Written by Snigdha Kar on 28 October 2021
Recently, I read Shubha Mudgal’s debut book “Looking for Miss Sargam – Stories of music and misadventures”.
Although set as fictional stories, I strongly feel that these are somewhere close to the realities of the musicians of our country. I was really surprised to read about sad realities: I wished the story "Taan Kaptaan" would continue until Saxena Sir got justice; I cried with Asavari Tai; I enjoyed reading about the stage flight between Sikandar Sufi and Hayaat Ali.
The book opened up unseen areas of our music industry. As the name suggests—Stories of Music and Misadventures—this book, the first of its kind perhaps, showcases the life of Indian musicians along with their struggles, challenges, and hidden desires. Get a copy for yourself and enjoy reading funny yet emotional stories and I am sure you will finish reading all stories in one go as I did.
After reading about the life of popular musicians, I wondered if there is any book on the challenges of a new learner of music. I am not talking about biographies of the most recognised musicians but perhaps about someone who is keen to learn any classical performing art.
The challenges I faced in my journey in learning music.
This book motivated me to share with you the challenges that I faced in my year’s journey of learning music. You may find my learning journey similar to yours at some point, maybe.
It has been a year since I started learning Hindustani classical music. My first struggle was to make riyaaz (practice) my daily habit. I knew before enrolling that I need to practice well on a daily basis; otherwise, I won’t be able to learn. I needed to train my ears to listen and my vocals to sync with the swar (a musical note).
I used to give excuses to myself that I will practice when I have good enough time for it, or when I need a desperate break from work and so on. I soon realised that this wouldn't work, and I needed to dedicate a time slot for riyaaz. This slot had to be fixed and unchangeable no matter what, so I must choose a time that fit best with my schedule.
I fixed an early morning time for riyaaz before the day’s chaos begins. I am a morning person, getting up early is not a big deal for me. For years, I have gone out early mornings on bird-watching trips with my friends, and nowadays my morning hours are meditative as I do my practice.
I managed to make riyaaz a regular activity in my daily schedule, but then I felt so sleepy. Waking up early never created any problem for me. It was not that I had insomnia and I was unable to wake up fresh. I was clueless why I felt so drowsy. The aakars (swar in the sound of Aa) would always get mixed with the sound of my yawn. Maybe I needed an evening time for practice.
So I decided to block a time slot after my extended working hours. A reminder was set on my phone, and I hoped that this would work. Alas, I kept finding it difficult to stop yawning but I had to keep it going—I couldn’t stop. I had to practise; what’s the point of learning theoretically.
I don’t really remember when this drowsiness while I practised faded away, but I can’t explain in words what that feeling was and how swaras mixed with my yawn sounded… Well, that was perhaps a phase in the life of a beginner-learner…Riyaaz is part of my daily routine now, and I feel my day is incomplete if I miss out on practising due to some practical reason.
With regular riyaaz, I was improving my swar placement in the right pitch. The tempo continued to give me trouble, perhaps demanding more time for practise. But as I progressed with the courses there was an improvement.
Then, another issue busted on me. I was not really enjoying singing. I was trying to sing the bandish (a short composition) in the right pitch and tempo. And that was perhaps sounding okay to a listener and my teacher. But to me, it was very mechanical. I soon realised that I have been singing the same bandish in Raag Bhupali for months now.
Classical music can be very boring for a new learner. Obviously, I knew this as well before joining the course. And that some people spend their lifetime learning the same raag but I don’t aspire to be a singer anyway. Is it not working for me? Should I quit?
I enjoy listening to old, semi-classical Bollywood music. But I have never ever listened to a full classical composition—I didn’t know the difference between alap and taan before joining the course.
It was Covid lockdown time when Shankar Mahadevan Sir started a Mini Masterclass on Instagram, and suggested to me that learning classical music helps in overall understanding of a song.
And I have to agree with that because even after learning the hobby singing for almost 7 years, I hadn’t witnessed any improvement in my ability to sing light-music, whereas after enrolling for the classical music course, in a short time span of 4–5 months only, my perspective towards music significantly changed. So I had to continue and do something to overcome this boredom.
