Apart from my activities as a teaching person at BSM, I have the pleasure to be a student for vocal Carnatic music. Of course: You and me know, that I will not end up being a great Carnatic singer – but these lessons give me a deeper understanding of Indian classical music and culture on the one hand. On the other hand, since the system of Indian classical music is quite different to the western system, it makes me experience once again how it feels like to work yourself into a new musical system. Just like my young students, when they learn the Western music notation.
My teacher’s name is Mythili, and she is actually the only teacher at BSM, who teaches Indian classical music. Our lesson takes part in her home in Malleshwaram, in a room full of Indian and Western instruments. There is a big carpet, on which we both sit. Mythili turns on the shrutibox – a box which actually looks like a radio of my childhood times – and it playes “Sa” and “Pa”, like a constant carpet of sound which gives you a pitch.

The Indian classical music is built onto the svaras (tunes) called: Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni, Sa. It is an equivalent to the Western system of relative solmisation (Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do). But the main difference is, that there exist a lot more scales in the Indian classical music: The ragas. In fact there are 72 major ragas and thousands of variations, as Mythili told me. So in my point of learning, Mythili teaches me different ragas. And then I sing different exercises, the easier ones are just ascending or descending, the harder ones jump in bigger intervals between the different svaras. While singing the svaras, I have to tab a steady beat with my right hand on my knee, following a pattern of 4 – 2 – 2. This constant rhythm is called tala. Once you mastered an exercise, you will sing it in double time, while the tala goes on in the same speed. Then again you double the speed again or you sing an exercise in a-kara, what means I only sing an a-sound and not the svaras anymore. And the big difference to Western classical singing are the gammakas, the microtunes which are sang to connect the different svaras: Sliding, glissando-like tunes – to get a better impression, you might listen to a video on Youtube.


How you sit and tab the tala while singing exercises


 An example of exercises to get confident with a raga.

Even though I know, my career as a Carnatic singer won’t be very big, I wouldn’t want to miss this experience! Through comparing the Western and the Indian classical system, it makes me realise a lot about the characteristics and strengths of both of them. So for example: While reading the western classical notation, it always gives me information about the height of a tune, whereas in the Indian classical I have to have the Svaras internalised, to know how high each tune is. Also through the constant sound of the Shrutibox, I always hear the interval between Sa and the tune I am singing, what helps me control my intonation.
More than that I find it a mind-opening experience to get to know different musical systems: Because with time I got to realise, that each system seems to have some strict rules which cannot be broken. But if you get to know another musical system, exactly these rules are broken. Let me give you some examples: An Indian Classical piece always follows only ONE raga, tunes of the scale can NEVER be changed. Now if you compare it to jazz, changing of tunes and keys is what happens all the time. Or let’s look at the violin which is used in both Indian and Western classical: While in Western classical students are taught to hold their violins straight, the Carnatic violin players sit on the floor, their legs crossed, the back bended forward, the violin held under the chin and being laid on the knee. Or of course: While I try pitch tunes perfectly in a western aria, in a Carnatic piece microtunes and sliding tunes are a must.
Looking at this, it makes me realise that rules are something relative, something bound to their systems. While mainly we respect the rules in each system, we should also from time to time have the openness and courage to break rules, to allow ourselves the experience of where that takes us, in a sense of being open for innovation and creativity. Not only as a musician, but also as a teacher, because each system has its own ways of teaching and learning, which can be transferred from one system to another.