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Varnams: How they help with Manodharma or Improvization

If you would like to contribute an article or suggest an idea towards "Topic of Month" page, please send your thoughts to durga.krishnan@gmail.com

The writer is Siddharth Bhaskar. He recently graduated from Princeton University. He has been learning veena from Durga Krishnan since age 10 and is also very talented in playing different Western instruments.

July Article:

Growing up with music in America

By Siddharth Bhaskar
If you study Indian classical music in America, then at some point in time in your musical education, you will realize that becoming a first-class performer in the traditional sense is probably outside of your means or lifestyle. Along with a great deal of talent and practice, it would require regular trips to India to take master classes, forge connections, and perform. This fact is usually grasped only after reaching a certain level of competence and is thoroughly no motivating.

But while living here may block certain avenues, it opens others. I consider myself fortunate to be able to learn Indian classical music here in America as opposed to in India or elsewhere. My reasons have nothing to do with the quality of life or anything like that, nor even the Indian music community in either place.

Rather, the United States is and continues to be the world's greatest melting pot, and there is an incredible diversity of music to be found here. It is for this reason that we have Indian music societies in many large cities, and major artists tour the country every year. But dozens of other communities have similarly put down musical roots here. When you consider how rich our own musical tradition is, and how many other cultures have brought their music over, it gives you a hint of how vast the variety and depth of music available in this country is.

So what consolation does this give to the aggrieved student of Carnatic music who has just discovered that he will never make it big in the concert halls in Madras? Just this: that living here provides a singular opportunity to become among the most versatile musicians or music listeners in the world.

In my own life, I can identify two or three strands of experience beginning in my childhood that make me the appreciate the music I do today. As a very young child, my mother exposed me to Carnatic music. When I was nine, circumstances conspired that I was able to start formal training on the veena. Since then, playing veena has become an inseparable part of my life. Besides all the lessons and concerts, festivals and competitions, I will keep it close by and sit down and play every few minutes when I am at home.

Even before I started veena, I had learned western classical violin for a short time, but was forced to stop when we moved. Later, in school, I picked up saxophone, and continued playing in bands and jazz ensembles and singing in the school chorus until the end of high school. I never really put so much time into these, but they did expose me to a relatively wide variety of jazz and classical music forms, as well as basic western music theory.

In sixth grade, we received recorders as part of our regular music class. Since I was already playing a little saxophone, playing and fingering this tiny little irritating wind instrument came somewhat more easily to me. I am somewhat lazy by nature, so I had little patience for taking out my sax, wetting the reed, fixing it in the mouthpiece, and assembling the whole thing every time I wanted to play. On the other hand, I carried around my recorder with me constantly, playing it whenever my hands were not otherwise occupied. I became pretty good at playing this annoying little thing.

At home, one of my favorite recordings was an isolated album by the Chieftains, an Irish band, that my father had picked up on his travels. I started trying to replicate the tunes I heard there on the recorder, and was not completely unsuccessful. I started to buy more Irish albums, kept liking what I heard, and kept trying to play the music. Eventually I switched to the tin whistle, a more appropriate instrument, and began acquainting myself with the Irish traditional music scene in my area.

It was around this point that it struck me how many other rich musical traditions exist side by side where we live,our own Indian music community is just one example, if a particularly special and vibrant one. Since then I have started playing at Irish music sessions, weekly gatherings where local musicians gather and play tunes. These are ubiquitous wherever there is a strong traditional music scene, and they are a wonderful way to share music.

Trying to expose myself to as much music as possible has led me to some really amazing discoveries. From Carnatic and Irish music, which I consider my cores, I have branched out to Hindustani and Persian classical music, Scottish and old-time music, Central Asian throat singing, and Balkan folk music. There is so much to hear! I think that the musical education of today's student should be broad as well as deep. The importance of depth is obvious: music can be a subtle beast, and many years worth of study are necessary to grasp its nuances. That breadth is important is less obvious. Historically, no one has had such access to so many different forms of music, yet the great musicians of history seem to be none the worse for it. They flourish in their own tradition, and rightly so.

So, strictly speaking, broad exposure is not necessary to becoming a great musician. Each individual tradition has the potential to fill up many lifetimes of study and appreciation. Still, I strongly believe that exposure to different varieties of music has great value in keeping the creative mind fresh and keen. Conventional wisdom may disagree, jack of all trades, master of none. But, it is different with music. The dichotomy of breadth and depth is somehow a false one, since the two complement each other. Combined with an in-depth knowledge of one or two musical traditions, broad exposure is a powerful tool for creating and appreciating music.

My reasons are as follows. Each style of music has its own framework around which its music is structured. For example, in Indian music, we have raga and tala. Jazz is largely structured around chord progressions. Piobaireachd, the classical music of the Highland bagpipe, is built out of an extensive system of grace notes. Even Japanese honkyoku, very free-sounding and ethereal music for the bamboo shakuhachi flute, has a framework of tone centers (Incidentally, all of this may be readily found in America!)

Without such a framework, there would be just noise. But each is limiting in some sense, because you at once prohibit all music that cannot be interpreted by it. Now, there is nothing wrong with limiting yourself; in fact it is unavoidable, since you can only study a lifetime's worth of material by ignoring everything else! But I find a real pleasure in understanding these different frameworks and how they shape their music. It believe that this really helps the creative juices run, especially when it comes to creating new tunes, or interpreting old ones.

So that is how I approach my life when it comes to music: to try and seek out as much variety as possible, while still studying the traditions that I grew up with. Time will prove this philosophy right or wrong, but in the meantime I would encourage anyone I could to take advantage of this country's great diversity and do the same.