What does it take to make a concert successful?
This is a question that has crossed the minds of several artists through their musical journey.
A special session on this topic was conducted by Sangeet Samrat Chitravina N. Ravikiran as part of the Global Carnatic Summer Camp 2022, organized by Acharyanet. This was attended in large numbers by students, performers and music connoisseurs from various parts of the world, virtually.
Ravikiran ji gave invaluable insights into the right process for success, which shed new light on the pillars of a successful concert. I share with you a synopsis of this wonderful interaction.
How to judge a good concert
GN Balasubramaniam once wrote, ' What you like is not appreciation. Appreciation is informed awareness.'
'One needs to know what to like and understand the yardsticks of the system. Students should know what critical appreciation is. For performers, it is essential to listen to dozens of good concerts by great artists and observe what constitutes and contributes to that success.' said Ravikiran ji.
The right process
Many of us may have wondered why we have not got the desired results, despite our hard work at a particular point in time. Ravikiran ji explained that the processes to be successful in life must be followed exactly as they are, as the result can never be right if the process is wrong. It may appear correct accidentally or in a very localized way for some time, but it will only be temporary. For long-term success, one has to understand the processes from their Gurus and then implement them exactly as they are in order to yield the right results for enduring excellence.
The 5 A's for a successful concert
Artists should be in good form. But they can have off days. No one can expect hundred percent from an artist all the time as there are so many factors like travel, fatigue etc. But this is only for seasoned performers. For students, there is no excuse, and they have to be in their best form all the time.
A good concert artist is one who may be out of form but can still succeed. Ravikiran ji further adds, " I once attended a morning concert by the great Gangubai Hangal ji. Usually, it is difficult for any seasoned artist to be warmed up at that time of the day. Gangubai Hangal ji was already past her 80s then. She started slowly, but in the next 10-15 minutes, she built up her form so brilliantly." So a good artist should aim for a successful concert by overcoming the hurdles and following the example of such legendary artists.
Sometimes when the artist is off-colour, the accompanists can play so well, inspire them to their form, and get them into the mood. Hence, choosing the right accompanists who complement the main artist is essential. Accompanists have to be of matching quality to the main artists. Then they can change the mood of the entire concert and take it to a different height by stimulating and energising the main artist.
Acoustics and Venue
Artists naturally experience various kinds of acoustics at different venues. Often, artists get put off when they cannot hear themselves clearly due to the average quality of the monitors or the poor quality of microphones. That is where good accompanists can play a role in lifting the concert.
One should always remember that audiences are not there to sympathise with us. If they do, we should understand that something is wrong with the artist and their music is weak. Young artists must be in the best form at all times and put in the hard work to achieve that. There can be no excuses on stage. Ravikiran ji said: We have to be of a high class and get to a very high level of Vidvat, Musicianship and Delivery. Unless we achieve that, people will not invite us repeatedly.
He emphasised the importance of the CID formula :
Content, Intent and Delivery
Content has to be very strong.
Delivery has to be perfect.
Intent has to be honest and earnest.
He further explained: For content, we need to know what is the best music. The opening phrase itself should be distinctive and strong enough for the audience to identify the raga. One must feel a serious responsibility towards protecting the raga grammar, tala essentials, maintenance of tempo, and personality of the raga, with aesthetics at the forefront. Next, we should know what part of the music can be factual, suggestive and dramatic. For legendary artists, the element of drama will be minimal. They will not unnecessarily dramatize, elongate or exaggerate the bhava of a raga, to score brownie points. There is no element of over-emotion. ‘It is very important to know where the stop sign is. Awareness of the stop sign is very important for one's musical journey. The music should be informedly evocative.’
Note and Tone Purity
Ravikiran ji emphasised the importance of Note and Tone. Both Note and Tone should be extremely pure and crystal clear. Shruti shuddham is the bread and butter of Hindustani and Carnatic music, and being pitch perfect is a prerequisite for any music. The right tone for the particular part of every phrase is also very crucial. The first and foremost quality which attracts audiences to any artist is a pleasing tone.
Respecting the Stage
The Stage is not a bunch of steps in the auditorium. It is a bunch of steps in our life. At every stage, we have to respect the stage. Whether it is a senior artist or a primary level artist, one disqualifies oneself if the attitude is not right. The 'sabha guaram' should always be maintained, says Ravikiran ji.
