I received numerous email queries from students of music after my earlier blog on Fear Factor, on more specific inputs about how to overcome it. Since this is a huge topic, I may write it in several parts.
Is there a substitute for practice? Not one that I can think of - not even talent/genius, knowledge/scholarship, luck/even God’s grace. Those will supplement practice but be blunted with lack of practice. Even for God's grace, one must prove worthy of it!
Practice is the anchor of a truly solid artiste that can make him (or her) weather ill-luck, temporary loss of form, public or media fire, personal confidence crisis or similar storms. With perseverance and practice under good direction, one can overcome even lack of talent, genius, knowledge and scholarship. I have seen numerous people with good work ethics doing better than those endowed with the assets above.
On the other hand, I have seen an umpteen number of talented and brilliant people leading unfulfilled or under-fulfilled lives because they failed to translate their talent into tangible results because of poor work ethics. I have also been acquainted with performers who have got to the top more by chance (because some of the other top artistes retired/travelled to other worlds!) than inherent worth.
The serious ones among these are forever ravaged by guilt about having something that they don’t deserve. They live feeling insecure all the time about how long their luck would hold. In other words, one who has come up without having worked hard for it seldom feels 'in control'.
Similarly, there are numerous knowledgeable scholars who cannot even express themselves even in a small phrase of 4 notes, again because they involved their minds more than their bodies in the pursuit of arts. Practice definitely involves the heart, mind, body and soul and one has to dedicate one's energies for several years with single-minded focus and ensure that all these are part of the mix. There are many types of practices, from an end result point of view.
This is the first and foremost reason to practice - to gain fundamental competence. Unless one practises, one will not even be aware of the kind of mistakes one tends to make. Some things are naturally hard for almost everyone and some others could be hard or easy individually. X may find a particular phrase easy that Y has to slog for while it maybe the opposite for another phrase. With practice, they will at least be able to anticipate such potential minefields and tread carefully! Without practice, they will surprise themselves big time when such phrases occur in a given piece of music. This is how even talented artistes end up making numerous 'unforced' errors. In my childhood, I used to equate flaws with cancer - I used to see them creep up even on established and experienced artistes...
While competence is all right for science, it's just the first step in art (and sports too). An artiste has to be fairly consistent. In simple terms, if one renders a phrase or a song 100 times, one has to do it well at least 80-90% of the times. Anything below will be average or under. Practice again is the key to this. Sometimes, consistency is written off as a sign of mediocrity. This does not mean that inconsistency is brilliant. The thumb rule is one has to aim for consistency all the time in order to even get middle level opportunities. Brilliance is a nice contrast to have in order to keep audience interest alive. Concerts of top level brilliant artistes like T N Rajaratnam Pillai (Nadaswaram) were built on a solid foundation of consistency.
Polish and perfect
It has to be highlighted here that learning a new song or revisiting a forgotten one is not practice. The count-down starts after one has memorised something and is able to render it with a decent flow. A good listener can discern whether an artiste merely has flair or has worked hard to polish the pieces. It is obvious to the cognoscenti that the gems of legends such as M S Subbulakshmi and Lalgudi Jayaraman (to mention only a few) are products of constant polish. Even those reputed to be brilliant artistes such as Umayalpuram Sivaraman and creative such as GNB and Madurai T N Seshagopalan have worked hard thousands of hours in order to present their concepts effectively. I have personally known that even born geniuses such as Flute Mali and Palghat Mani Iyer used to practice lots.
Some people practice because they simply love to. True artistes fall under this category. Even in their early days, they will always be thinking about the art and will want to spend time singing, playing or dancing. But for this passion to continue, parents and gurus must ensure that they are constantly inspired by the art of great legends. The doyen, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, my own gurus T Brinda and Chitravina Narasimhan, dance legend Vyjayantimala Bali and others being constantly 'at it' even after decades of experience and accomplishments.
Even competent artistes can sometimes lose confidence due to various reasons. Often, practice is what bails them out at such times. I will address a few more issues in subsequent posts...