcuts is that there is also a degree of physical training involved (this holds for both instrumental and vocal music). Even when learning a sport, which is entirely physical, one must do hours upon hours of repetitive drills and practice for months and years upon end in order to become proficient. The same thing applies to music, which also has a corresponding mental aspect as well!

The mental aspect of learning Carnatic music also deserves some emphasis. This only becomes a real issue at the later stages of learning, once the basics are mastered. Concepts like aesthetics and good accompaniment cannot be directly taught; they must be indirectly learned through observation and keen listening. As my grand-guru, Thanjavur Upendran sir said, there are 3 levels to learning mrudangam accompaniment in Carnatic music. These are:

1. Learning to play for the thalam. This can be taught 100%, as all it involves is teaching nadais and thirmanams (ending phrases).

2. Learning to play for the song. This can be only 50% taught; it is up to the student now to start listening and familiarize himself or herself with as many compositions as possible. This is especially important as some compositions, like varnams and thillanas can only be really accompanied well if one knows the song.

3. Learning to play for the artist. This cannot be taught at all, as it only comes from experience. Performing many concerts is required to achieve excellence at this level.

Thus, as one continues down this path, learning Carnatic music gradually becomes a way of life; constantly listening to recordings of the legends of the past and attending live concerts of today’s artists is the only way to assimilate all the knowledge necessary to attain concert proficiency in this art. Thus, if a family is not prepared to make the necessary sacrifices required, then I try to dissuade them from learning music. The sacrifices are many; for example, one will have to prioritize music over other activities in other to make time for daily practice, attending class, and listening to concerts. If one is learning mrudangam, he or she will have to make periodic trips to Chennai to purchase new instruments or repair the existing ones, as that is the only place where the mrudangam artisans live.

The ultimate paradox lies in two cases. One is when you have students who are incredibly interested but who have trouble reproducing the lessons correctly. These are usually older students who will never miss a class but for whatever reason have trouble playing. Unlike the young kids, they will be very focused and attentive in class, asking intelligent questions, and immediately understanding the concepts presented.

The other is when you have parents who desperately wanted to learn music as kids but couldn’t for whatever reason. Thus, they have resolved that their kids should learn music whatever the cost, and will often drive very long distances for the classes just to realize that. They will be constantly following up on classes if you cancel for whatever reason, and will bring their kid for class without fail even if he/she doesn’t really have an aptitude for music.
*I use the term aptitude here in a catch-all sense; I sincerely believe that one does not have to be genetically gifted or predisposed to learning music in order to become good at it (I know that I am neither!). All that is required is an interest from both the parents (or family) and the student, and making time daily for diligent practice.

Finally, there is also the cultural aspect. Our North American culture is different from the traditional “tambrahm” culture we experience with our gurus, and I fully understand that reconciling those is a challenge that every Indian-American family faces. Do I expect my students to do namaskaram to me? No. All they need to do is come prepared for each class.

I know this is a lot, but I wanted to get it in writing; I should compile this all into a formal statement of teaching philosophy soon.

Also, I’m aware that I did mention “practice” a lot here, but it really is that important. I’m trying not to be like Allen Iverson:

**One more thing that I also mention to prospective students is the fact that while interest in Carnatic music is growing, it is still a niche art form, both in India and the rest of the world. Case in point: there was a graduate student in my lab who had studied in Stella Maris College in Chennai, and used to constantly mock me saying that I was not really “Indian” because I had not grown up there. Yet she proudly also told me that she had never learned Indian music and had never been to the Madras Music Academy, which is less than 500 meters from Stella Maris! Even in Chennai, the mecca of Carnatic music, it is still a niche art form among the population, so you can imagine what it is like in the rest of the world.
Also, when you say “Indian music” to westerners, most will immediately think of Hindustani music. Almost all westerners have heard of the great Hindustani musicians such as Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, and Ali Akbar Khan, among others. But how many of them will have heard of equally great Carnatic musicians such as Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, M. S. Gopalakrishnan, or even Mandolin U. Srinivas? When you tell someone that you’re learning “Indian percussion”, they’re likely to say “Oh, you mean tabla?”. This is just to point out that Hindustani music has received disproportionately more attention outside India, which is mainly thanks to the efforts those musicians put into spreading their music. Thus, people may not be so appreciative of all the hard work one puts in to learning Carnatic music as opposed to something more mainstream.

July 6, 2015

Next concert, 7-11-2015

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 10:38 am

Concert 7-11-2015

July 4, 2015


Filed under: Chemistry — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 12:30 pm

I got back from the NOS (National Organic Symposium) a few days ago, and am still recovering from the (slight) jetlag and that oh-so-familiar feeling one gets when they are living and breathing organic chemistry 24/7. The NOS is a biennial conference organized by the ACS Division of Organic Chemistry. I’ve wanted to go to this for a while, as the NOS has a rich history, and is the conference for organic chemists. Presenting here is considered far more prestigious (at least for organic chemists) than presenting at a national ACS conference. This year, it was held in the University of Maryland, College Park. The organizer was Prof. Marisa Kozlowski (UPenn), and she deserves full credit for organizing the event and making sure everything ran perfectly. I prefer attending these divisional symposia (such as the NOS and the Winter Fluorine Conference) because of the smaller size. This makes it easier to talk to people, as there is a higher chance you will run into them multiple times, and due to your common background, gives you a conversational ice-breaker (“so, which group do you work for?”, etc.), making networking infinitely easier. Plus, the lectures and chemistry being presented are top-notch as well!

2015-06-28 12.32.48

The NOS was preceded by the JOC editors’ symposium. This is also held every two years, and the last one was held at UC Irvine, and it was there that I rather incoherently babbled about chemistry for the whole world to see. The lecture in the photo above is by Prof. Olaf Wiest (Notre Dame Univ.) on his theoretical studies on Heck reactions.

