Future of voice science depends on ability to make it a subject of common enquiry - Ananth Vaidyanathan
He was born in Jamshedpur in 1957 to doctor parents passionately interested in Carnatic music. His father, a very good untrained singer, taught him his first songs. He started training in Carnatic music locally at the age of seven and later studied under T.M. Thiagarajan in Chennai. Parween Sultana’s music pushed him to learn Hindustani music. After an MBA at XLRI, he joined ITC Sangeet Research Academy as a music scholar under Pandit Nivruttibua Sarnaik of the Jaipur gharana. Somewhere along, he damaged his voice. Thanks to Pandit Sunil Bose, who had studied some Western voice principles and evolved his own method for Indian music, his voice was back. Well, Ananth Vaidyanathan says he owes Pandit Sunil Bose very much for getting a perspective of the Indian singing voice. But his genuine success in learning Western voice culture and applying it to Indian music happened only when he discovered Prof. Peter Calatin in Ireland in 1991. Well, Vaidyananthan started singing in 1993 and teaching voice in 2003. From 2007, he has been training contestants on various television shows across India with good results that establish the power of a systematic voice method. Today, he is a noticeable voice guru in the Indian scene. Here, he discusses candidly with K.T. Jagannathan the various aspects of voice culture. Read on
What is `voice culture’?
Voice culture is the ‘unlocking’ of the natural potential of the human singing voice. The singing voice cannot and need not be ‘constructed’. It exists as genetic potential in terms of general structure in the human organism and as specific potential in the musically talented. Voice culture proceeds to awaken and orchestrate the various neuro-muscular processes into a co-ordinated ability to create pre-meditated tones and mechanical movements that translate as facile and aesthetic singing. Inevitably, a voice also has to be cultured to suit particular genres and styles. This is the secondary level of voice culture – better called moulding of the voice or moulding of the mechanical abilities and responses to suit a style.
Why do you need the `voice to be tended’?
If by tending the voice you mean nursing the voice, I do NOT believe in that apart from using the voice in a physiologically conducive manner in both speech and music. I do not believe in voice care through fear of disease and disorder – a kind of mollycoddling with mufflers and hot water bags, gargling and food choices. It is like any other body part – use your limbs properly by moving around and being active – they will be okay. If you tiptoe around or hibernate in bed, your legs will be in trouble. No amount of nursing or stroking or wrapping in mufflers and hot water bags, or honey and pepper is going to help. The nature of nature is to gravitate towards health. Such health, or balanced functioning, is achieved when the organism operates according to its genetic coding. Be active and fully expressed. Live. You and your voice will be healthy.
What are the normal steps in voice culture?
Broad steps in voice culture:
- Creating an awareness in the trainee that
a) The human voice is a singing voice.
b) A person gifted with musical abilities has a naturally gifted voice apparatus and propensities that need to be unlocked, awakened and orchestrated.
- Understanding and experiencing the distinction between the communicative (speaking), expressive (laughing, crying, hooting), semi-expressive (shouting, calling) and singing voices.
- Understanding the concept and natural tenets of a collapsed or flaccid vocal apparatus and an erected apparatus ready to sing.
- Distinguishing between the tonal and mechanical dimensions of voice and voice training.
- Understanding and achieving production of tones across the range, including so called chest, mid and head tones.
- Understanding breathing and the relationship between breathing and singing in depth.
- Achieving tone production as extensions into phrases and musical lines and passages – songs and improvisation.
- Articulation – vowels and consonants – in the realms of speech and song.
- Reverse rationalization of existing musical styles and genres with the help of understanding the vocal hygiene and voice principles. This is especially applicable to classical music where the voice science enables us to appreciate the dynamics of pre-microphone voice culture – the era which determined the character of raga music. Voice culture the way I conceive and teach facilitates the analysis of older styles and cultures of singing as available in recordings of the pre-50s era and help us derive the timeless principles of Indian vocal music.
Why do people come to a voice `therapist’?
