Monday, May 14, 2007

Pedagogical techniques in Carnatic Music

Sometime around the end of last year, I decided to learn Carnatic Music. I was OK with the first few classes but things began to go out of hand from then. I was in the same class as one other person who was also a beginner. Having listened to a lot of music, my learning progressed very rapidly and at a pace the other person could not keep up with. As a result, I found myself getting bored while my teacher was trying to correct the other person. Since I had to go to India in February, I decided to abandon the idea and discontinued the classes.
On introspection, I found that there was a more fundamental problem that was causing me to get bored. My primary motivation in wanting to learn was because of the fact that I love singing a lot of songs, tanams, raga alapanas, etc. (I'm not as bad as I make out myself to be, in other posts). I can sing quite a few songs completely with sangathis, along with the artist and some by myself. Given a cue, I can sketch some ragas decently. Tanams are a pet favorite and I use them to learn different patterns in a raga.

I found it boring to sing the varisais since I had nothing to compare them to or nothing else to relate them to. If, instead, I had been taught, say Ninnu kori varnam in Mohanam, I'd have probably perfected it by now. How? Because I had at least 20 versions of Ninnu kori to listen to and learn from, apart from the fact that I loved singing it. Also, I could not extract the musical content from the varisais. I think that the varisais are a great way for a kid to learn Carnatic Music but I'm wondering if it'd work for someone like me. I'm at a stage where I, probably, cannot blindly do something because it's been done that way for centuries.

Children, when they begin to talk, learn to say words that come to them easily. By the age of 2, they are able to converse easily. They are usually taught the alphabet at the age of 3 so that they can relate them to the words they know. e.g. M,U,M,M,Y is mummy which they already know. If this order were to be reversed, my guess is that children would find it difficult to learn to talk. I should probably read more on this though.

I'm trying to apply the same logic to teaching Carnatic Music. Why do we start with sarali varisais? Why not a krithi? Why not teach the basics through the krithi or krithis? Could this be a reason why a lot of kids completely abandon CM once they enter their teenage or become adults? Are there any teachers who teach this way? How have they fared in this attempt?


  1. Hi, my guru for one starts with small krithis like 'shakti sahita gaNapatim', 'gurumUrtE', etc. before he does the varisais. After a few classes, he starts with voice culture exercises (from personal experience, these are very interesting). The varisais follow later.

    This is a topic I'd love to discuss in detail, but I'm hard-pressed for time at the moment - will post my views in a few days either here or in

  2. Hey, I've made a post in my blog on this topic.

  3. HI.i am old enough to have been refused from many a classical teacher's institution but i still have this intense desire to learn.what do u think.can a person start learning music in their late twenties...i really want to and am their some problem with the vocals after a certain age? am curious as to why i am being refused.yes,i have the mention of that most of them say no anyways.

  4. Of course you can start learning in your late 20's! I teach bharathanatyam to people who have just started learning with their 10 year old kids. You're never too old to learn something new. I can't believe someone turned you down?

    I learnt the standard way, starting with sarali varsai. Before a child learns how to write a word, a child needs to practice writing letters. The word is something they understand, but not something they can write. Similarly, a child must learn the basics of swara's & talam's before learning how to put it together to form a song. It's to help your voice understand the small nuances. The song may be a song you know and enjoy, but without knowing the order of swara's you might not be able to put the song together and give it justice.

    That's just my two cents about your confusions. I also believe that for people who start at an older age, they can alternate with learning sarali varsai's and songs, because they can pick things up faster.