The sense of tala and alertness in each finger count should be of the highest order. For instrumentalists, the tala should flow in their instruments. There can be no excuses for missing a single beat. As it only reflects a lack of respect for laya. The tala can never be paused in between for taking a breath. These fundamentals may seem very obvious, but these are the very things in which artists make mistakes. We have to be extremely respectful of laya, and there should be love and respect for anything we choose to do.
'The precision and enthusiasm in saying 'Takadhimi' is itself an advertisement of your quality. That will impact your mental state, and how you say and feel the rhythm in your mind and body.' said Ravikiran ji.
Ideally, we should know the meaning of whatever we are playing or singing. Not just the surface meaning, but we should do due diligence and research to bring the appropriate bhavam in our singing in accordance with lyrics and its emotion.
Strength in Improvisation
All the Manodharma aspects - Alapana, Kalpana swarams, Nereval and Tanam should be very strong.
'Alapana has been a very strong backbone for many artists to warm up the mind into the raga. Just a short alapana (sketch) of a couple of phrases will showcase your musicianship. The introductory phrases will portray what kind of artist you are and how you visualize the raga. These phrases should bring out both the signature of the raga and your own signature. After that, one should be able to do at least 10-15 minutes of brief alapana. Artists like T N Rajarathinam Pillai did 45 minutes alapanas by regional elaborations. We need to know a lot of phrases within that particular region. By giving a karvai on a note, we establish that note in the audience's minds. The intent is communicated by establishing the note. Then a lot of phrases are sung around that note and are weaved together. So we build tension and then give relief.'
Ravikiran ji also spoke about how a lot of great vocalists were influenced by Nadaswaram, like Semmangudi Srinivas Iyer and others.
Ravikiran ji says, ’It is not just a bunch of swaras put together. Every phrase has to bring out the raga. So we must practice the phrasings accordingly with the right gamakams to bring out the essence of the raga. A recording of the great GNB Sir was played to demonstrate how short rounds of kalpana swarms can be done'.
'We have to have full command of the song and structure of the line that we are elaborating upon. The crux of Manodharma is bringing the Raga to the table in everything that we do. We have to make the Raga ours by practice and hard work. We are sharing the time and space with so many millions of people who have equal ownership in that raga' said Ravikiran ji.
How to plan a concert
Planning a concert is one of the most crucial elements in the life of any artist. Ravikiran ji provided a very in-depth understanding of how a concert can be intelligently planned with precision and perfection. He displayed the concert lists of legendary artists like K.V. Narayanaswamy, M.S.Subbulakshmi and others for the students to observe and study how they planned their concerts.
'It should have varieties in Raga, Tala, Composer, and contrasts between ragas. The right sequence for a concert is very important. It is a combination of classroom knowledge + listening, + thinking. All these are required for becoming a successful performer.' says Ravikiran ji.
KVN Sir's Begada varnam was played to illustrate how a concert can take off brilliantly right from the beginning, with the tempo being upbeat at the start.
'Great artists take off right at the start. They will not treat the initial songs or the varnam as the warm-up piece. The number of details that KVN Sir brought into the raga, even at the fast tempo without being stressed for time, was phenomenal. And there was no over embellishment,' said Ravikiran ji.
'Only if we give 100% at home, we can aim to get 100% on stage. Rakti Ragas is a must in the concert for a good musician. The last 20 minutes should be reserved for post main songs like Jhavali, Tillana, Bhajan, Tiruppugazh. It is essential to understand that one cannot change the concert order and do unnecessary wrong experiments as that is disrespect to the art and upturning of values. Hence one must stick to the standard concert order and prepare accordingly keeping in mind the variety, contrast and proportion'.
Choice of songs for a Vocalist vs an Intrumentalist
Ravikiran ji explained that both vocalists and instrumentalists should sing or play 80-85% of familiar songs, to get more appreciation from the audience at the initial stages of their careers.
'After becoming well known, artists should take serious responsibility to popularise some rare songs. Every concert should have something unique which has not been done before and it should be extremely classy all the time.’ he said.
Being a performer of both Hindustani and Carnatic music, the most priceless takeaway for me is developing the ability to plan a concert in the most enriching way, by inculcating all the essential ingredients which were so beautifully explained by Ravikiran ji. It was one of the most enlightening sessions, which made us realise that a concert is not just a bunch of items put together to be delivered. But it is a reflection of an artist's knowledge, maturity, hard work, thinking, planning and execution.
“The secret of almost every successful artist - irrespective of region and community - was the mindful effort to channelize a major part of one’s time and energy to empower oneself with the ability to attract audiences by providing unique listener experiences . This is the key, no matter the era. “ - Chitravina N. Ravikiran