There are no weak learners, or bad singers

Written by Asha Subramaniam on 26 August 2021

I started teaching in Shaktii School in July 2019. The school belongs to a girl's education Trust named Project Shaktii. Project Shaktii, a registered NGO (non-governmental organisation) was established in 2015 as an after-school program that empowers girls from underprivileged sections of people living in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai.

About 22 girls benefit from this program. The girls attend regular school in the morning and attend after-school classes for maths, physics, chemistry, biology. And they have art, music and dance as well.

Thanks to the initiative of Vimala Nandakumar, the chairperson of Project Shaktii, the Trust signed up in the middle of this year for the Grow With Music program with Shankar Mahadevan Academy. All the girls are enrolled in this program.

My first class fell on July 13, 2019. And the first thing I did was to get a sense of where the girls stood in their singing. So I sang and asked them to follow me in singing. I wanted to just understand their pitching and rhythm sense. To my despair, I couldn't find any of them who could hit the pitch perfectly. But the biggest positive for me was that each one of those girls was so interested in singing.

I found that they would like to sing just for fun, but they also had the ability to take their singing seriously. So I did not lose hope. I decided to first take the problem of incorrect pitching, head on, before I started them on any song.

I learnt from the girls that they normally listen to Bollywood songs. None of them confessed any interest in classical music. I thought to myself they may probably be unaware of it.

I made up my mind to give them a basic grounding in music before teaching them any song. I formed a plan. As a first step toward correcting their pitch, the girls would sing swara patterns in every class. I would begin every class by singing swaras quite randomly, and the girls would follow me happily. 

I still remember the pattern we would sing: 


RS, GR, MG, PM, DP, ND, S'N, R'S'

And we would follow that with:


SRGMP...and many more.

As the girls used to find it difficult to sing the higher swaras, I used to teach them sequences of swaras until P (the fifth musical note).

The first 5 to 10 minutes of every class would be devoted exclusively to the exercise of singing swara patterns. Only then would we move on to do the songs. 

In the initial days the swaras they sang would not be in the right place, but I persisted with the swara patterns exercise. 

Three months passed and we had our 12th class on 25th September. I asked a few of the girls to sing the swara patterns individually. I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of improvement in their pitching of swaras. I would not say they were pitch-perfect yet. But I definitely found a marked improvement in their singing.

What has brought this improvement, I wondered to myself. I asked a few of them – Aastha, Soha, Shakuntala and Ruhi – for an explanation. The girls said they generally used to practice whenever they used to get free on other days. Practice never fails to work. But I felt there was more to it. Reflecting upon it now, I feel the major ingredients would have been – a teacher's constant motivation, a collective hope that they would finally do good, and the girls' keen interest to learn.

There is one other major factor too: the constant doses of inspiration and motivation the girls get from Vimala Nandakumar and her team. The belief of elders is a huge factor. 

In the class sessions that followed I found the girls  changed a lot. They would eagerly wait for me every Wednesday – the day we have our weekly class. 

And when they sang together, they sounded good. I could vividly feel the interest and enthusiasm in them grow. And I loved that feeling.

I then shifted my attention to the aspects of rhythm. Rather than explain the technical aspects of rhythm, I chose to run a clapping game in class. And I made them sing along with the claps and snaps of fingers. Their enjoyment of the game was obvious.

Our progress was good. The girls learned 6 songs in 3 months, and were thorough with all the songs.

I feel happy and accomplished that the girls also picked up the basic aspects of classical music – with enjoyment and without even realising it.  And I believe the experience of learning music and improving their singing will help them perform better in their academic subjects. Learning music makes you better at learning anything.

I took away a few lessons from this experience with the girls of Shaktii. First of all, we should keep trying without ever losing hope. Second, we should never judge people as weak learners or bad singers. Everyone has the potential to learn. All it needs is keen interest and eagerness to learn. Last, we as teachers should always be positive and always be full of life when we set foot into a class.

This experience has affected me deeply. I now strongly feel that I want to work more for the underprivileged sections of our society. 

Asha Subramaniam

Gold medalist In Hindustani Classical music, University of Delhi.

Teacher, Performer, Narrator, Admissions Counsellor, Music Advocate