To sing or not to sing

Last year on the eve of Teacher’s Day,  I had dedicated a post to my math teachers, right from primary school to high school and how the poor teachers had to put up with a numerophobe like me. (Read about it here) This year I am dedicating one to another beleaguered species of teachers who had to endure me – my vocal music teachers. It is not that I couldn’t carry a tune in a bag, but I was not exactly M.S.Subbulakshmi or Lata Mangeshkar, you see.

During my childhood years in Nagpur, it was mandatory for a girl from a Tamilian middle class home to learn Carnatic classical music. Boys did too but it was not compulsory and if they did, they did it out of interest. The reasons for girls having to learn vocal music were many – to be able to sing on festive occasions or social functions like weddings and such, and of course to sing when one was being ‘viewed’ before marriage!

Given that I belonged to the said community, I couldn’t escape the practice either but was I a reluctant student!  There were a couple of professional singers who were also music teachers and were much in demand. Mother decided against them and chose a teacher who taught music as a pastime. He worked in a government office and was a good singer though an unassuming one. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to learn alone but with my elder sister who was really keen on learning to sing.

I would not only keep dawdling before coming to the class but also would not spread the mat or set out the harmonium for the teacher. My poor sister was left to do all this and on top of it all, I would make excuses not to practice the day’s lesson. He taught us well, didn’t intimidate or push us to become concert singers! It was a good thing that we sang together. I couldn’t hold the upper octaves and was always hurrying through the songs, much to the chagrin of the teacher and my sister. But we did take part in local music competitions and even won prizes, if I remember right. Wonder if the other competitors were worse or if the judges were kind!

It was not just carnatic classical music but also classes  where shlokas were set to tune and taught. No doubt this is one of the best ways to memorise shlokas, but I just didn’t want to learn! However what with mothers competing to show off the talents of their children, my mother didn’t want to be left behind in the race. I must admit that I managed to learn all the 100 verses of the Soundarya Lahari and several others too which I remember till date! My sister must have breathed a sigh of relief because there were different batches for young girls, teenagers and older women.

My next music teacher a couple of years later was a young woman in her late 20s. Father had been transferred to Tiruchi and my sister had got married and left home so I had to learn alone. I resisted big time but gave in eventually with poor grace as mother was sweetly adamant and coaxed me to give it a try saying that the teacher was highly recommended by many neighbours.

When I remember it now, I think I gave in mainly  I found out that my teacher was the sole earning member of her family, having lost her father some years earlier. The meager pension her mother got and her earnings as a music teacher saw the family scrape through. She had two younger sisters and a mother to take care of, with no possibility of marriage in the near future. What I still remember about her was that she was a pleasant person despite her circumstances, who tolerated my disinterest and was very patient with me as she tried her best to teach me to sing. She even wrote the notes and songs for me!

I would come and sit reluctantly but start singing with earnestness when I saw the seriousness with which she strove to make me learn.  I never failed to feel a pang when I saw her – she must have left home very early to commute by bus to finish my class before I left for school at 9.  I must confess that I did try my best. But without my sister to help camouflage my mistakes, it was tough. My voice still couldn’t roll like a gurgling stream and couldn’t stretch enough to reach the higher octaves. Sigh!

My mother insisted that I sang very well. Have you ever seen a mother who thought anything but the best about her child? As they say in Tamil, ‘To a crow, its fledgling is the golden one.’ I wracked my brains to find a way to  get out of the music lessons and suddenly hit upon a brainwave!

‘I will never master vocal music. If you buy me a veena I will learn music,’ I told mother one day. I loved the instrument and felt it was the most graceful one ever invented.  I felt sure that my parents could not afford to buy me one so that meant I could stop my vocal music lessons! But before that,  we would have to get another couple of students for my teacher, as I couldn’t bear to be responsible for her loss of income.  Mother saw that I really meant it this time.

