Lessons from the concert stage

Musicians spend years, sometimes even decades, as students before they become performers. They learn hundreds of compositions, practise endless hours, listen to thousands of concerts and recordings, hone their manodharma, even brainstorm with their peers — you’d think all that would fully equip them to become performing musicians. But it doesn’t — at least, not enough. For there are certain things that a performer learns for himself/herself only by virtue of performing. It takes experience gained on the stage to learn many vital things that make a good performing musician.

In this article I make a list of the things that the concert stage teaches a performer, with inputs from two musicians — young Vivrd Prasanna (winner of Carnatic Music Idol Junior 2014 and disciple of Shri Neyveli Santhanagopalan)  and Akshay Padmanabhan (vocalist of repute and currently a disciple of Shri P.S. Narayanaswamy).

Planning and time management

Planning a concert is easier said than done. The chances of the prepared song list falling short of or exceeding the allocated time are high, because there are factors one simply cannot account for when drawing up the song list — the accompanists may play for longer or shorter than anticipated, the concert may begin late, the musician performing in the next slot may arrive late forcing one to extend the performance…the possibilities are nearly endless! Vivrd agrees. His first concert, though all of ten minutes in duration, taught him the importance of planning and time management. “It is still green in my memory because of all the effort I put in — practising the two krithis two months in advance, spending hours with my guru to ensure the sangathis were right and the raga bhava was intact, rehearsing with the accompanists at least ten times, making sure the tempo was just right so I didn’t exceed or fall short of the duration…I could go on and on! I can’t believe the effort we as a team — my guru, parents, accompanists and I — had to put in for those ten minutes!”

“In one of my later concerts,” he continues, “I was given 1 hour and 30 minutes, but finished in less than an hour and 15! I started paying more attention to time management after that.”

Vivrd at Cleveland

Vivrd in concert at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival 2015

For some musicians, micro-planning helps — finish the ‘sub-main’ x minutes into the concert, begin the ‘main’ y minutes into the concert and so on. Akshay raises a valid point: “Once an artist performs concerts of different durations — 1.5 hours, 2 hours, 3 hours, etc. — he learns how to render the same krithi differently in different time formats!”

Stage mannerisms

Many performers acquire their mannerisms from their guru. Disagree? Watch Sangita Kalanidhi Sanjay Subrahmanyan in concert and his shishya Sandeep Narayan. Or Shri T.M. Krishna and his shishya Rithvik Raja.

In my own case, I realised I had to keep my flailing arms under control when I nearly toppled the microphone in a few concerts. I didn’t realise how eloquent I was with my gestures before I became a performer, because practice sessions are never with a microphone!Akshay 1

Akshay’s guru Shri PSN has taught him an effective way around. “My guru taught me to maintain good stage presence — he would advise me to sing in front of a mirror and correct my facial expressions when I sing certain phrases,” he says.

Kalapramanam

Believe it or not, it is only when you perform with accompanists that you realise that maintaining the exact same kalapramanam in a piece from start to finish is no easy task! “Maintaining a tight kalapramanam is very difficult for everyone — from amateurs to seasoned professionals. The right kalapramanam gives life to a rendition. I practise with a metronome, which helps me maintain the kalapramanam in which I choose to sing,” Akshay says.

Akshay in concert with Shri V. Sanjeev, Shri Trichur Narendran and Shri Sundarkumar

Akshay in concert with Shri V. Sanjeev, Shri Trichur Narendran and Shri Sundarkumar

Sensing the pulse of the audience

For anyone who performs in the hope of impressing their audience, nothing is more motivating than attentive rasikas who are shaking their heads, swaying or tapping their feet appreciatively to the music. And perhaps nothing more demotivating than rasikas sitting listlessly, reading their newspapers or looking bored. A performer gains the ability to read these gestures, and with it the confidence to deviate from the planned song list, as he/she gains concert experience. Akshay 2“In order to be able to change the song list, one must build a healthy repertoire and must have practised all songs well enough to neatly execute them,” Akshay says.

