Invalid Article ID. Unable to display article. Sound of India, The Best Reference Site for Indian Classical Music
Sound of India banner


Article: A Vocalist is Born

By Zekria Rahin

The doyens of the art continue to echo this aphorism that it takes more than a few life times to understand Indian Classical Music. And learning Indian Classical Music is an endless journey. Knowing that itís only possible to live one life time, one can only be a student of the art. Indian Classical Music is a spiritual discipline that is adopted as a way of life. Itís not about entertainment, wealth, and fame. It is a path to connect souls and build personal relationships with the higher powers at emotional and spiritual levels.

Learning Indian Classical Music is an oral tradition thatís passed on through patience, obedience, and riyazat (Spiritual Perseverance). Today the Guru-Shishya Parampara (The very soul of the oral tradition of India, which embodies the living and learning relationship between master and pupil) approach is not practical, so finding a knowledgeable guru whose teaching style is effective is imperative. A lot of new comers to the world of Indian Classical Music make the mistake of limiting themselves by only wanting to learn from well established performers. Constantine D'Amato who trained former world heavy weight boxing champion Mike Tyson never had a professional fight himself, but he produced world champions at almost every weight category. The key is to find a knowledgeable guru who can effectively teach both the theoretical and practical aspects of the art in a systematic way. All though there are different approaches to learning, one way is this systematic approach:

- First is Voice Culture. Voice Culture is a method of taming the voice, which will help develop swar (Musical Notes) accuracy, voice modulation, proper breathing, and extending the range. Every Gharana (School of Music) has adopted its own signature exercises. These exercises will be lifelong friends of the vocalist.

- Once the voice is somewhat tamed, the guru (Teacher) starts with the simple technicalities to build the musical foundation. Any compromise will destabilize the foundation. This phase of learning is the most time consuming element of riyazat. And if itís not enjoyed, the student will drop out. During the initial phase of learning technicalities, the focus will be on learning proper akaar (The aah sound), proper pronunciation of the swars, simple alankars (rendering a specific combination of notes in succession), alapi (A slow rhythmless elaboration), and sometimes a chota khyal (Classical composition in medium to fast tempo) in a common raaga that has fewer restrictions such as Yaman or Bhairav. These raagas have a lot of flexibility for exploration and expansion.

- As the student develops a good understanding of these elements, the guru gradually exposes the student to more complex exercises such as extended alankaric phrases eventually up to 16 or more notes. This will help the student develop a sense of spontaneity and will invoke creativity. Sargams (The rendering of 1 -4 notes per beat cycle) will then automatically derive from here on. Memorizing sargams is the most counter productive way of learning because itís limiting. Since Indian Classical music is mostly improvisation, fixed sargams and fixed alapis donít work. People who do memorize will soon find out that they are constantly running out of material.

- Then comes the other embellishments such as taans (Akaaric Sargam - fast rendering of 1-4 notes ), gamaks (Stressing effect of a note in taans), meends (Gliding of notes), and katkas (The sudden skipping of an in-between note) and so on. Rendering taans properly will take years of rigorous practice. Creating the dhana (special vibratory effect), speed, accuracy and timing is somewhat dependent on your vocal anatomy. But never give up practicing what you canít do. Riyaz is practicing what you already know how to do and trying to do what you canít do. Some vocalists like Ustad Salamat Ali Khan have a rare gift for speed, Ustad Amir Khan for clarity, and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan for true dhana. So donít be discouraged if you canít do it all. You will use your strengths later on to create your own style.

- The final phase of learning is putting all these elements together and creating a unique musical identity. Adopting the style of the guru is common, but copying the guru is against the principles of learning. Most vocalists pursue to become performers and rarely become wealthy and famous, but the majority continue on the path of riyazat and enjoy the art for itself.

Some Tips

1. Do your riyaz daily. Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan sahib used to say that if you miss your riyaz one day, you will know. If you miss it two days, your friends will know. If you miss it three days, the whole world will know.
2. Enjoy your riyaz. If you donít enjoy the learning process, it becomes work. It should be enjoyment.
3. Be patient, humble, and committed.
4. Find the right guru whose intention is not monetary but transferring of knowledge. Indian Classical Music is not a commercial art. Pay your gurus for their time. Their effort is priceless.
5. Listen to good music and avoid what you donít like. Listening is part of education.
6. Music is a universal art. Remove barriers such a race, gender, religion, politics, and biases from music. If you are a Hindu, teach a Muslim, and if you are a Muslim, teach a Hindu.
7. Never compromise.
8. Donít compare your self
9. Donít set timeline goals, just be committed
10. Donít worry about wealth, fame, or performance. If it happens, consider it a bonus.
11. Donít be impressed by vocal acrobatics. Feel the emotions and moods in music.
12. Expose your friends and family to Classical Music. Support other artists regardless of their musical abilities. This is how the art will survive.
13. Provide honest feedback if solicited. Donít be critical to judge or pass on judgment.

By Zekria Rahin. Email your comments to



© Copyright 2000-2003, All rights reserved.