But I had reckoned without her resolute nature and my elder brothers. Mother must have written to the second oldest brother who promptly sent the money for buying the veena. For the first time I was excited about learning music and when my mother tapped her network of friends in Thanjavur, a place renowned for the said instrument and placed an order for one, I began dreaming of one day becoming a great veena player.

The veena was beautiful. The strings, the large kudam or resonator, the smaller one made of hollowed out gourd, the frets, the bridge, the yaali (a mythical creature with a lion face) at the end of the bridge…I could have looked at it all day long.

My first veena teacher was an old musician — a wonderful person with a toothless smile and inexhaustible patience. I learnt fast and played reasonably well. But I wouldn’t sing along as he wanted me to. Nothing in the world would make me sing! I was happy strumming the strings and playing the notes.  He taught me for a year before father was transferred back to Nagpur. Here my veena teacher was an old lady, simply called Veena mami. She refined my playing. I still wouldn’t sing. She did!

There is nothing like playing a musical instrument to soothe away tensions, calm frayed nerves and lift your mood. It is completely therapeutic as it takes over mind and body and your entire concentration. After half an hour, you will feel fully refreshed, ready to face the world.

Over the years I stopped playing, rushed as I had been between home, work and kids. It is over three decades since I strummed a veena. Wonder if I would be able to take it up again if I wanted to. Is it like driving which you never forget no matter how many years pass without your sitting behind a steering wheel? I mean isn’t it too long a break? Will I be able to do it?

What do you think?

50 comments

  1. Go for it!!!
    Dont think of it as a break. Am sure your fingers will start flying on the fret board with excited ease!!
    And I would expect an invitation for the ‘arengatram’ 🙂

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    1. Welcome back Deepak! I have already got a veena. It is with Vinni and will come here when he does. Fingers are itching to play, but wonder if they remember any note after a gap of three decades 🙂

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  2. If you sing as you as you write, then Lata Mangeshkar should be blogging about you.

    This is one of the best personal blogs I have seen. I’m gonna follow you on RSS. :o)

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    1. LOL Welcome here Rocky. Btw., is your name really Mohd Rafi or are you pulling the Nag’s leg? Thanks for the compliment and I am delighted you like it enough to follow me on RSS!

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    2. And before you accuse me of having moderation turned on for the comments, it is only for the first time commenters. Next time, it will get published instantly. How’s that for incentive? 🙂

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  3. Tamilians and music and/or dance lessons for the girls ! I am a Tamilian and my mother says that all the women who came to see me on the day I was born asked my mom at what age would I be joining music classes ! I did learn music, like you, but with much resistance also like you. But unlike your mother, my mother never praised me — that came from my peers, relatives, teachers, etc. I am still not sure, if that is what made me resist learning music, or was it something else.

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    1. Good to see you here Sudha! Sometimes parents feel that praising their children would make them over confident. I have a friend who was like that with her boys when they were growing up. Sometimes they are not demonstrative about such things. Maybe your mother fell in one of these categories. But she sure must have felt proud of you when everyone appreciated you. So it must be something else 🙂

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  4. Thoroughly enjoyed your musical journey over the years. Fish out that veena if you can.

    My case is slightly different. I peeped into different valleys of music of my own calling but never ventured farther than the mouth. I did carry on with Spanish Guitar for a countable distance but it is all a part of mashed up dreams. I would have loved to pick up the guitar now but for a crazy accident which has rendered my left index finger unusable. (This finger plays critical roles in various formations).

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    1. That’s so tragic. How about some other instrument then? Flute, maybe? I have some problem with my knees and am wondering if I will be able to sit cross-legged for any length of time. I am hoping I should be able to: when the spirit is willing, the flesh better co-operate 😀

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  5. You are so right. Music has amazing healing powers. I wish i knew at least one instrument.Unfortunately, I am a dud when it comes to playing or singing.

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    1. Come on, only vocal music requires one to be able to carry a tune have a good voice. For any instrument, all you need is interest and a musical instrument — literally. Why not give it a shot?

