11 September, 2010

Practice - I

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. 

Eliminate Flaws

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...

17 August, 2010

Fear factor in music

  1. Fear is one of the most natural things in music for a lot of people. Some of the greatest artistes (or for that matter, sportsmen or people in other walks of life) face it too. Only two kinds of people are generally fearless – the highly ignorant or the immensely knowledgeable. Great artistes are great not because they are fearless but because they overcome it by dint of hard work in the right direction and mental preparation with the correct attitude.

    Types of fear

    During one’s musical journey, an analytical person will notice several kinds of fear along the path! A few of them are given below:

    • Fear of each note (mostly long sustained plain notes) – some more than the other like Sa, Pa, Ga3, (the major third note) or high notes like S, R, G, M
    • Fear of some phrases
    • Fear of other friends/family members listening or walking in as we practice
    • Fear of other students in class (even those that are not better than us!)
    • Fear of guru
    • Fear of stage and audience
    • Fear of mike (how our own music will sound when amplified!)
    • Fear of peer artistes who may drop in on our concert
    • Fear of legendary artistes or other important people who may attend the concert

    Overcoming fear

    Each one of us can assess for ourselves which stage of fear are we in at a given point in time! However, all these can and must be overcome with quality guidance under great masters as well as more and more practice with lots and lots of patience. Patience does not mean just practicing for many hours each day. I am talking more about patience with respect to every note and phrase.

    A practitioner will see how he is able to eliminate each type of fear mentioned above step by step with the kind of patience I am speaking about.

    The approach has to be to practice until one feels good about the music first. Normally, the stages this would be:

    • After practicing a note/phrase for a few dozen times (it could be more or less based on how comfortable one is with a given phrase) one can get it correctly.
    • After a few more times after the stage of mere correctness, one will stop feeling conscious of it.
    • Only after a few more times will one stop being tense about it and start feeling comfortable with it (since one’s voice or hands start move more naturally).
    • Only after many more times will one feel confident about it when singing alone.
    • Only after several more times will one feel confident to sing it in front of others.
    • After some more time, others will also feel comfortable when they listen to us!

    Developing intimacy with each note/piece of music

    By getting to know the notes one by one and phrases one by one, an artiste will overcome this factor. Getting to know a note/phrase is akin to getting know a person or a family. There are many with whom our relationship is just a ‘Hi’ and a ‘Bye’. We will never know such people much. There are some with whom we spend hours, days, months or years and we get to know them better and better.

    So also with notes and phrases that we don’t spend time on. One will never get to know them well. Then how can one sing/play them well? Only when we spend lots of time on a note or phrase can we start knowing it better.

    With even more time, the note / phrase will also know us better! Sounds, weird? Actually, it is not. I will leave you all to introspect a bit about this to understand what I mean!

24 April, 2010


The Background

The power of sound has fascinated millions over centuries. Certain types of music have been known to reduce  stress, depression, headache etc while other kinds make the opposite happen. Unless one realises that music-mechanics supersede the individual artist  or even the genre of music (classical, pop, jazz etc) that is being heard/rendered the field of  Music Therapy would be consigned to quasi or pseudo scientific alternative (or at best complementary) medicine. On the other hand, if more fundamental laws of physics that are the building blocks of even the highest level of music are objectively studied, the incredibly  precise though complex relationships between music and health could be quantifiably understood and tapped into. 

The need of the hour is quality research in several areas by distinguished specialists and institutions with as much scientific rigour as seen in allopathy. The scientific study and development of this area, which I termed as Musopathy (a la allopathy, homeopathy etc), can have an enormous positive impact on humanity. It is clearly distinct from the fairly subjective Music Therapy that is offered by several Universities across the planet today. In other words, Musopathy is a de-culturalised and de-regionalised objective approach to address auro-neural and hormonal responses and health issues but through measurable musical factors in a scientific manner, document the stats and analyse them to conclusively prove or disprove a number of claims and postulates such as Royal Raymond Rife’s thoughts on the relationship between certain frequencies and cancer in 1930s. It’s only gradually becoming apparent to mainstream medical scholars even at institutions like NIH (in USA) that human brains are more sensitive to musical pitches than other primates.

Music Therapy in recent times

As most of us know, music is increasingly being used by scientists and doctors all over the world as complementary or alternative therapy for dealing with hypertension, depression, physiotherapy or even speech therapy for stroke victims. Leading medical names keen about music include Virginia Apgar, (the obstetrician famous for Apgar score), Rene Laennec, (inventor of the stethoscope), Dr Richard Bing and Dr Eugene Braunwald (renowned cardiologist), to mention a few. 

Music-medicine relationship in ancient times

Musical associations of medical professionals dates back as far as the ancient Indian and Greek eras and can be traced to modern times as well. Apollo, the god of healing in the Greek mythology is seen with a lyre and Aesculapius who was Apollo’s son has been associated with flute. Indians have believed that ragas like Amrtavarshini or Meghmalhar could bring rain, Deepakam could light up lamps and those like Neelambari could combat insomnia. We also have stories of composers such as Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi, Tyagaraja and Muttuswami Dikshitar being called upon to cure patients with their music.

