Durga Krishnan's New England School of Carnatic Music - NESCM
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Durga Krishnan's Carnatic Music School NESCM: Topic of the Month

October 2006 Article:

Learning Music - Long Distance

- Siddharth Bhaskar
Sophomore, Princeton University, NJ.

I learn Carnatic music, and that too an instrument, veena over the phone. Such a statement, when heard so bluntly, gives rise to a variety of opinions in different people. Common reactions range from the skepticism that such an art can be correctly imbibed through telephone wire, to the curiosity of other students trying to learn outside the immediate vicinity of a teacher. In general, such concern or enthusiasm is well founded, but it is hard to provide a categorical answer to the question of a long-distance lessons. Having learnt remotely for several years, I hope to be able to shed some light on the issue.

I should provide a brief sketch of how this situation came about. Very nearly a decade ago, I was nine years old, and unlike everyone else I knew, I had just started to learn veena from Mrs. Durga Krishnan. As I lived in Sharon, and she in Norwell, Massachusetts, I started like any other prospective student—by commuting every week for a lesson, in person. Over the next two years, I developed the technical fundamentals of veena playing and gained a basic knowledge of Carnatic music, up to the point where I was learning basic krithis.

At that point I moved. The drive to Norwell, heretofore about forty minutes, became closer to seven hours. My options were rather limited. There were few to no active veena teachers in the area, and while Carnatic music instruction could certainly be found—albeit far away—it was mostly limited to vocal music. I could have either stopped learning (now an unthinkable proposition), or I could have tried to learn from a vocal teacher. While in limbo, we decided to try out some phone lessons as a temporary solution. During a relatively fruitless search for instruction, we gradually came to the realization that our temporary solution was rather effective, and have never changed since. However, I do not exclusively learn by my weekly phone classes. In each summer since I have moved, I have spent one or two weeks at Mrs. Krishnan's house, practicing and learning more intensively. During these times I often cover many weeks of material within a few days.

Such is the nature of my instruction. I dare say that has been effective, and that I have progressed considerably in the last eight years. However, that should not be takes as a wholesale argument in favor of long-distance learning. While such remote instruction can be a very useful method of keeping one's music up, it is difficult to learn music entirely in absence of a teacher. This is especially true when first starting to learn music, for two main reasons.

Firstly, a prerequisite for effective lessons is the establishment of a social relationship between teacher and student. This is necessary so that the teacher feels comfortable about the person to whom that she is providing instruction, and the student feels comfortable about the source of the instruction. I hardly need add that this kind of information about another person is generally obtained from the visual or behavioral clues of being in his or her physical presence.

Secondly, a beginning student's training, especially an instrumentalist's, heavily emphasizes the technical aspects of producing the music. Correct finger placement, proper picking or bowing technique, posture and making basic gamaka are all fundamental skills that must be established before learning more complex songs or exercises. This requires the physical presence of an instructor, for obvious reasons.

Therefore, a student should make an effort to obtain at least initial instruction in the immediate presence of a teacher. However, once the teacher and student know each other well enough, and once the student has mastered fundamental techniques, then remote instruction becomes an option if regular instruction is otherwise infeasible. Much can be communicated through the phone—music is, of course, an aural medium. For example, an instructor may identify an error in the student's playing by how it sounds, not just by how it looks. Though it is true that sounds may not always carry cleanly over a telephone, it is usually possible to distinguish between clean playing with poor reception and poor playing with good reception, allowing the teacher to separate external noise from the student's playing. Indeed, after one has become used to taking directives from a phone, phone lessons feel quite similar to normal ones, and soon one's physical location becomes quite irrelevant to the ability to continue learning. Whether I am at home, at school, or elsewhere for an extended time, I am able to take lessons. It is also extremely important to have an instructor who is capable of identifying technical errors simply from the sound.

Exclusive remote instruction should still be avoided, however. It is beneficial to have some lessons in the presence of the teacher, to eradicate any bad habits that might have crept in, to begin more advanced material, or simply to expose the student to other musicians. That said, these lessons need not be very frequent (perhaps a couple of times a year), and a student can remain productive during the rest of the time with remote instruction, as long as he practices and listens to music sufficiently.

The world has drastically shrunk due to modern communication technology, and it is fitting that both teachers and students able and willing to use it should take fullest advantage of it. It seems that this advantage is maximized provided that the student has mastered fundamentals and visits the teacher upon occasion. Since the mastery of fundamentals can take as long as a year or two, this does not seem to imply that an instructor will immediately be able to take on new students living outside of a commutable radius. Carnatic music, unfortunately, is not likely to immediately spread to vast swathes of land without an Indian Diaspora. However, remote learning would prove particularly effective in continuing the instruction of students who move regularly, such as college students or people who regularly visit India. For example, the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana Committee, an established and traditional organization, is creating an ensemble of North American musicians for their upcoming celebration in April 2007 who will be trained by well known senior artistes from India using video conferences. It seems, therefore, that the greatest utility of long-distance learning is in preserving the population of students of Carnatic music.