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  6. Veena… first thing that comes from to me is saraswati pooja/navratri bcoz only during that i sorta play it.

    Learning from mom has its own disadvantages from music point of view. The discipline towards it was lacking and i could evade mom a strict regime. i always wanted to get to next level fast without enough practice. Mom realized it and encouraged to take up vocal.

    as far as the relating veena to driving… i feel its similar. i played after a decade in my friend’s sisters wedding.. i was able to pull it off decently. Please be my inspiration to start again 😉 This blog gave me an itinerary – * need to get the veena repaired for mom 🙂

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    1. You too Archana? It is nice to know that someone went from veena to vocal, unlike me. Hope you enjoyed that too. you played like a concert at the wedding? Wow! I can’t be anywhere close. I only played as a pastime and enjoyed it.

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      1. not exactly like a concert … that puts pressure to perform.. even i am a person who sings or does anything for the fun of it rather than to perform. i feel the beauty is ruined that way.

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        1. I understand how you feel too. So got the veena repaired yet?

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  7. Reminded me of old times when a music teacher used to come to our house to teach Harmonium to my sister. My father wanted her to sing Bhajans with full orchestra and for this we had instruments like TAANPURA, TABLA,KANJIRA etc and other children used to play those!

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    1. Sounds like the story of many South Indian families of the 60s 🙂 so which instrument did you play?

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  8. Hi there! Hope you are well! Am back in Mumbai now 🙂 and catching up on your blogs! Very timely this one was. I was contemplating taking up a music class at the ‘Fine arts auditorium’ nearby and I am not a music or dance or artistically inclined in anyway..just one of those things I should try maybe :). Do you think I need to have that inclination though?

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    1. I read and commented on your post a while back. You most certainly can learn any form of music if you want to. You already have the inclination but aptitude is something you can find only when you begin to learn. So go ahead and find out. All the best.

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  9. nice post ..
    btw mam, can yu please provide a google connect/follow button to this blog so that we dont have to manually type in the blog address each and every tym to vist the blog?
    thanks…

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    1. Thanks Nikhimenon. I will ask my ‘blog manager’ vinni to look into this. Please bear with me till then. 🙂

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  10. Mrs Muffet (panchali) · · Reply

    Don’t let it slip away. It’s time to rekindle your passion.. ))

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    1. Thanks Panchali. I plan to! Do you have a blog? I couldn’t find a URL…

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  11. This is a beautiful post.Why are you even thinking?Start playing Veena again.I know you can.:-)…

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    1. I am going to. But I am sure it will have to be learning from the start. sa ri ga ma…. 🙂

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  12. The ‘closet cacophonix’ in me identifies with this piece.The irony, our maternal opinions are optimistically identical.Cherished reading t’is piece.

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    1. Aren’t all maters identical in their optimism concerning their children? 😀 Loved the term closet cacophonix 🙂

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  13. Oh course you should try the Veena again…its like cycling na…you just cant forget it..okie???? *Tries to look stern and all that*

    I tried to learn singing..and with my cousin sis who is an excellent singer..so I can so understand what you wrote..without her all my flaws were visible 🙂

    so I concentrated on Bharatnatyam instead 🙂

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    1. Okie…*looking scared and all that*

      Wow, another dancer! Do you still dance (other than to the tune of R and her father??) 🙂 We always do well when it is something we enjoy, don’t we?

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  14. I too remember my parents sending me and my sisters for kathak classes. As kids we would perform at the local cultural fests. I think learning an instrument is simply gr8. Like u said it is very refreshing and takes away all stress if only for that much time.

    If u still can catch hold of a Veena try it again, for sake of your granddaughter 🙂

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    1. Oh you are dancer, are you? You haven’t said anything about having given it up, or have you? I have a friend who gave up dancing but kept in touch with it by teaching. She is happy to see her students perform on stage and she basks in their glory. The incentive of doing it for the little one is great and now I am more determined. Thanks Abha!

