8 Amazing Tips from Masters to Master a Carnatic Composition

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Learning a new composition is a fun exercise, and whether you are a seasoned performer or a novice, there are some essential points to keep in mind. Here are some fantastic tips gathered from legendary musicians which are sure to benefit you. Read on. Don’t forget to checkout our handy checklist at the end of this article.

1. Learn from authentic sources 
- Do not take shortcuts.

  • Learn from a reputed teacher with well-established credentials. It’s important to instill strong foundations at the initial stages to avoid years of unlearning later.
  • Learning from multiple sources like youtube can be confusing and ultimately detrimental to your progress. Avoid it at all costs.
  • Learning under the guidance of a reputed guru for several years ensures strong foundations and the ability to explore advanced.

2. Observe - Develop your ears 
first and foremost.

  • Give your full attention to the teacher and try to absorb as much as possible by listening to the music’s finer details.
  • Avoid looking at the notation when learning. This will only distract you from developing a sharp sense of hearing and absorbing the nuances.
  • By receiving feedback from your teacher during live learning, you can avoid a lot of mistakes in the subsequent practice period.
  • If you are learning from a recording, try to follow the same methods mentioned above. Get your rendition corrected by the teacher before proceeding to practice and polish the composition to avoid unlearing mistakes later.

3. Get the Full Picture - a bird’s eye view of the composition.

  • It’s a good practice to listen to renditions of the song/composition by high-caliber artists before attempting to learn it. Try to listen to a variety of styles and interpretations by vocalists as well as instrumentalists.
  • You will be able to draw inspiration from the various artists you have listened to. Look at the overall presentation and absorb the overall melody , gait and ambience of the piece rather than getting caught up in the actual details.
  • Try to read up about the composer as well to understand the context and style of the composition. This will help you adopt the correct learning approach. Some compositions should be presented simply and elegantly with minimal frills. Others might even demand exact reproduction to retain the beauty and authenticity . A good teacher will be able to guide you on the right approach for every composition.
Side Note: Consult your teacher/guru to ensure that your listening choices are consistent with your learning style. Listening to anything and everything could sometimes prove to be counterproductive too!

4. Raga is Absolute - Understand the ins and outs of the raga before learning the composition

  • First, learn to sing the raga scale with the correct gamakas (oscillations) and spacings.
  • Understand the moorchana (key phrases) of the raga. These are short phrases usually sung as swaras (notes) to grasp the flow of notes throughout the raga scale quickly.
  • Consider brushing up on simple compositions like geetams in the same raga. Varnams are also excellent resources to understand the raga in-depth.

5. Think big but start small - Break it up into smaller chunks

  • Instead of learning the entire composition in one go, go slow and master smaller sections before proceeding to the next segment. Grasp the nuances.
  • Familiarising yourself with the song by listening to your teacher’s recording multiple times gives you a good foundation before you begin to learn it.
  • Write your notation to develop a clear picture of the phrases, including eduppu (starting point), notes (swaras), spacings (kaarvais), lyrics (sahitya), and melodic progression. (sahityas)
  • Sometimes, speaking the lyrics out aloud with the proper pronunciation and splits can help you sing with the right diction before singing/playing them.
  • As you successfully master each section, practice the previous sections along with the newly learned segment and keep going that way till you learn the full song.

6. Get feedback from your teacher.

  • Once you have learned the entire song, receive feedback from your teacher.
  • Your teacher will not only point out mistakes but might even suggest alternate options for musical passages based on your skill level.
  • You will also learn a lot by observing how your teacher corrects other students in a group setting.

7. Smart practice - Practice makes perfect. - when done correctly

  • Once you have obtained feedback from your teacher, try going over the entire song slowly. Starting with a slower tempo will ensure that you avoid the all too common pitfall of rushing through and missing the finer, often overlooked details.
  • Identify the problem areas and work on them diligently and repeatedly. After polishing them, play through the section to smooth over any chinks.
  • Practice with a metronome to improve your rhythm skills and maintain an even tempo throughout the song. Use the metronome only as a practice aid, do not rely on it for performances.
  • Do not neglect your warm-up exercises to ensure effortless delivery in all octaves.
  • Be alert of shruti lapses (going off-key) by being mindful of the tanpura.
  • Recording yourself is the best way to identify errors that may have escaped your notice while practicing; lapses in diction, tunefulness, tempo, and raga technicalities.
  • By this time, the composition should be committed to memory. If you still need to glance at your notes,work harder to get rid of that habit.
  • Take a break when you need it. Practice should not feel like a punishment. Enjoying the process and moving forward with the goal to discover new ways to uncover the beauty of the song will motivate you to keep going.

8. Now that you’ve mastered the science, 
focus on the art!

  • Once you’ve mastered the technicalities, the real work starts now. It’s time to breathe life into your composition.
    • Understand the meaning of the lyrics.
    • Observe how great artists emote through raga and lyrics. Observe the tempo. How do they add embellishments in rhythm and melody?
    • Feel the music and make it your own. If you enjoy your music, so will your listeners.
As all great artists would attest, the learning process is never-ending. Endless treasures are waiting to be discovered in your composition; it’s up to you to find them.

Composition Learning CheckList

  • Can I sing the raga scale correctly?
  • Can I sing key phrases from the raga?
  • Do I know simpler compositions in this raga, like geetams?
  • Have I listened to renditions of this composition by high-caliber artists?
  • Can I recite the lyrics clearly with the right pronunciation and diction?
  • Have I notated the song?
  • Have I gotten the song corrected by my teacher?
  • Am I singing in the right kalapramanam? (tempo)
  • Am I singing in tune?
  • Am I singing with bhavam (musicality or expressiveness)?
  • Have I understood the meaning of the lyrics?
  • Have I practiced the composition at least 50-60 times before presenting it?
  • Am I so thorough that I can easily teach the composition to someone else?
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