How to practice Carnatic music with a metronome - Part 1: The Basics

May 25, 2013   #Tala Keeper  #Metronome  #Layam  #Training 

Internalizing the flow of musical time, known as “layam”, is an essential aspect of the training of a student of Carnatic music. Though the adage “sruti mata, laya pitah” (“pitch is the mother and time is the father”) is oft repeated, what we find in practice is that a reference for the sruti (tonic) is recommended for and always used by even beginner students, but a comparable reference for time in the form of a metronome is almost never seen.

Many teachers recommend that students don’t practice with a metronome because of its “robotic” quality or because Carnatic music demands “flexible time”. I could not reconcile this recommendation with the fact that many masters whose sense of layam I admire have pacticed using a metronome. In my own experience with personal veena practice as well as in group situations, I’ve noticed that the difference between effective and counter productive practice with a metronome is a subtle mental shift, which might explain the polarized views about metronomes.

This article series is born out of a wish to share what I believe to be the right mindset to adopt when practicing with a metronome, from the perspective of a student. I will also consider various aspects of layam training in Carnatic music and how they can be enhanced through practice with a metronome.

I begin this series with “part 1” where I present a simple exercise to demonstrate the usage of a metronome to internalize the flow of musical time in a simple context. Though there is nothing specific to Carnatic music in part 1, the notion of internalizing musical time and the meditative nature of the genre are stood at the forefront. I expect them to be recurring themes in this series, though I haven’t worked it all out just yet.

What is a metronome?

A metronome is a device that serves as a reference for musical time, much like a clock is for physical time. Common metronomes used in western classical music training include the mechanical metronome which produces a periodic ticking sound produced by a vertical pendulum, and the digital metronome that can count beat groups of threes, fours, fives and such. The digital metronomes usually produce two sounds - one for the first beat of the group and another for the remaining beats.

You can read about the various kinds of metronomes on Wikipedia, so this article will not delve further into the details or history of the device itself. The focus of this article is how to practice Carnatic music using any one of them. If you are unfamiliar with a metronome, please do take some time to go through the linked Wikipedia article …. and get yourself a metronome!

Tala Keeper

Tala Keeper is a metronome I designed considering the practice needs of Carnatic music students - both beginner and advanced. So I’ll be using Tala Keeper to illustrate cases in this article. Though it is an iOS app, a browser-based simulator is freely available if you don’t own an iDevice.

Click here to show the in-browser simulator for playing the patterns in this article.

Beginning at the beginning

The purpose of practicing Carnatic music with a metronome is to develop a strong internal sense of the flow of musical time, or “layam”. This point is central to practicing Carnatic music with a metronome. To put it differently, the purpose of practicing with a metronome is not to gain its mechanical precision, but to develop awareness and control over your internal sense of time.

One way to practice with a metronome is to treat it as a “master”, continuously defer to it and adjust to its beats during practice. This “turning outward” attitude fosters a dependence on the metronome and if you practice this way, you may feel lost without one. When it comes to difficult aspects of layam such as nadai changes, you may also develop a false sense of being right because you’re continuously adjusting to the metronome’s beats. This will manifest, ironically, as a lack of confidence in whether you’ll “get it right”.

A better attitude is to treat the metronome as a “friend” who walks alongside, uncritical of your doings, but whose resources you can always draw on during your practice to develop your own internal layam. In this way of “turning inward”, you do not adjust on every beat, because there is no “right timing” to achieve. You let the beats drift past, fully confident that the difference will be brought to your awareness by your “friend”. Then you may stop, collect yourself, and try again. Over time, you’ll find yourself needing to stop less. You’d have internalized your friend, and you will gain real confidence.

{% pullquote %} The key to this internalization is attention to breathing. We all breathe naturally, but we do it so automatically and without awareness that a simple question like “how many breaths do you take in a minute?” can stump us. But our breathing is ever present, whether or not we’re aware of it. It therefore offers a great tool to anchor our internal sense of time. {” To truly practice Carnatic music with a metronome is to turn your attention inward, to your breathing. “} I now describe a simple starter exercise to give a taste of this “turning inward”. {% endpullquote %}

A simple starter exercise

Here is a simple exercise involving breathing and basic tonal production that most anyone can do, which can give a feeling for what it means to “turn inward” in layam practice. I present instructions for Tala Keeper along the way, but you can also play the patterns in the simulator, or use a suitable metronome of your choice.

