Saturday, June 1, 2013

On Singing (and Playing Harmonium) in Varanasi

After singing and learning how to play the harmonium from a classical Indian music teacher, I started to get a small feel for the differences between classical Western and classical Indian music and teaching styles.

Varanasi is broken into several Ghats which each specialize in different things such as cremations or commerce.  In the Harish Chandra Ghat, there is a music store where we saw a classical Indian music performance and the next day we took classical Indian music lessons.  In the US, I have had a lot of experience with singing/chorus and playing the piano, so I decided to take classical Indian voice lessons and a harmonium lesson.  The main difference between Western and Indian music that I could tell (based off these short lessons) is the scale that is used.  Most people are familiar with "Do re me fa so la ti do" (think Sound of Music), but Hindi classical music uses a "Sa re ga ma pa dha mi sa" scale.  The actual notes that are being sung/played are the same, but the order of these notes are different.  If I can find somewhere where I can get on YouTube, I'll edit this post and put a link to hear the difference between the scales.  There is also a difference in the approach of classical Indian notes compared to classical Western music.  My teacher explained that classical Indian music is powerful and should "feel good".  Hitting the correct notes is important, but there needs to be power and force behind the notes.  Hindi Classical music is often used as devotional pieces so the approach to singing, enunciation, and emphasis are different from Western Classical music.  In a way, power is more important than precision in Indian music.

In terms of the actual lessons themselves, they were also taught in a different style than I was used to in the US.  During the voice lessons, my teacher would sing something and have me repeat it afterwards.  Instead of being given sheet music, or singing along with my teacher, it was more of a call and response sort of lesson.  He would correct me if I made a mistake, but we went at a very fast pace.  Perhaps because he knew that I would only have one or two lessons, he went quickly over several things rather than going into detail about any one lesson.  The same teacher gave me a harmonium lesson as well.  A harmonium is an instrument that is like a cross between an accordian and piano (picture/better description: ).  Having played a little bit of piano, the biggest adjustment was changing my fingering.  On the piano, you typically start with your thumb, however on the harmonium you typically start with your index finger.  My teacher explained that although the keyboard on the harmonium is almost exactly like a piano, the different size of the keyboard and the typical "sa re ga ma" scalse makes starting with the index finger the proper tequniqe.  It was really difficult for me to break the habit of playing the harmonium "piano style"!

Throughout the lesson, my teacher said that it takes years of work to become good at and to master Indian classical music, and that it takes more than one or two lessons to get a good grasp of it.  I completely agree, as it took me nine years of music lessons to even get a basic grasp of Western Classical music.  Later tonight we will get to see a classical singing and dancing performance at this same shop!  The music shop is definitely one of my favorite places in Varanasi.

Until next time!


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