Voice therapy is required when the voice apparatus develops a physiological issue – usually related to the health of the vocal chords or the membranes attached to the vocal chords. The singing voice gets into trouble primarily due to erroneous singing techniques, i.e. a style of voice production and mechanics that is not physiologically conducive and puts unnecessary pressure on the delicate vocal chords. For example, the ‘upward jamming’ of the vocal system – seen in singers whose veins in the neck stick out when reaching out to higher notes – is a situation ideal for creating vocal trouble over a period of time. Voice therapy here will entail making the person understand and achieve physiologically conducive voice production and culture, and then being able to relearn one’s style of singing to ensure that the voice is used in a proper manner. The latter is tougher due to the neuro-muscular conditioning and an inability to give up existing ideas.
I do not like to be called a voice therapist. I believe in the limitless healthy potential in a human voice and have experienced that correct singing always brings the voice out of trouble and takes it towards facility and skill. So, I am not a voice therapist. I am a musician who understands his own voice as an instrument and has been able to integrate the mental-aesthetic and physical dimensions of singing in myself to a meaningful degree across a variety of genres and styles – Hindustani and Carnatic classical, film music of all languages, styles of individual male and female film singers, folk music etc. I am able to guide others to do the same. That is it.
What kinds of people usually seek your help?
Eighty per cent are those who experience an insufficiency of some kind in their voices. They are able and often professional singers who wish to improve their tone, range and facility. The film music fraternity has shown more keenness to learn in the last few years, perhaps because the demands on the film music recording artistes are very specific. Twenty per cent are those who have developed problems of various kinds. But the solution is the same.
Is it a sustained process or one-off exercise?
It is a sustained process. And, it is endless. I consider myself a student of this subject. We are still far away from being able to gather all the learning into what can be called a holistic science of Indian voice culture. So, if I myself continue after 25 years to be a student, who can treat this as a one-off exercise?
If a solution could be found for a `broken voice’, why is that `voice-hit’ artistes don’t take this solution?
Well, many do. But many do not too. So, ask them. I believe it is, at one level, an issue of ignorance, at least very limited perception. If you do a Google search for ‘voice therapy’, you get information on medical treatment methods. ‘Voice engineering’ will yield information of telecommunication technology! But seriously speaking, the question is making me think about where I myself have failed in communicating the nature and availability of this subject to the music fraternity.
How do we judge the efficacy of voice therapy?
By the results, I guess. Proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Have you done any `codification’ of the result?
By codification if you mean maintenance of records of a person’s progress, primarily to establish the veracity and effectiveness of the methods, the answer is ‘no’. Firstly, I am not a great believer in keeping records for the sake of keeping records. I believe that understanding and the quality of thinking will generate excellence. Secondly, I am, by nature, a lazy and disorganized person who has done this work with very little help. So instead of wasting time and energy on recording what is going on, I live in the moment. Thirdly, I doubt if anybody, especially professionals, would be comfortable leaving records of their voices with me. So, I have never thought of it. For me, I am the living proof that this subject works like magic. And my vision for this subject is not centred around individuals and their insufficiencies and problems. My vision is for the music. This knowledge can enhance or extend the vocal limits of the music itself. That is my motivator. I always sensed that television is the platform to establish the magical powers of voice science, if I may call it that. Repeatedly, I have brought results on television and Vijay TV has been kind enough to put my face and words on television. The contestants over the last two seasons have made remarkable progress and I have been given the opportunity to explain some of my methods. So, a general idea that there is a subject of voice that generates good results in skills and ability has gained ground. If anybody goes on the net and downloads past and present episodes, the progress of many contestants is a testimonial to the power of this subject. That is codification enough. If by codification you are talking of typical lab methods, my caution is – do not treat this as a lab science that transfers the power of the ear to the eye. This is a skill that has to be learnt.
When people go to a `voice therapist’, does it mean that the vocal music teachers or teaching methodologies are not all that good?