Experiments in modern times

Studies were conducted on the effect of music on plant growth by leading Universities such as Harvard in 1970s that noted that Indian Classical Music was the best catalyst for plant growth. (For more information on this, read Sidney Sheldon's Stars Shine Down!!). In the late 1990s, a San Diego based University claimed that students performed better in exams after listening to Mozart.

In the beginning of the new millennium, Jane Hanson, on behalf of BBC, looked at the cutting-edge research and application of music in clinical medicine which included the University of North Texas, USA, Beth Abraham hospital in New York and select doctors and musicians in Mysore, India. An audio of her experiences is available at:
In Chennai, India, the Raga Research Center led by violinist Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan claimed that cattle that heard the raga Anandabhairavi produced more milk. Some studies suggest that regular concert listening increases lifespan or that heavy weight music  makes high intensity workouts more enjoyable 

Limitations and scope

However, althese need deeper investigation as they are mostly subjective approaches based on regional cultural exposures. For example, a study in New York would not include music from India or Africa and vice-versa to ensure the scientific validity of all these claims beyond doubt. Nor do they go to absolute yardsticks like volume levels, tempo of music or the combination of notes that are responsible for specific responses.  And beat effect of music (2 sounds of microscopically unaligned pitches) have not been documented sufficiently either.  But their limitations notwithstanding, the fundamental truth cannot be disputed – the power of sound. 

Sound has immense power and potency. In fact, some scientists have even experimented with limited success in creating new acoustic weapons, which emit frequencies that may impair, harm, or kill.  Theorists such as Benjamin Boretz consider some of the results of psychoacoustics to be meaningful only in a musical context

But how well has it been tapped in the area of medicine? How well has its power been studied? No doubt that there are studies based on Music-psychology and there has also been an attempt to get to a broader picture by studying musical syntax (though it has been confined to Western systems which includes harmony). Music psychology focuses on several areas, including music performance, composition, education, criticism and therapy is only one of them. It also investigates human attitude, skill, performance, intelligence, creativity, and social behavior.

Specifically coming to the therapeutic side, there is a lot of scope to extend organized research with systematic exactitude.  Mere sentimental or culture-centric musical ideas, with intentions however sound (pun intended), can never replace the rigour of science. That is why, Music Therapy (the way it is approached now) hovers somewhere between quack medicine and quasi-science.  

There is a complete absence of standardisation as every country has a different approach to Music Therapy based on the music that is practiced there.  In India, Music Therapy is about research using certain ragas. In the West, it is about composers like Mozart and in Africa, it is about native percussion.  There is no scientific manner in which anyone can explain why certain ragas or certain composers like Mozart have particular impact on human beings, animals or plants. 


Ruminating over all these, I came up with Musopathy to de-culturalise and de-regionise music and take it to its fundamental roots, based on laws of physics using standard, measurable and repeatable factors like combinations of frequencies, tempo, decibel levels and beat-impact. For obvious reasons, I will not be able to share all the details of psychoacoustics involved here. I will just give some highlights and advantages below:  
  • Musopathy is a quantifiable approach that combines music and medicine in absolute terms. 
  • It eliminates region, religion, culture, language etc and the subjectivity associated with these, which dominate the subject of Music Therapy. In other words, it will convert the quasi-scientific music-therapy into a serious study as sound as biochemical medicine. 
  • Musopathy promises empirical auro-neuro-solutions and opens up newer areas of studies such as neuro-physics
  • Musopathy has great potential to offer viable alternatives with far lesser side effects for several ailments where chemical cures dominate today.
To summarise, this is an area that has not been fully explored but if extensive work is carried out with a combination of vision, experience and scientific precision, it can blaze a trail of its own for the benefit of mankind. It is heartening to see leading lights of the scientific and academic world with whom I have discussed this stating that this is a cutting-edge approach to the subject. I have promised myself that I will get to formal research on this as soon as time permits and I find the right collaborators and support.

17 March, 2010


One fine morning, I was ruminating over the remarkable manner in which relationships develop between two apparently disparate individuals. How does a child under 10 form a bond with a grand father or grandmother who is decades older? Or vice versa? It is seldom at an intellectual level as there are only a million things that are yet to be on the same plane between the two, though each will make an effort to come down or climb up and meet somewhere. It is not necessarily at the physical level of sexual attractions or the emotional level of ‘falling in love’, even though these are also not out of the equation. Extending this even further, why does a dog form a bond with a specific human being more than others? Or vice versa?

It dawned upon me that the reason is more to do with soular (if I may be permitted to coin the term) compatibility. In other words, it is more about a meeting of souls than a meeting of minds, hearts or bodies. I hasten to add that the soular compatibility is in itself not incompatible with other level compatibilities mentioned above, given appropriate circumstances.