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  15. I think you just need to pick it up for it to come back to you. Do give it a try. I think you will be great at it. I remember my own music teacher at school was very strict. She used to keep a cane in hand and would give a sharp rap if someone slouched even a bit. She wanted us to sit with our back ramrod straight for almost an hour :). Since, I was good at singing, I genuinely enjoyed singing though my biggest lament is that I haven’t been able to learn Hindustani Classical singing. I hope to do that some day :). Nice post.

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    1. I am certainly going to give it a try and do my best. If I can take up something in my mid 50s, why can’t you at your age? Go ahead and take classes. It is easier when you are already a good singer. Teachers sometimes do spoil the fun of learning by being too strict don’t they? All the best for your lessons 🙂

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  16. Just pick up your veena and play it…..it’ll all come back to you I’m sure ! No doubt you’re being modest about your singing talent ! Would love to hear you sing when we meet next !

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    1. First I have to buy one. I have asked the brats to sponsor it 🙂 And no way will you hear a note from me unless you want the Indian cricket team…oops, ‘donkeys’ troop to your door 😀

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  17. U can if u want to…
    i remember this teacher who used to come to my house and teach me to sing…she did that in return of her son learning yoga from my mom…she used to come 3time a week at 5pm, my play time…I troubled her so much that she left in 2weeks telling my mom that I can never sing…:)…i got back my play time, and her son kept learning yoga for free …:)

    nice post

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    1. Swapping of teachers ? I can just see a reluctant kid glancing outside at his playmates and pretending to learn to sing 😀 Hope your mom enjoyed teaching yoga to the other boy 🙂

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  18. U’ll be able to.Don’t depend on others sayings(U end ur contents with a ?).U can shinema.

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    1. thank you so much Christy. Even when one is sure, a little bit of reassurance from friends helps, as I replied to Purba 🙂

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  19. You are not aiming to be a concert player. As long as you enjoy what you are doing, should it matter if you falter a little bit?

    And you can play all evening, feign tiredness and refuse to cook 😀

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    1. I had already made my mind up by the time I completed the post. But having friends endorse your decision makes it more delicious, doesn’t it? Even when i played then, it used to be only for myself and I would not play for critical listeners, for the same reason as you have given. I played for relaxation and enjoyment and didn’t want some comment to spoil the fun or make me more aggressive to do excel. Thanks for being there 🙂

      As for the last bit of advice the L&M would snatch my rolling pin and be after you because he already complains that cooking is the ONLY thing I do and the rest are his jobs 😀

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  20. Not sure about whether its similar to driving but one thing is for sure doing something what you want to do which used to give you peace of mind cannot be a wrong.
    Unlike your case I used to learn bharathanatyam non interestedly. Now after many years contemplating learning a lighter form of dance or music.

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    1. Isn’t anything that is forced on us a pain even if it is a beautiful thing otherwise? unlike you, my dear, it has been so many DECADES since I quit. That’s why I am a little apprehensive 🙂 One of my friends learnt to dance when she was in her 30s — she didn’t want to do a shoddy job even when dancing on occasions like weddings and mehendi. All the best!

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  21. reminds me of the time i was learning music and managed to get out of it! like you, i wasnt really interested, so i told my mom that if i went for the class, i couldnt possibly complete my homework….thankfully my mom realised soon enough that i wasnt really keen on music, and she gave up!

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    1. My mother had not been able to enjoy a relaxed life till in her 50s and she enjoyed the sound of music in the house. What better than her own daughter singing 🙂 That was the reason I went along. Good for you your mother understood the reluctance and agreed to stop the classes 🙂

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  22. You must must must. I am hardly a singer but as my wife says not ‘Betala’

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    1. Not betala but besura? 😛 Just kidding. I am seriously thinking of doing it. Thanks for the encouragement.

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