That is not true. The traditional principles of voice production were excellent – that is why we have had great Indian voices that have manifested Indian music with such dramatic impact – MS, GNB, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, to name a few. One voice we lost in recent years – that of Sh. K.V. Narayanaswamy, was one of the most outstanding examples of how voice can be cultured and trained for the purpose of raga music. He did not possess a ringing tone. When he would start a concert, the tone would be almost breathy. But the principles of placement, mechanics and the principles of gamaka were outstanding – gamaka weaving into thaya or phrase. His manner of phrasing was classic – be it in Viriboni, Varugalamo, Krishna Nee Begane, Mayamma or Sri Subrahmanyana Namaste in Kambhoji. In this final Dikshitar kriti that I mention, listen to the final sangati in the pallavi – the manner in which he traverses clearly through each anuswaram that goes into the making of a gamaka in the rapid flow of a briga. I must also speak of Shri.T.M. Thiagarajan, under whom I studied for three years. In the very first lesson of Pagavari – the Hamsadhvani Varnam, he was very clear on how a Ga is to be articulated. He would not proceed to the next phrase till I got it right. And he understood the concept of tonal continuity in a phrase. The second kriti he taught me was Dhyaname in Dhanyasi. It was tough to come up to his expectations of phrase integrity with tonal continuity. Two kriti lessons from him I can never forget for the value I got in this aspect – Dasukovalena in Todi and Sankaracharyam in Sankarabharanam. I would say he also had a classic thaya sense, although the sound of his recalcitrant voice prevented listeners from appreciating his outstanding musicality. Another evening I will never forget is one impromptu private concert evening where I heard Tanjore Sankara Iyer – in 1977. The experience was mesmerizing – the manner in which the voice flowed like nectar to paint a phrase with delicate command. Another time, in around 1997, a rendition of Dhammasamvardhini by D.K. Pattammal bowled me over – it felt like a river of peace flowing. In around 1973 or so, a viruttam by Nedunuri Krishnamurthy – Sayankale Vanamthe Kusumithasamaye – in Kharaharpriya, Mohanam, Kapi and Sindhubhairavi. See, I remember this as if I heard it last evening! Such was the impact of the music. I mention all these instances as outstanding examples of voice culture the way I propagate it. Listen also to a Viruttam by N.C. Vasantakokilam and two kritis of M.S. Subbulakshmi – Sri Mahaganapati in Gowla in the opening of the Carnegie Hall live concert triple album and Koluvuneebhakti in Kedaragowla, the second song in the fifth album of Balaji Pancharatnamala.
Among contemporary musicians, the mike culture has generated a lot of new possibilities but has also precipitated a lot of problems and a bit of cultural revival needs to happen, at the professional level. Now, if you look at general music teaching that is available next door for the aspirant – so to speak – in group classes, often the teaching is indifferent not only in voice principles but general musical manifestation too. So my desire is to create a sponsored teachers’ training programme where voice principles and exercises are available to primary music teachers. Voice science is a vessel in which you place a musical style and deliver it to a student. Voice and music are one – they are not separate in my mind. In Western music, there is no vocal music training without voice training. They are completely integrated. Even among good Hindustani musicians, voice training is integral to music training within the perimeter of the style. Somehow in Carnatic music, for some reasons, voice consciousness took a back seat at some point. Which is why when I started this work in the early nineties, the most enthusiastic response came from the then young Carnatic musicians – Jayshree, Sanjay Subramanian, Vijay Siva, Unnikrishnan, Sudha Raghunathan and others - all of whom are on top today. They were keen to understand and pick up methods of voice culture that will enable them express their music with greater felicity and excellence. All of them interacted directly with my teacher Peter Calatin and it was a lively atmosphere of enquiry and debate. If the project had continued officially (it was a joint ITC – Ford Foundation project), their continued involvement could have been ensured. Unfortunately, the project officially shut down in 1995. I left ITC and kept the enquiry going only as an individual. I restarted the process in 2003 with the help of Shashi Kiran and Sowmya at Carnatica, where Srinivas and I met. Srini took up the cudgels on behalf of this subject and ensured that I get on Vijay TV. That has been of greatest benefit to the projection of this subject so far.
Pure classical music learners - how many of them seriously seek your help?
Some seniors continue to. Many juniors – say in their late twenties – have a progressive vision and are in touch. I find great enthusiasm among students now. But like I said earlier, I need to work on a proper communication about this subject. Somewhere I have got projected as a voice trainer and the subject is, perhaps, getting a bit blurred in general perception. I need to think about this.
I understand you are playing a major role in realty shows such as SuperHit Singers. Should I assume that youngsters with an eye on immediate awards and stuff like that only seek help from you?