2015-06-28 21.12.37

The art and practice of total synthesis is alive and well, judging by the quantity and quality of the posters in this session.

2015-06-29 09.26.27

The lectures were started off with a bang by Prof. D. W. C. MacMillan (popularly known as “DMac”). He is a brilliant presenter, and his unparalleled clarity of thought is evident not just in his approach to chemistry but also in the elegance and structure of his presentations. If people were afraid that the art of giving good organic chemistry lectures died with Prof. R. B. Woodward, fret not…

2015-06-29 10.34.25

This was followed by a lecture by Prof. Matthew Gaunt (Cambridge). He is most famous in my eyes for a rather interesting paper he published in Science in 2009 on meta-selective C-H arylation. While the reaction is unique and no doubt useful, the mechanism is still up for grabs. In this talk he presented methods for the synthesis of complex amines based on Pd-catalyzed C-H activation of bonds α or β to the nitrogen.

2015-06-30 10.34.57

Prof. Abigail Doyle (Princeton) then presented her work involving the combination of Ni catalysis and photoredox chemistry. This seemed to be the prevailing trend in the conference; Pd is out, Ni is in! And thanks to the advances in photoredox chemistry by MacMillan, C. R. J. Stephenson, Tehshik Yoon, and others, radical chemistry is making a comeback.

For those who don’t know, Abigail Doyle is particularly famous in organic chemistry circles because she got a tenure-track position at Princeton without having to do a postdoc! I emphasize that last statement because it is nearly unthinkable today; even industry positions are requiring a PhD and postdoctoral experience due to the oversaturation of PhD’s in the chemistry job market. It probably helped that Abigail did her PhD with Eric Jacobsen at Harvard; he has an excellent track record in placing his students at top academic institutions. I remember in my sophomore year at UCI (2005), the department hired 2 Jacobsen postdocs as tenure-track professors, Chris Vanderwal and Liz Jarvo.

2015-06-30 10.50.02

Shoutout to the Petasis reaction! This was developed by Prof. Nicos A. Petasis at USC; his hall and lab were very close to the one I worked in during my PhD.

2015-06-30 11.36.19

Prof. Kuiling Ding (Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry) gave a tour-de-force lecture on asymmetric catalysis. I had heard him talk before at USC several years ago, and this lecture was more or less on the same topic (asymmetric reactions with Ti-BINOL complexes). While the work he presented is not necessarily groundbreaking or novel, it is nonetheless tremendously important. He emphasized the fact that a lot of new reactions discovered in academia use unacceptably high catalyst loadings (1 mol % or more), and his work on high-throughput ligand screening enabled the development of new complexes for established reactions that are active even at loadings as low as 0.001 mol %; oftentimes, these would still maintain ee‘s > 95%! I’m sure Sharpless would be pleased, had he been present.

For those who don’t know, Kuiling Ding is the director of the SIOC, the premier chemistry research institute in China!

2015-06-30 20.13.38

2015-06-30 20.14.32

Prof. Larry Overman (UCI) was the keynote speaker of this symposium, since the Division of Organic Chemistry had awarded him the Roger Adams Medal (the highest honor of the DOC) in 2015. Prof. Overman is one of the rockstars of natural products total synthesis, and has a number of synthetic methodological breakthroughs to his credit as well, including the eponymous Overman Rearrangement, the Aza-Cope-Mannich reaction, and asymmetric Heck reactions. As a UCI chemistry alum, it is pleasing to see UCI getting more and more recognition!

2015-07-01 10.19.52

Mark Ondari (Dow Chemical) talked about their work in the synthesis of donor/acceptor molecules for applications in OLEDs. This was fundamentally different from all the other talks in that the emphasis was not about discovering something new; the primary concern was the development of reliable, scalable synthetic routes to the desired molecules in very high (>99.99%) purity.

2015-07-01 11.01.30

Prof. Kenichiro Itami (Nagoya Univ.) gave a great talk as well. I was pleasantly surprised at his accent (or lack thereof)! He talked mainly about one reaction, the para-selective C-H functionalization of aromatics. However, it was impressive how he had managed to leverage that one reaction to branch out into all the fields mentioned in the slide above. Using that reaction, he was able to develop (in conjuction with Prof. Steve Kay at USC) new molecules for the disruption of circadian rhythms in cells. He also showed some extremely interesting work on the functionalization of corannulene and other polycyclic aromatics, work he dubbed “nanocarbon chemistry”. Rather unexpectedly, the credits slide of his presentation blew everyone away, and was probably the highlight of the conference!

EDIT (1/17/2017): Video of Itami’s talk! Check out the video from 57:40 onwards.

2015-07-01 19.19.08

Prof. Kendall Houk (UCLA) talked about his recent theoretical work in probing the intimate details of cycloadditions. He began by reminiscing about the past, mentioning that the first NOS he had attended featured a heated debate between Prof. H. C. Brown (Purdue) and Prof. Saul Winstein (UCLA) over the classical/nonclassical nature of the 2-norbornyl cation! This debate was moderated by Prof. G. A. Olah, and one should remember that this was the period when physical organic chemistry was extremely hot and carbocations were trendy.

Prof. Houk also talked about the development of computational chemistry, acknowledging the contributions of people like Kohn, J. A. Pople, M. J. S. Dewar, and Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel.

2015-07-02 10.14.38

Wendy Young (Genentech) gave one of the concluding talks of the conference, detailing some of the work towards synthesis of new drug candidates at Genentech. She did happen to mention that they had an opening for 1 (only!) medicinal chemist – I’m sure that they are now swamped with applications.

I’m sure the Divison of Organic Chemistry will upload the lectures for public viewing later; I’ll update this post with the links once I get them.

Create a free website or blog at