Written by Krishnan Sivaramakrishnan on 20 December 2019
Exactly one minute before 11.30, the morning of December 11, 2019, my WhatsApp for Desktop flashed a message alert. It was Sridhar Ranganathan, CEO and Co-founder, Shankar Mahadevan Academy, sharing good news with the academy’s group of teachers and staff.
"A proud moment for Shankar Mahadevan Academy. Our student Saumaya Dhar has been selected for the New York Metropolitan Opera, one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world,” his message shared. The message warmed hearts all around, most of all for Saumaya’s Hindustani Vocal Music teacher at the Academy, Manasi Hedaoo.
Cut to 2018. It’s not often that talent comes knocking at the door. But you know it when you see it. Or, in this case, when you hear it. Saumaya Dhar was 8 years old when she joined Shankar Mahadevan Academy’s Hindustani Vocal Music course 100A – a beginner-level course – in September 2017. Manasi instantly sensed her talent. But within a few classes, she sensed something more: Saumaya’s love for music and capacity for sheer effort.
Now, if you are an artist or a teacher you will already know one home truth: Talent, on its own, won’t go the entire mile. It is effort that propels talent toward the finishing tape. It comes as no surprise then that Saumaya made rapid improvement in her singing and progress in her course. In response, Manasi shifted her directly to a course of a more advanced level.
Here is a voice sampler of Saumaya’s singing in those early times.
Saumaya impressed Manasi with her ability to sing both classical and western music with ease. What impressed Manasi, even more, was Saumaya’s ability to not mix the distinct techniques the two forms of music apply.
When talent runs the long distance with effort, capability arrives. A teacher knows the earliest when capability arrives in a student. Challenges in music lessons and music learning are met by the student with ease, grace, creativity. And when capability runs the long distance with effort, achievement arrives. The world takes notice. As the New York Metropolitan Opera (Met Opera, in short) did, in the case of Saumaya.
Met Opera (“one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world,” wrote Sridhar) has made Saumaya a part of five operatic shows: Turandot, The Queen of Spades, Werther, Der Rosenkavalier, and La Damnation De Faust. “Saumaya is one of the youngest artists performing with some of the world’s most accomplished singers,” Sridhar wrote on.
It was when Saumaya shared a comment by the representatives of Mets Opera that Manasi’s heart swelled with a teacher’s contentment. They remarked to Saumaya that it is because of her training in Indian Classical music that her notes are so strong.
Just ask Manasi how she feels she has contributed to Saumaya’s achievement. And she will tell you she had little to do with it. But sustained strength and purity of musical notes always reveal the presence of a teacher’s hidden hand.
Hidden hands, most commonly, belong to selfless souls. These individuals – so immersed are they in what they do for others – often are not conscious of what they do. The essence of it all sinks in only when they take a step back, relive that experience, and take in perspective.
It took a few questions to take Manasi back to her early days of teaching Saumaya. Her answers give a glimpse of how the hidden hand moved. The principles she used can form a teacher’s playbook on how to work with a gifted child. I have arranged Manasi’s answers as a categorised flow of points.
Creativity opens up to keen listeners.
I noticed that Saumaya listens carefully and sings everything back easily. But then I didn't just want her to copy that. So I started asking her to create her own patterns (varying sequences of notes). I gave her the group of a pattern and asked her to complete it. She struggled in the beginning but worked on it. After some classes, she started to make her own patterns and sing them at different speeds too.
Hard work finds meaning - with a mentor.
I would recommend exercises that Saumaya could practise at home in between her class sessions. A few of these were: a) creating her own patterns and singing them in different speeds and in aakar (singing musical notes only using only the vowel sound ā); b) singing bandish (a composition in Hindustani classical music) with swaras (musical notes) to perfect the placements; c) creating her own aalaps (a prelude in a composition). These are all exercises that challenge and improve a student’s ability.
Teacher's preparation = Lessons + Challenges.
I always prepare myself for classes, whether it be Saumaya or other students. I do prepare myself with the lessons to be taught and challenges for her in the class too.
Creativity connects in the class.
Saumaya likes stories. So I used to tell her stories that relate to the topic. For example, a story would go that the 7 swaras are nothing but 7 friends with different heights. Or we used to create beats by using body parts like tapping and clapping and snapping, and she was very good at it.
“When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything…”
We have this amazing app called Sur Sadhana at Shankar Mahadevan Academy. It helps a lot in perfecting Sur (pitch). But the app was not there in the first course that I took with Saumaya. She already was good with the Shuddha swaras (perfect or natural notes). But as we moved forward, Komal swaras (flat notes) were a little tough. So, for that, all I used to do is make her understand the difference between the sounds of two swaras. For example, Komal Ni and Shuddha Ni. First, I would demonstrate. Then, I would ask her to identify which Swara (musical note) is Shuddha or Komal. Once a student understands that difference it is easier for them to sing the swaras.
A guide to staying in pitch.
Honestly, Saumaya has had a very good sense of pitch, from the beginning. It's gifted I guess. But yes, I always ask her to practise with the tanpura. I do not recommend practising on the piano as we can hear every note clearly on it. But we have only Sa and Pa played on a tanpura. So practising on a tanpura is difficult but it perfects the swara placement and pitch.
Active parents keep a child on course.
Saumaya's parents treat me as a family member. They are actively involved in her music lessons. They support her so well and always make sure she practises. They always clarify their doubts after class is over. They trust me as her teacher and so never interfere in the class. They are very serious about her singing and are just lovely.
The story of Saumaya is a powerful human-interest story. As much as it is about Saumaya’s grand achievement, it is also about a teacher’s ability to see her own dream come true in a student’s achievement. Here is the remainder of the Q&A with Manasi Hedaoo.
When did you start teaching Saumaya?
I started teaching Saumaya 2 years 4 months ago.
What quality about Saumaya strikes you the most as her teacher?
Saumaya is a cute, sweet, energetic, talkative kid. But she is also a very good listener. She listens carefully and that's why she grasps quickly. She has immense love for music and works hard to keep improving.
How has her progress in two years of learning Hindustani Classical been?
Saumaya started with the course HV100A (beginner-level course in Shankar Mahadevan Academy). After she finished it, I shifted her directly to HV100D (a more advanced-level course) as she was a very quick learner and could sing a lot of patterns in swara and aakar. We almost did a lot of things that the next two courses ask for. Her improvement was very surprising. Now she is doing HV104.
What are Saumaya’s strengths in singing?
Saumaya is perfect in pitch and rhythm. She can sing both Indian classical and Western very nicely. Though the techniques are varied in both styles she manages to not mix them.
Did she share that she had applied for selection to the Met Opera?
Of course, she did share. I remember when she got selected and she told me with extreme joy, saying, "Manasi didi (sister), I got selected for Met Opera! And they asked me if I am learning music, and I told them that I am learning Indian classical music, and they said that's why your notes are so strong." I felt so satisfied to hear that.
Did you help her prepare for her selections in any way?
Well, honestly, I always have focussed on perfecting her swara placement and pitch. But didn't help her in her preparation as such.
Did teaching Saumaya help you discover qualities about yourself?
I get inspired as I see Saumaya doing so much. She is doing her studies, rehearsals and shows but not ignoring her riyaz (practice or honing of skills) which is inspiring me now to manage everything too.
How will this experience help you as a teacher?
Well, it’s just a proud feeling to see Saumaya doing something that I always wanted to do. From my very childhood, I wished to sing in a Broadway show but couldn't. Seeing my dearest little student doing it makes me feel great and my dream come true.