No. Those keen to improve seek help. There may be those who show enthusiasm to humour me for whatever reason. But that will show up soon in the absence of tangible results. Those who show dramatic improvement are serious. Of course the idea of improving in general as a singer and the idea of immediate gratification through winning on the show are concomitant. What’s wrong with that? We play to win. My work is akin to a sports coach who helps sportsmen win games – not write books.
`Voice guru’ - Can this title get acceptance from pursuers of pure music?
It can. But the process will get facilitated if I sing and establish my own vocal skills and understanding. I am not doing that. That is a shortcoming in my overall strategy. I need to create events for select audiences where I present the basic features and benefits of voice culture with sufficient demonstrations of my own singing in various styles.
What are the problems you face in positioning yourself as a `voice guru’?
None that I am aware of. Frankly, this term `voice guru’ is a marketing exercise. I know that in the Indian context I have developed this subject to a great degree – especially in finding the meeting points of Western voice understanding and Indian generic features. But as far as the science of voice is concerned, I am a student – a voice shishya not voice guru. Frankly, only people like the late Husler qualify for the title voice guru. Even my teacher Peter Calatin considers himself a student of this science. So, who am I to be called a guru? It is just to challenge a number of so called voice experts that are mushrooming, especially in Mumbai, and a few here in the South, too. I must of course acknowledge the contribution of a few individuals that come to mind. First, Aruna Sayeeram. She started this enquiry long before I did. She finally found one Prof. Eugene Rabine in Germany and worked out a basic understanding for herself. We used to share deeply and extensively about our individual voice research journeys in the late eighties and nineties. She arranged for me to spend a few days with Rabine at his residence. Today, not many realize that the excellence she exhibits in her concerts has so much to do also with her understanding and development of her own voice over the years. For me, she is an excellent example of what voice science can contribute. I was charmed to hear her sing in August – her tone production, breath control, conscious integration of tone and vowel production and the overall sense of thoroughness in the physical dimension of music manifestation were of very high order. Second, Dr.S.A.K. Durga, who has toiled hard to bring awareness of the subject of Western vocal science to India. Today, for a lot of musicians, her name symbolizes voice culture and that is a beginning of enquiry. Third, Shri T.V. Gopalakrishnan. I know that he has interacted with my teacher in the early eighties when Peter first visited India on the invitation of Rukmini Devi Arundale at Kalakshetra. While I have not interacted with him and know nothing of his understanding, I acknowledge the fact that as a senior traditional musician he had the scientific perspective to enquire into this subject, study it and propagate it. It means a great deal. I must also acknowledge the contribution of Shashi Kiran and Sowmya, who are keenly interested in this subject and have been working in their own way to propagate it. Then, Vijay Siva. He was the one, as the energy behind the erstwhile YACM (Young Association of Carnatic Musicians), who helped me connect with all the musicians mentioned above – his colleagues. And, he has continued to be in serious enquiry over the years. He keeps in touch occasionally and updates himself on my latest learning. Unnikrishnan has also been in keen enquiry over the years. Srinivas, Karthik and Gopal Rao have spread the value of this subject extensively in the world of film music. Venugopal has been doing the same in Kerela. Successful musicians have to take up the cause of the subject – each one in his own way, with his or her own personal vision and beliefs.
What are your learning leading up to this title `voice guru’?
Greatest learning that comes to mind – Do not play God. I spent years in angst and anxiety that I am not able to get acceptance for this subject from the music community and secondly nobody has the kind of enthusiasm for this subject like I do. I do not blame myself for feeling this way. So, many before me have given their lives to develop this subject. My own teacher Peter, my Indian music teacher who gave me a perspective for Indian voice science – Pt. Sunil Bose, the late Husler – all of them gave their lives for this. They had a sense of activism that I inherited, especially Pt. Sunil Bose. So, I felt that musicians who benefit from this should also give their lives for this. I also cannot overlook the fact that I got a $ 70,000 grant for this work, apart from additional ITC support. I am responsible to get this subject to a level that can benefit the music of India holistically. But I learnt to relax and flow with reality. God has created a situation and God will create the solution, of which I am a small part. I am nobody to have a fixated expectation of future events and people. My job is to have a cogent vision and respond to the need of the moment when a learner comes before me. At the moment, I feel the future of voice science in India will depend on our collective ability to make it a subject of common enquiry.