September-November Article: HOW DO THE GREAT ONES DO
mediocre teacher tells.
The good teacher explains.
The superior teacher demonstrates.
The great teacher inspires.
…William Arthur Ward
We all have someone who has made such an impression on us while growing up and that impression
creates such a great impact in our lives, how we think, how we do things ourselves, etc. More
often than not that someone turns out be a teacher we had when we were in school or a teacher we
learned an art form from or a religious guru. We think that particular teacher is a great one. But
what makes them to stand out like that? How do they become a great teacher, inspiring many like
us? In my case, it is not just one, but several who have made that kind of impact in my musical
journey and I would like to share some of my experiences here.
I have already written about how my present Guru Padmabhushan Sri Lalgudi G. Jayaraman taught me
about Gamakas in my very first lesson with him by using salt as the example. He said that because
salt gives taste to most of the food we eat, we couldn’t keep adding salt in the hopes that the
taste will get even better. It will only ruin the food. So it is not just the salt but the
measured amount of it what gives proper taste to food. The same way while the Gamakas give life to
our music, it has to be used in a proper measurement. A very simple but unforgettable explanation
He also taught me something else about good music using the great sculptor Michael Angelo’s story.
A bystander after admiring several of Michael Angelo’s sculptures asked him how did he make such
beautiful art forms. Michael Angelo answered him that he takes a big rock and then sculpts away
the unnecessary parts of it and ends up with the sculptures. Sri Lalgudi Sir (as he is widely
known) explained that good music is created the same way…remove the unnecessary and exaggerated
ornamentations, variations and combinations from music. Once again a lesson I will never ever
Over the years I have had the pleasure of listening to several music legends’ lecture
demonstrations on various aspect of music. One such great musicologist was Dr. S. Ramanathan. He
was an expert at using simple and day-to-day things as examples to explain very complex music
theory. He told the following story to explain the use of Nishadam in the raga Arabhi….
People who lived in the South Indian city of Tanjore could easily identify with this story. Carts
pulled by bullocks or oxen were used as a mode of transportation in several South Indian cities
and towns including Tanjore before the automobiles came along and even after that for a long time.
A passenger got in to one such cart and the driver of the cart asked him to move a little back
because there was too much weight in the front. The passenger obliged and asked the driver if it
was enough. The driver asked him to move further because the weight was still too much in the
front. Again the passenger obliged and asked the driver if it was fine. The driver again said that
the weight was still not distributed properly and asked the passenger to move further back. The
passenger got fed up and jumped out of the cart and asked the driver how was it then. The cart
driver told him that the weight was perfect and drove away in the cart. Dr. S. Ramanathan
explained that the Nishadam in Arabhi should be used like that….pretty much non-existent. He
showed one of St. Thyagaraja’s pancha ratna kritis Sadhinchane in Arabhi as an example to prove
this point further.
I once heard Madhyama Sruthi explained the following way…when a little boy tries to reach the
cookie jar that is kept in a shelf that is too high for him, he will have to use a stepladder or a
stool. Same way when we use the ragas that do not have a wide range or in an octave too low, they
are elevated by performed in Madhyama Sruthi, that is using the 4th note Madhyamam as the 1st note
Shadjam the tonic note.
One of the celebrated Music Trinity, St. Thyagaraja started the development of sangathis or
variations in his compositions. The progression of sangathis brings more emotions or bhavas to the
compositions and they also show how a raga can be developed in a methodical and pleasing way. I
once heard the following comparison given by Smt. Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, the daughter of the
violin maestro Sri. Lalgudi Jayaraman and a very accomplished violinist herself. “I am going to
the market to buy a flower.” “I am going to the market to buy a rose.” “I am going to the market
to buy a beautiful red rose.” Here the item that is to be purchased in the market gets more and
more defined or embellished with each sentence. The sangathis in compositions do the same
These simple yet very effective examples make the point clearly and let the students to understand
and remember the lessons they are learning. These great examples also inspire others like me to
explain important aspects of music to the students more effectively. The students ask me how and
when can they make the songs they are learning to sound like the songs not just simple notes. My
answer to them is that it will happen when they can develop an instinct and combine it with the
instructions they are receiving from the teachers and in order to develop that instinct they have
to not only listen to lots of music but also by a lot of different great performers.