  1. Find a quiet spot, sit comfortably and play a simple left-right bounce pattern in Tala Keeper. To do this, tap the pads in the following sequence – left-middle-middle-middle-right-middle-middle-middle. Also make sure that the pulse options control looks like this - . (Play this pattern now)

A tempo of 60-70 beats per minute is a good starting point for this exercise. Your task is to pay attention to your breathing in relation to the bouncing ball. Feel free to adjust the tempo a little to a value that you feel comfortable with. You may not have noticed it at this point, but with Tala Keeper, the process of internalization already began when you tapped out the sequence as indicated above.

The purpose of this exercise is not to breathe synchronously with the bounces but to let your breathing proceed naturally, while you pay attention to both your breathing and the bounces. If it so happens that your breathing synchronizes with the bounces now and then, that is alright too, but it is important that it happens naturally. When done right, this will quickly take you into a meditative state conducive for music practice. It will also give you a sense of what your “natural breathing” is, so that you can come back to it repeatedly during practice.

  1. After you’ve adjusted your breathing this way, sing a steady tone in “akaara” (a continuous “aah” vowel sound) at a pitch and volume level comfortable for you. Look for an effortless and soft tone. Do not concern yourself about your “sruti” at this point. Feel not only the duration of the note you produce but also the silence that follows during your inhalation, before the next note. Do not exert up to the very last ounce of your breath. A tone that feels like it is vibrating in your belly is ideal. When singing, you may want to choose a slightly higher tempo than your “natural” value to accommodate the extra breath effort required.

At this point, every pulse is both audible as short knocking sounds as well as visible through the bouncing of the ball, so you can use this to engage both your auditory and visual senses.

  1. Now feel this rhythm in your body by moving your hand like the bouncing ball. You can pretend to be a conductor waving his/her baton. You do not have to be exact, just imitate the way the timing feels using hand gestures. Feel free to experiment with subtle or exaggerated gestures. Continue to attend to your breathing. Do this for as long as you feel like.

At this point, you’re experiencing the flow of metric time in three modes - auditory, visual and kinesthetic - in an integrated way.

  1. Once you’re satisfied with the previous phase, expand your consciousness of the four beat period by turning off visual hints of each pulse. If you’re using Tala Keeper, you can tap the pulse options control till it looks like this - . In this mode, the ball won’t bounce in the middle for each pulse. The “knock” sound will continue to be heard. (Play this pattern now)

This is a first step towards internalizing the pulses. You now have auditory cues to which you can move your hands (both, or just one to start with) to feel the pulses, but you now have to imagine the movement of time between pulses. Don’t concern yourself with “perfectly” landing on the knock sounds. The important part is that your attention is on your breathing and the steady passage of metric time.

  1. Once you feel comfortable with using the auditory cue alone, shift your attention to the long bounce of the ball between major beats. The ball will now be doing one bounce for every four pulses. Again, pay attention to your breathing, but move your hand to - i.e. “conduct” - the ball’s long bounces instead of emphasizing each pulse.

With this step, you begin to internalize the pulses in your body too, with only auditory cues remaining. With sufficient practice, you’ll be able to feel the four pulses without needing to move your hand to feel them.

  1. You might need considerable practice with the previous stages before you can tackle this one - turn off the auditory cues as well! On Tala Keeper, you tap the pulse options till it looks like this - . (Play this pattern now)

Now you’re all on your own, with only the long bounces of the ball to help you feel the time. If you’re using a tempo of 60bpm – Tala Keeper will show “60” near its floor – you have to fill in for the auditory and physical sensations for the three pulses between the major beats. That is all of 4 seconds between beats! If you’re like me, you’ll find that the mind has plenty of time to wander away from this simple task in that seemingly short span of time. So this has been an excellent exercise in concentration for me.

This stage can be intense. There is an expansive long precise bounce of the ball “beating” once every 4 seconds or so, depending on the tempo. You are making these large gestures with your hand, while internally filling in for the three intermediate “knock” sounds for pulses between the major beats. All this while paying attention to your breathing. If youre still singing tones, that is fantastic and I salute you!

  1. As the final step, close your eyes and turn off Tala Keeper, but continue everything else - i.e. follow your breathing, imagine the bounce, “conduct” using your hand and hear the knock sounds within.

Congratulations! If you can keep this up for just a few minutes, turn on Tala Keeper and find that you’ve not deviated much, you’ve taken a tremendous leap forward in your musical experience as a student. This should give you a taste of the level of concentration demanded of a full blown Carnatic musician during intense improvisatory sections of a performance.

Comma

The exercise presented in this part 1 of the “how to practice Carnatic music with a metronome” series gives you a taste of the process of internalizing musical time. In the coming parts, I’ll delve into progressively advanced practice. However, I expect the theme of this series to be the same – the internalization of musical time – with only the context changing.

Happy practice!

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