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Varnams: How they help with Manodharma or Improvization

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This article is by Sudhakara Rao. He is the father of two children who received their training in music from teachers from the Boston area and are successful performers

August article:

Introducing Carnatic Music to Children
A Parent's Perspective

By Sudhakara Rao

The last two decades, unlike the previous years, have seen enormous growth in terms of students learning Carnatic music not only in the New England area but throughout the USA mainly because of two factors. Due to a dramatic increase in the immigration from India, both our population and the number of Indian children have grown by leaps and bounds. Together with that we had a greater number of very talented and committed artists/teachers of various fine arts that the same immigration has brought to us. These two factors along with our, the parents', desire to preserve and cherish our culture for at least one more generation, have made us teach our children these fine arts. Music takes precedence over other art forms since it is a part of our daily prayers or something we do in social gatherings and auspicious occasions. This desire to keep our culture alive and to preserve the thread to our heritage somewhat intact is the reason why I had my children learn music and participate in different music related activities over the years. Based on that experience here is my humble attempt to narrate a parent's perspective on this cultural saga.

Various community events happening around us are inspiring not only to young children but also to the parents alike. Motivated by one such event (Thygaraja Aradhana in the Ashland Temple as an example) in 1995, my children were introduced to Carnatic violin first followed by Carnatic vocal and mridangam sometime later. Since then it has been a great musical journey. All the three teachers my children were learning from are exemplary in their teaching styles. Even though they had their distinct ways of teaching, they were all unanimous in stressing one important point - PRACTICE.

Practice, Practice and more Practice

I saw one dance school proclaim "With sheer dedication, practice and right kind of training anyone can dance beautifully." This is very much true for music as well. There is a saying in Kannada - bogali bogali raga bantu - I know it will lose its beauty when I translate it but for the benefit of all let me try it - bark, bark and bark, there comes the raga.

We keep hearing from every teacher and artist that one needs to practice hard what has been learnt/taught in order to get to the next level. We also keep hearing that there are three important factors that contribute to one's ability to reach higher and higher levels - talent, passion and perseverance. Talent is of course God given but the challenge is to recognize it early enough so that as a parent one can make sure that such a talent is nurtured well. It is important that both parents and teachers are partners in this process. Passion is self driven and both parents and teachers can only be facilitators at best in this regard. Perseverance or practice is the hard work that one has to put in where the parents can/should play a role. As one teacher puts it - parents' responsibility doesn't end in giving children ride to the classes and paying for the classes but rather begins there. Until age 12 or so, a child is very much dependent on the parents and can easily be motivated to practice - on the other hand in the absence of such a motivation a child's interest/attention can be drawn to many other distractions that are prevalent in the midst of us. It is also important to remember that children of age 8 or 10 or even 12 may not understand completely the importance of learning a fine art such as music and they may consider it a waste of time that interferes with their play or social time. Until a child is mature enough to make an informed and analytical decision, the parents will probably have to insist on the child learning such fine arts and make sure he/she attends the classes regularly and practices what has been learnt/taught.

The importance of practice cannot be overstated. To learn how important it is to practice from a teacher's perspective, here is one anecdote from a teacher who practices herself two hours every day. In one of her classes a student quipped that he was attending the class after practicing the previous lessons for 15 minutes just before the class. So the teacher humorously teased the student to reveal the secret of being able to "master" the lessons in just 15 minutes so that she could do the same herself to save time.

As every Guru and stalwart says, music is a big ocean; the more you swim the further the shore gets. There is no end to what or how much one can learn. Perseverance is needed at each level to get to the next level. Along the way sacrifices may have to be made both financially and materially.

Additional Resources

Another important aspect next to practice is developing a taste to listen to Carnatic music. As many of the Gurus say, in Indian music, teaching is only 50% and the rest has to come from listening. As parents, we should be taking children to area concerts early on. Yes, making them sit through 3-hour concert is not easy but in the long run it pays off. As they get more advanced, it would be nice to cultivate a habit of listening to concert recordings of stalwarts such as K.V. Narayanaswamy and Lalgudi Jayaraman.

Other venues of learning should be fully explored (of course with the consent of the teacher). For example, we should make every effort to make the children attend any workshops if available. Sometimes great artists visiting from India offer their time to teach advanced students and such opportunities should not be missed by aspiring students. Finally it is always advantageous if they can get advanced training from reputed Gurus in India whenever they visit India. One famous Carnatic vocal artist visiting USA on a concert tour asked a group of parents who wanted to know how to create professional caliber artists out of their children, "If you want your child to become the best doctor, you send him to Harvard medical school and if you want your child to become the best engineer, you send him to MIT, but why don't you think about sending your child to Chennai, the citadel of Carnatic music, where most of the Carnatic artists live and the best place to further one's music knowledge?"

Exposure, Appreciation, Recognition

I think the children should be encouraged to participate in the community events such as Thyagaraja Day, Nadanjali, and Annual Day etc early on. This would give extra impetus and purpose to the otherwise normal routine of class and practice. Children also would get inspired by this kind of exposure as they get an opportunity to show case what they have learnt and they get more motivated as they get appreciated. Similarly making children participate in competitions can be very fruitful in the learning experience. This makes a child learn extra pieces for the competition and practice extra hours. This also gives them an opportunity to measure themselves against children from other regions. It might be extra work for a parent to drive the children to these competitions and sometimes could be a burden financially but the benefits they get make the efforts very worthy. While it may not work out for all, for majority the experience could be very motivational and challenging. In pursuing all these venues we should, however, have constant reality checks as various factors come into play here such as parents' expectations, child's level of interest, and availability of time for the teacher to teach etc.

As children make progress and become more and more proficient, we as community should encourage them more by providing additional venues and forums for performing. Both teachers and parents could be partners again with the event organizers to get them more opportunity and help them in their pursuit of attaining the next level. If we were to truly nurture the next generation into great music lovers and perhaps even professional performers, we need not only get great artists from India perform here but also provide an opportunity for our youngsters perform along with them or in the midst of them.

Even though I have limited my writing to Carnatic music alone, most of the points raised above are applicable to the other art forms as well such as Bharata Natyam, Hindustani music etc. It is in fact true to everything in life - in the pursuit of reaching higher levels of perfection one needs talent, passion and perseverance.

This article was originally published in the Brochure of the 5th Annual LearnQuest Music Conference in April of 2010