In his Season 2015 concerts, Vivrd had the audience request songs that either he wasn’t planning to sing or weren’t in his repertoire! “I learnt two things from this,” Vivrd says. “One, to expand my repertoire. And two, to be ready to sing any krithi that I’ve learnt, at any time!”

Audio system issues

The ability to deal with audio system issues is a skill that every musician should possess. Every performer inevitably faces audio system issues — of varying kinds and magnitudes — in one concert or the other. The audio system may fail in entirety, one or more microphones may give way during the course of the concert (and the audio engineer may then walk right up to the microphones while the performer is in the middle of the song and try to set them right), the monitors may emit high pitched shrieks when the performers are least expecting them, the balance on the monitors may be off resulting in the performers not being able to hear themselves clearly, or worse still — there may be no monitors for the performers at all! Any of these scenarios can catch the best of musicians off guard. It takes intense concentration and a lot of experience to get through such situations with equanimity, not letting it affect one’s manodharma, and simultaneously present a good concert!

Inspiration from musicians on stage 

Fellow musicians play a vital role in helping one develop as a musician. The ideas one gets from the musicians on stage help kindle one’s creativity — an important contributor in a musician’s evolution.

Recently, Akshay has been performing with Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna, another disciple of Shri P.S. Narayanaswamy and a star vocalist himself, on the mridangam. “Being a vocal artist who learnt the mridangam (from Karaikudi Mani sir), Balamuralikrishna is able to appreciate the way masters have lifted a song to a different level based on their knowledge of the vocalist’s rendition. We discuss these things a lot and it has helped me shape my ideas on rendering a krithi, ragam, neraval or swaram in an entirely different perspective from how I perceived them earlier. Balamuralikrishna and I also practise a lot together. We have these ‘sadhakam sessions’ at my place with many other artists; they are spearheaded by vidwan Shri B. Sundarkumar who is a mentor to both Balamuralikrishna and me and advises us on both mridangam and vocal music.”

Akshay performing with Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna on the mridangam at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha

Akshay performing with Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna on the mridangam at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha

Vivrd 1Young musicians also learn a lot from merely sitting on stage in their gurus’ concerts. This December Season, Vivrd had that opportunity. “When I sat behind my guru, the learning was totally different to when I’m performing. The handling of krithis and sangathis was very different to what he taught in class; I learned a lot about how to deliver. His control over layam and and interactions with the accompanists was amazing and inspired me a lot.”

A lot of other factors go into shaping a musician as well. Akshay and Vivrd’s gurus take time off their schedules to listen to their shishyas perform and give them feedback.

Vivrds guru Shri Neyveli

Vivrd’s guru Shri Neyveli Santhanagopalan listens to him perform at Margazhi Maha Utsavam 2015

“I had the good fortune of having PSN sir attend my Season concerts even when I had not given him prior information. He takes special care of all his students by encouraging them and checking on their progress at their performances during the Season. In that regard I would say all his students consider themselves blessed to be learning from him. Many a time he has given me positive feedback and also told other rasikas and students in the concert hall the things they should observe/learn. If there’s anything he wants us to correct though, he lets us know when we meet for class.”

Akshay with his guru Shri P.S. Narayanaswamy. Also in the picture are Abhishek Raghuram and Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna

Akshay with his guru Shri P.S. Narayanaswamy. Also in the picture are Abhishek Raghuram and Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna (disciples of Shri PSN) and Shri B. Purushottam (kanjira)

Akshay has also had very fruitful interactions on ragam tanam pallavis with musicians like Prof. T.R. Subramaniam, Smt. Suguna Purushothaman and Shri K.N. Shashikiran. Vivrd, on the other hand, has benefited immensely from participating in and winning high profile contests such as Carnatic Music Idol and the Cleveland Aradhana competitions.

Yet, they agree, the concert stage is a very unique teacher and motivator. Vivrd puts it simply and succinctly: “The more I perform, the more I want to learn; the more I learn, the more I want to perform. Performing and learning complement each other.”

Akshay sums it up neatly. “Performing — and simultaneously listening to others’ concerts — keeps me motivated to learn more, practise more and work on things I have not tried before. It adds to my music ‘dictionary’, inspires creativity and inculcates a spirit of healthy competition.”

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