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.