Monday, August 18, 2014

Music. And kids. - Part 3

(Continued from Part 2. Part 1 here.)

The reason most kids enjoy taking classes for a skill or a sport more than they enjoy school is because the rewards are quicker. Education seems pointless to most kids because it involves a great deal of effort for 10-12 years but does not seem to produce anything more substantial than smiling parents during that time. Winning a match or giving a good performance in front of people (even if they are just your neighbours) gives a sense of achievement.The problem for Carnatic music, of course, is that it is as much of a long-term penance as school education. With 6 months of cricket coaching, one would start playing small matches. With 6 months on an instrument like the guitar, one can play "Nenjukulle" when family friends visit. In comparison, Carnatic music is an anti-climax. In 6 months, one learns multiple combinations of SaRiGaMaPaDaNiSa on different scales and some geethams, which sadly do not even qualify as thukkadas in concerts. Any Tambrahm kid can tell you there is no applause for singing "Sree gananaadha".. in fact, the visiting maami/maama is bound to interrupt you during the anupallavi and ask their eldest son to sing a good pancharatna keerthanai preluded by a solid alapanai.

Oh, that reminds me. Most maamis/maamas would not condescend to making corrections in a film song. (In fact, I know some who would not even listen to light devotional music- "Too populist, I say"). But no self-respecting musical Tambrahm would desist the from making the most minute corrections in the Carnatic song a kid is singing. This, even if their own voices are no longer functional or they have forgotten most of the song and/or they have lost touch. The younger the kid, the more emphatic the corrections. I remember protesting to someone once with a feeble "But this is how our paatu miss taught us" and was snapped back with a stern "Unga paatu missku onnume theriyaadu". Of course, I was smart enough not to repeat that statement anywhere around said paatu miss.

Anyway, the point is that rewards are slow with Carnatic music, however sure they may be. And more often than not, a kid is bound to meet more obstacles than encouragement on the way. It should be no surprise then that many kids switch over to learning guitar/keyboard after 6 months of Carnatic. And might I add, thoroughly enjoy it. Of course, there is a "coolness" factor associated with the guitar, and new age tambrahm parents don't necessarily frown upon playing "kanda kanda cinema paatu". But that doesn't discount the fact that Carnatic music is, by design, complicated and more of a marathon than a sprint. 

Interestingly, that is precisely what makes it both beautiful and enjoyable. The inherent complexity, the structured approach to music theory and the strong emphasis on basic training makes Carnatic a pretty formidable tool in the hands of a good teacher. (Cutting the fancy MBA style sentence out, I just meant to say that I believe even donkeys can be trained to sing well with this disciplined an approach!) While some part of that journey requires innate talent, a lot of it is just grit.

Which means that there is a lot to gain from redesigning the incentive system of Carnatic music. Like most dieters and marathon trainers would say, focus on small wins. Music teachers sometimes teach small bhajans in the first year of training, but often they are too small/light for the kid to feel a sense of achievement. The key is to strike the balance between overstraining the voice (a serious debate among opera trainers that I won't talk about today) and oversimplifying songs. 
The other aspect to the "wins" is that adults around should encourage the learning process instead of using the opportunity to prove their own virtuosity. It might also do some good for teachers to admit that Carnatic music learning is a structured long-term effort and to reiterate that the rewards are at the end of the tunnel somewhere.     

As for the fidgety 5 year old kid who thought it was a chore to learn music, her parents persisted and encouraged her long enough for her to continue learning. But more than that, strangely (and somewhat luckily), something deep within her appreciated the beauty of the intricately interwoven swaras and made her stick to it till the end :)

Unga paatu missku onnume theriyaadu- Your music teacher does not know anything!
kanda kanda cinema paatu- random(?) song from a movie. The "random" has a mild negative tone here. 

P.S: During the entire series, I have not talked about kids who actually did the fancy neravals :P Partly because their story was too obvious to discuss. But mostly because I believe that a few success stories do not imply that a system cannot be improved.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Music. And kids. - Part 2

(I know it's been a while since I put up part 1. As usual, couldn't find the time to edit Part 2.  By the way, this piece became too long and spilled over to a Part 3.. Knowing my great sense of punctuality, I hope to put that up before these musical kids become adults ;) :P )

When I was 5 (and probably for most of my school life), everyone around me hated math. Sadly, I loved it, or worse, was in love with it. By the way, notice I didn't talk about aptitude. I used to think I was good at math until I talked to a real mathematician in grad school and truly understood the phrase "it's greek to me"! Anyway, this star-crossed love for math often put me in a bad spot on friend-group-hierarchies, but more importantly, it surprised my kid-brain a great deal. Here was a subject that needed minimal studying/memorizing effort once you got the idea and I dared not tell reveal this to any soul in school because they seemed to share a singular hatred for it. Of course I hadn't heard of "Damnant quod non intellegunt" at that time.
Like that proverb effectively states, the reason people hated math (and the reason I didn't care too much about music classes) was fear.

In one of my first few music classes (I changed teachers quite a bit, partly because my family moves around every few years), the teacher just opened the contraption called shruti box and said "What shruthi should I keep? 5?" For all you know, I might have thought shruthi (scale) was another synonym for age. As any nice Indian kid was taught to, I politely agreed. Nobody actually told me what an octave was, what pitch meant and how it was different from loudness/volume until we studied high school physics. I know some of these sound too basic to be explained. And they are basic, but not to a 5-year old. And of course, a few years later, I was taking way more advanced lessons and it was too late to ask what pitch meant.

You might argue that Carnatic music, like most traditional Indian arts is taught by the ear- you hang around for sometime and you learn to identify when you are singing out of scale. Fair point. In fact, I even think that music teachers expecting kids to pick up stuff on their own is fine if they would also encourage questions just in case. Did I just say questions? I was in the heart of conservative India.. who am I kidding? Obviously, if you do not know something (even when you are 5) and dare to ask, the teacher would scornfully announce you are not only too stupid , but also too impolite. Lest you think I am exaggerating, one of my music teachers actually lamented to us about how "kids these days" come to music class without even knowing what "mela kartha" means. You can imagine a 5-year old mustering the courage and pointing out to her that it was part of her duties as a teacher to spread that light of knowledge...

Wait.. you say.. that's just a lot of regular Indian-education ranting. After all, if all you wanted to say was that there is no freedom to ask questions in India and people use your lack of knowledge (or your thirst for it) as their own power, why bring up Carnatic music?

And yes, you are right. All of that applies as much to math as to music. But there is more to this tale that might apply to math but is mostly particular to Carnatic music...

(To be completed..)