But while the reasons for physical, emotional and intellectual compatibilities can seem self-evident, soular compatibility is often obvious only to those who share it. It can seem absurdly inexplicable to others.

Thinking further, I was struck by a fairly interesting idea.

The Big Bang model of the universe has found wide acceptance across the scientific community. It generally refers to the idea that the universe has expanded from a primordial hot and dense initial condition at some finite time in the past, and continues to expand to this day. Monsignor Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître proposed this theory sometime in the 1930s although he called it his "hypothesis of the primeval atom".

I wondered why is this only being limited to matter? I saw that this hypothesis can be extended to the soul (of any form of life) as well. But in reality, my hypothesis is not so much about the origin of souls but more about what has transpired since. Anyways, here goes my basic hypothesis:

The Soular Big Bang: At some point in time, there was a primeval soul, like the primeval atom, which contained the nucleus of all souls that could possibly ever be. Suddenly there was a big bang and this resulted in zillions of souls being manifested across the universe in various galaxies/ stars/ planets in whatever form of life imaginable and unimaginable to mankind.

These individual souls have zillions of different characteristics just as the material world’s stars and planets have different shapes and sizes and component matter and/or energy levels. And just as diverse galaxies and stars are in varying stages of evolution, so are the souls too.

Soular Systems: Similar to galaxies, stars, planets, satellites and what not in the physical universe, there are Soular Systems spread across the universe. It is not limited to human beings but since that is the best way to perceive this, I will use human examples. A simple soular system could consist of the soul of a person around whom the souls of an entire family revolves like planets. There could be satellite souls around one or more of such planetary souls.

Bigger systems could include extended family / friends / dependants or followers of certain ideologies of this soul.

Soular Galaxies: This could be centered around great souls like Jesus, Gandhi who have carried the weight and hopes of millions of other souls around them. Just as different galaxies have different life spans, the influence-spans of such souls also vary. For instance, while the soular galaxies such as Buddha and Jesus are thousands of years old, that of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King is relatively young.

Soular Black Holes: These are akin to the destructive souls like a Hitler who ultimately sucked millions of souls along with them.

All these correspond to observations seen in real life on our own tiny little planet.

But what binds this universe full of souls together? The answer could be Soular Gravity.

Soular gravity could be defined as the pull that a given soul feels from various other souls and the pull that it in turn exerts upon other souls. Again the pull felt by a soul from various other souls (or exerted by it upon other souls) can vary based on the size, distance and other factor.

Inter-Soular-Gravitational pull is the single most important factor that creates tension as well as balance between souls.

Twin Souls: Just as twin stars abound the universe, twin souls are also not uncommon. These are just two souls that exert a tremendous mutual gravity and revolve around each other. They happen to meet up, form soular bonds because they share the same soular ideologies and philosophies. It is frequently seen that when two very diverse people connect with one-another, at this level, nothing else such as age, time, class, physical attributes or material wealth matters and they continue to revolve around one-another.

Free Souls: These are completely independent souls roaming across the universe with no binding whatsoever. They could probably likened to Soular comets/other such objects.

Trapped Souls: These are souls that would love to leave a system but are unable to – such as planets at the extreme edge of a star system with irregular orbits or weak gravitational forces from nearby to bind them.

Soular theory in the context of duality vs non-duality:

Hindu philosophers have argued about the duality (dvaita) and non-duality (advaita) theories. In layman’s terms, the former says that God’s Soul (paramatma) is the Centric to the Universe and all other souls (jeevatma-s) are constantly seeking to merge with it. However, non-dualists led by Adi Shankara have argued that all souls are the same and only those blinded by illusion cannot see this obvious truth. (Ramanuja’s Vishishtaadvaita philosophy is beyond the scope of this article.)

It is my contention that advaita is more about the pre-soular big-bang state, after which, zillions of secondary souls have come into being from the primary soul. Advaita in today’s context is more about the state of one’s mind than observed soular reality. Even in a human context, one can easily observe the various stages of evolution individual souls are in.

When we say “X is a great soul”, we are actually more precise than we imagine. X would represent a soul that is definitely more evolved than, say Y or Z. So, it is quite obvious that souls are not devoid of characteristics and personalities. If they were, every living object would behave in the same manner as the next, except for basic shape, size and intelligence levels.

Finally, what happens?

If one goes by the Big Bang theory of matter, nothing much other than perpetual expansion and distances between souls. However, if one were to apply the Indian philosophical / vedantic principles, there is also the Big Shrink where all matter will ultimately go back to its root source and then get ready for the big bang again. (This whole cycle has been alluded to by the great composer, Muttuswami Dikshitar in his composition, Veena pustaka dharini where he says, ‘nikhila prapancha sankocha vikaasa’).

Similarly, all secondary souls (jeevatma) will merge with paramatma, the eternal, primary soul. And so the cycle goes on…

Selective Moral Discomforts and Outrages of Convenience against Tyagaraja

As someone who has been passionate from early teens about making Carnatic Music socially broad based and initiated pioneering steps for the ...