To overcome boredom, look at things another way.
I will tell you how I managed to break the monotony and keep myself motivated in a while because I think it is worthwhile sharing little desires that I had developed over time.
If you ask me to define unhappiness, I will answer that it is the difference between our talent and our expectations. I am generally a happy person because I know my limitations and don’t expect anything beyond that. But short-term desires do pop up.
I wanted to purchase a physical tanpura and get a picture clicked with it. I own a harmonium too that I don’t use. I was pretty sure that I won’t use tanpura as well. But how does that matter? People spend a lot of money buying a chandelier, it’s not a requirement like a bed or a sofa, rather it’s a decorative piece in one’s home. So if I wish to decorate my home with musical instruments, that should be fine right? So, the desire was basically to showcase my passion for music by getting a picture clicked with tanpura and having some musical instruments at home.
I strongly feel that it was my training in classical music that gave me the wisdom to convert desires to pathways to achieve dreams. I have started listening to classical music concerts online, reading a lot about theory of music, watching eminent people’s interviews, etc.
After changing my perspective towards music, it was time to change my lifestyle. I gave up on an occasional consumption of nicotine and alcohol, adopted a healthy eating habit, took care of my throat by avoiding ice-cream, etc. I invested the money that I would have spent on a tanpura on a guitar so that I could learn something new to overcome the boredom of singing the same bandish.
At that point, I was pretty sure that I would be able to manage to practice for both vocal and instrument because my life was more disciplined.
After all these ups and downs, I am still struggling to accept my voice. I don’t like to hear what I am singing. To me, my voice is not as mechanical as it felt to me earlier, but it is still "unpleasable" to me.
An experience that changed the way I look at my music.
I learned a beautiful Kajri for Sangam 2021 (the virtual annual fest of Shankar Mahadevan Academy). But then again, I was listening to this composition in the voice of my guru and maha guru which is outstanding. I actually love the composition that describes nature, love, friendship, etc. I am uncomfortable singing devotional songs. Nevertheless, for this Kajri also, I didn’t find my voice useful for singing.
The basic thing in learning any performing art is obviously the ability to perform. I was learning so that my child developed an interest in music. And I somehow motivated myself to learn and to sing/hum for myself because listening to music has always been a stress buster for me.
The motivation to participate in SANGAM 2021 was also to learn something new other than the scheduled course material. If I have enrolled for SANGAM, I must perform. I had made up my mind to send a wonderful recording in which everything except my voice will be perfect.
A backdrop with proper lighting, a saree with minimal jewellery was selected. But unfortunately, I was hospitalised when I needed to record the video. Since I had no confidence in my voice, I was okay if my video was rejected for the final compilation. But the inability to send the video from my end was bothering me.
Well, I decided to make an attempt to record this in the hospital itself—without the backdrop and saree, but with just the voice I didn’t like. I could do just one recording, and in those three-and-a-half minutes, my voice crossed the door of my room and reached the ears of the hospital staff.
Three people came back—two cleaning staff and a nurse—to appreciate my voice. I was very happy that day. I am still not comfortable listening to that recording but now hopeful that one day, I might be able to accept my voice. The journey has just started, and I have a long way to go.
The journey, itself, is the destination.
I often wondered about my teacher’s favourite footwear. All men, obviously, have a pair of black formal shoes. But I don’t know why I feel my teacher is most comfortable in grey/white sneakers. I have imagined myself touching his feet many times. With new age online learning, feelings are difficult to convey. Many times, I have felt so grateful and wanted to express my gratitude. I have also felt apologetic at times for not being able to perform as expected. I think joy is the only feeling that is easily transmitted between the two screens. I hope to meet him soon in a non-virtual SANGAM and hope he will allow me to touch his feet. He is the reason behind the huge shift in my life.
I aim to finish HV108, the beginner level learning, but I am really not sure how far I can reach given my limitations. But as it is said, for learning any art form, the journey itself is the destination and I am so blessed to be with Shankar Mahadevan Academy in this journey.
I will certainly enjoy every part of this learning journey. Many thanks to everyone in the academy for constant support and motivation.
Student of Hindustani Vocal