How to practice Carnatic music with a metronome: Part 2: The (real) basics

Sep 12, 2013   #Tala Keeper  #Layam  #Training  #Metronome 

Status: Draft

Part 1 presented internalizing “layam” or musical time as the practice goal for working with a metronome. In the course of teaching vina, I realized that practice with a metronome already requires a sense of time and if this has not been nurtured initially, it can lead to an aversion to practicing with one to gain mastery over time and an unhealthy reliance on it, even if warned as I did with Part 1.

In this post, I describe a few exercises we’ve been experimenting with at Brhaddhvani that can better serve students before they are introduced to practicing with a metronome. Though I’ve included this post in the “how to practice with a metronome” series, these exercises do not involve a metronome! This is because I’m beginning to think that before you can benefit from advanced training with a metronome, you need to anchor time in your body at a more basic level.

Disclaimer: I address the needs of adult vina students here rather than children. This is ongoing work, where I make certain hypotheses about how students are dealing with the situation they’re given and tailoring exercises to address potential issues therein.

The stopped plucking technique

Beginner vina students need to focus on several physical challenges when they first begin working with the instrument. One of the most important of these challenges is plucking the string alternately with the fore and middle fingers of the right hand, and stopping the string vibration a little before each pluck. This is a subtle aspect of effective and clean vina playing that needs to be practiced from the beginning, lest die hard habits set in. So one of the basic practice tasks given to students is to practice this alternating stopped plucking.

Beginners appear to deal with this challenge at the mental level - i.e. they “instruct” their fingers to pluck, alternate, stop, pluck, alternate, stop, pluck, and so on, and watch what their fingers do. This is a kind of dialogue between their “mind” and their “fingers”, with their body being ignored. They may forget to breathe temporarily, ignore bad posture or be blind to how the string and its vibration feel against the skin.

Anchoring time in the body

Through my exposure to meditative practices in the Zen school, I’ve seen the effectiveness of anchoring my mind on my breathing in order to avoid the games that it would otherwise indulge in. The simple process of counting exhalations from one to ten (starting again from one), when continued over prolonged periods, has given great quietude of the mind and increased awareness of the body. The problems faced by some students appeared to be more mental hurdles than anything to do with their musical capacity. So I wanted to see whether focusing attention on breathing can help bring back awareness of the “stuff that goes in between mind and fingers”. This anchoring of one’s music practice in one’s breathing is what I refer to as “anchoring time in the body”, since our breathing is a natural clock, even if not a metronomic one.

So here are a few ultra basic vina exercises designed to anchor the playing with one’s breathing. Having done these myself, I believe these are useful at advanced levels too.

Exercise 0 - Preparation

Hold your vina in the playing posture with the right hand in the playing position, resting your left hand on your lap. Sit relaxed, in a quiet environment, at a quiet time, for this is going to require a lot of concentration. If possible, do not have humming or ticking noises in your room such as fans, air conditioners and clocks. Yes, turn off your beeping devices.

Keep a 25-minute timer. You’ll need one to tell you when to take a 5 minute break. Do not think “I have a clock and I can glance up quickly”. You’ll soon find that to be a great source of distraction. Having a timer that goes off at the end of your practice session lifts the burden of keeping track of time off your shoulders.

Exercise 1 - Plucking to your breath

After adjusting your breathing by taking a few deep inhalations, sit relaxed, with the vina in the playing position (the left gourd on your left lap) and rest your left hand on your lap.

Resume normal ordinary breathing. No special effort to breathe deep or shallow is required. Just normal breathing. Unless you are a newborn, your body has already been doing this for many years ;) So it knows perfectly well how to breathe. Just breathe.

Rest your right fore finger on the main string of the vina in preparation for a pluck. At the moment you begin an exhalation, pluck the string downwards, simultaneously lifting the right-middle finger and counting “one” in your mind.

Wait for your exhalation to complete. Just at the start of the following inhalation, bring your right-middle finger to rest on the string, thus stopping the sound. Now your right-middle finger is ready to pluck.

Once your inhalation completes, just at the start of your exhalation pluck downwards with your right-middle finger, simultaneously lifting your right-fore finger in preparation for the next pluck, and count “two” in your mind.

Again, on the start of your inhalation, bring your right-fore finger to rest on the string. Continue this alternating cycle. Count from 1 to 8 and start again from 1. You’ll thus be counting in cycles of 8 breaths, which is intended to help anchor the “Adi tala” cycle in your breathing.

Warning: It may appear easy to force your breath to be regular, but do not do so. You want your mind and plucks to be anchored to your breathing and not the other way, which is counter productive.

If, at any point, you lose count, simply start from “one” again at the next exhalation, plucking with your right-fore finger.

Exercise 2 - Plucking with talam

This is the same as exercise 1, except that you also play the talam on counts of 1, 5 and 7. This anchors the structure of the “Adi talam” in your breathing as well, and forms the foundation on which the practice of Sarali varisai (scalar exercises) can be built.

Exercise 3 - Getting deeper

Counting along with your breath offers a scaffolding that helps prevent your mind from wandering away into thought streams. This makes it a challenge to do exercise 1 if the scaffolding is removed - i.e. exercise 3 is simply exercise 1 without counting.

{% pullquote %} In this case, you’ll be directly facing your mind. The task at hand is so utterly simple that every impediment that you may find along the way is unreal. {" The only answer is - Get Back Into Your Breathing! “} {% endpullquote %}

Exercise 4 - Stretching awareness of time

Once you’ve stabilized yourself with the above three exercises, add on the task of playing the tala on counts 1, 5 and 7 to exercise 3. Only now, refrain from counting your breath at all. Do this only after considerable practice with exercises 2 and 3.

With this, the 8-count Adi tala cycle will be anchored in your breathing and you’ll find your awareness easily extending to it. This will help tackle Sarali varisai with relative ease.

Exercise 5 - Basic scale playing

On top of exercise 4, play any 7-note scale in ascending and descending order as plain notes, with one note per pluck. Though any 7-note scale would do, you may start with the traditional “Mayamalavagowla” scale -

tala pattern = ||,,,,|,,|,,||
aksharas per line = 8

S r G m P d N S+

S+ N d P m G r S

During this exercise, treat the sound as a by-product of your breathing and just take it in. Keep your attention on your breathing as with the other exercises. The more you relax into exercise 4, the more you’ll be able to take in the sounds of the notes you play in this exercise. Over time, the srutis of these notes will also become anchored in your body.

Continuation note

Working on this series is not just a writing task but is a series of experiments and I’m excited to see where this leads.