Thursday, August 13, 2009

Brief overview of beginner lessons

This is a repost from my external blog on carnatic music. I think this will be useful for some of you.

Music is Universal (yeah I know it sounds cliched), but hey how do you explain the fact that music is made of seven notes in almost all forms. Sa ri ga ma pa da ni forms the basis. I am currently learning the Carnatic style and that is what I explain in this blog. Here is the series of lesson in Carnatic music. The first 5 lessons are taught in Mayamalavagowla raga (though the 5th lesson Alankaram may be done in other ragas to train the students in swara prayoga - the right use of notes for that raga).

1. Sarali varisai - Saral means easy in hindi. This the first lesson or baby steps in music.

2. Mel sthayi varisai - The higher notes lesson. This has notes sung at a higher frequency to train the vocal chords. This is sometimes also known as thara sthayi varisai. Alternatively there is also the mandhra sthayi varisai that trains you in the lowest frequencies. This training helps you later on when you effortlessly move over the scale.

3. Thaattu varisai - Here the swaras are sung out of their usual order sometimes skipping as much as 3 notes in between. This helps fix the swara sthanas in your mind so that later when you have make similar jumps in songs, it becomes easier.

4. Jandai varisai - This emphasises on repetition of swaras and is usually sung in fast speeds. This trains you to gain speed in singing without losing your sruthi.

5. Alankaram - Literally means decoration/makeup. It is named so since this is where we start beautifying the music with different meters and ragas. This is where you are introduced to different thalas (meters) such as rupaka, ata, eka, jamba thalam etc. In addition to the change in thalam, the swaras are also sang in different order. This is the first time that the student is introduced to different ragas especially the ones that remain unaltered in arohana and avarohana such as sankarabaranam, mohanam, hamsadhwani etc. For example the rupaka thala alankaram in mayamalavagowlai (mmg) looks like
sr srgm| rg rgmp| gm gmpd| mp mpdn| pd pdns|
The same in mohanam (srgpds) looks like
sr srgp| rg rgpd| gp gpds|

6. Geetham - means song. This is first time you "graduate" from singing just swaras to songs. These are small songs where you first learn the swaras that make up the song and then the sahitya (or lyrics) of the song. It is considered auspicious to begin any endeavor with an invocation to Lord Ganesha. Accordingly "Shri Gananadha" in the raga malahari is the first geetham that is taught. This is followed by 3 more in the same raga. Typical other geethams are mohanam, kalyani, suddha saveri, kamboji etc.

7. Swarajathi - This is longer than the geethams and usually involve intricate swara patterns. There is little or no gamaka (the slight shake of swaras to give beauty to the song). It is quite plain and follows the swara pattern faithfully. Two most common swarajathis are Rara veNu in raga bilahari and "Sambha siva" in Ragam Kamas. Since until this point the songs are sung only based on swaras with no gamakas, it is quite difficult to identify the raga just based on the singing. Later when we start with varnams we learn a lot of gamakas that help us identify raagas in other songs.

8. Varnam - When you reach varnams, and especially after you have learnt a handful of them, you have crossed the initial learning phases and are ready to venture into learning more and more complicated pieces. In fact even seasoned singers continue to learn varnams once in a while. Varnam is more like a full fledged song. It has a pallavi, anupallavi, followed by plain swaras called mukthayiswaram and finally charanam with a set of 4 (typical) chittaswarams. Varnams are important from two aspects
1. The songs have very few words so you have to fill the time with aaaa...eeee etc. These are called gamakas. Learning the gamakas and singing them properly gives you a better feel for the raga. While you may have seen little similarity between "vasudevayani" (a famous krithi in kalyani) and "kamala jaathala" (a geetham in kalyani), the moment you learn "vanajakshi" (a varnam in kalyani), the pieces tend to fall in place. You begin to appreciate patterns of swaras in various ragas.
2. The second advantage is that typically while training, varnams are sung in two kaalams (or sometimes in 3). Kaalams refers to the tempo with which the song is sung. The first speed is normal, the second speed is 2 swaras per beat and the 3rd speed is 4 swaras per beat. In effect 2nd speed is twice as fast and 3rd 4 times. It requires lot of practice to sing the varnam correctly in higher speeds while still sticking to the tune and the sruthi (octave). Once you have mastered it, it gives your voice flexibility to effortlessly glide over the swaras even at breakneck speed. When you stand mesmerised by Nithyashree's rendition of "Kannodu Kaanbadellam" in Jeans, especially the end with the swaras, thank her practice of varnams for that :)

While it typically takes about 2 to 3 yrs to cover all of the above, the mundane lessons are now over and now we move onto the more interesting world of Keerthanas.

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