Overall development

How to make music lessons more effective?

Classical music will help your child to be smarter’, ‘Listening to Mozart soothes a fussy baby’, ‘Early musical training helps develop brain areas involved in language and reasoning.’ These are just some of the reason, why parents are anxious to introduce their youngsters to classical music at a very early age – or even before birth, for that matter, since some think that even infants in the womb can benefit from listening to Beethoven, Bach and Brahms.

Parents, take note, these claims are actually true. Children do gain enormously through the study of classical music. Not only do they use their minds better; they also learn to think creatively, imagining ‘out of the box’ solutions to problems.

There are several layers in thinking about improving the effectiveness of music lessons. The important issues in learning music are:

Indian vs. Western music

Indian music: Indian classical music is the art of music of the Indian subcontinent. Indian music or ‘sangeet’ is defined as culmination of vocals, rhythm and dance. It originates in the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in the Hindu tradition. Indian classical music has also been significantly influenced by Indian folk music.

Indian music can be divided into two sub-genres:

Hindustani music: Hindustani music is popular in North India. It is blended with North-Asian influences including Afghan/Persian inputs.

Carnatic music: Carnatic is popular in South India. It has limited influences from outside and remains mostly devotional Hindu music.

Though music is different in styles, the basic theory and rhythm patterns are similar for both sub-genres of music.

Indian classical music is both elaborately expressive and places great emphasis on improvisation. Like in Western classical music, it divides the octave into 12 semitones, of which the 8 basic notes in ascending tonal order in Hindustani music are Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa and for Carnatic music are Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Da Ni Sa. They are very similar to Western music’s Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do.

Indian classical music is monophonic (single melody format or homophonic) in nature and based around a single melody line. It is performed along with a fixed drone played over the four cords of a taanpura. The performance is based melodically on a particular raga and rhythmically on ‘taals’.

Western music: Western music is the music of the European continent. Western music and Western notation began with plainchant, the first music and musical notation system of Europe. Plainchant is the music that was sung by monks of the Roman Catholic Church starting in the 8 century CE. Western classical music is a fusion of music and musical traditions of medieval times, the Renaissance, the Baroque period, the Classical period, the Romantic period, and the 20th century classical music in Europe, America, England, Russia, and neighbouring nations.

The primary types of popular music in Western culture are Acid, Bluegrass, Blues, Country, Disco, Folk, Hymn, Jazz, Metal, Neofolk, Punk Rock, Rap, Rock & Roll, Soul, Spirituals, Swing, and more. Many other forms of music also exist and new ones develop as time goes on.

Western music may be polyphonic (multiple notes played or sung in harmonised unison), monophonic or a combination of both. The tonal system of Western music is based on division of the octave into twelve equal intervals.

Indian or Western – what to learn?

Indian music is unique to the Indian subcontinent with distinctly rich forms, melodies and compositions of music and also offers a great foundation for learning other genres of world music. This would place the learner in a unique position to create a ‘fusion’ incorporating the best of different traditions of music. It will be a really tall order for an Indian, living in India during childhood, to learn western classical at a level to compete with the best in the world.

What is involved in learning Indian vocal classical music?

The younger that one starts training or being in a musical environment, the quicker and deeper is the understanding of notes, beats and of various musical instruments.

Voice is the only living instrument. It can be used for speaking as well as singing, however, the techniques involved in voice production for singing is a complex process. While learning vocal classical music, students learn to control their voice production process so as to produce clear sound with desired variation of pitch, intensity and timbre.

The four basic steps involved in training the vocals are:

  1. Listening: It is important to listen with full concentration keeping in mind the notes, tunes, rhythm, speed, words, volume, and the tonal quality of the voice or instrument. The more deeply a student listens, the better mapping of nuances of the music occurs in the brain and thus, the better would be the quality of singing.
  2. Control of Breath: Singing takes over the entire respiratory apparatus which mostly operate involuntarily. Children, who are learning singing, need to learn this process of ‘taking over’ the respiratory apparatus to produce fine and steady notes. This can be done by learning breathing techniques. When a singer cultivates appropriate breathing techniques, he can easily sing low as well as shrill notes and unnecessary and unwanted wobbling or shaking of voice can be controlled.
  3. Practice (Riyaz): Practice should be divided in 2 types: trying the one which a student cannot sing but wants to sing and repeating the one which she already knows and bring it closer to perfection. By regular practice of singing, all the muscles and the voice production system on the whole get physical training. Practice develops the control over the vocal cords. Practice also develops confidence in the singer, which expresses itself in the voice.
  4. Physical and Mental Fitness: Singing is an activity of physical and mental movements. It is a synchronisation of our physical and mental state – physical and mental fitness are necessary for good and happy singing. Air cavities are resonators of sound in our body. For a voice of rich quality (with harmonics) all air cavities – lung cavities, pharynx and nasal cavities – must be free from coughs and colds, extra mucus and other infections.

Training the voice helps the students reach the upper limits of their potential. While learning and practicing vocal or instrumental music it should best be accompanied with harmonium, taanpura (drone) and tabla. In case of percussion instruments, lessons should be accompanied with ‘lehra’ (the appropriate beat cycles set to repetitive music). Electronic taanpura, tabla and lehra are now available. These accompaniments enforce the understanding of scale of the tune and beats.

While teaching vocal music to children, it is important to first create an interest in music. This can be done by teaching them –

  1. Popular, simple patriotic songs
  2. Folk songs and Bhajans
  3. Along with this, voice training can begin with -singing seven notes flat notes or ‘sargam’ (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni) in ‘swara’ and in ‘aakar’ (same notes but in ‘aa’) in both ascending and descending order
  4. Singing note patterns (permutation and combination of notes such as ‘Sa Re Ga, Re Ga Ma’) or ‘alankars’ in ‘swar’ and in ‘aakar’
  5. Completing incomplete ‘alankars’ (i.e. the complete ascending and descending pattern of an ‘alankar’), and attempting to create own ‘alankars’
  6. Learn about flat and sharp notes (variations in frequency of Re Ga Ma Dha Ni while singing), the ten ‘thaats’ of Hindustani or the 72 of Carnatic (the fixed combinations of flat and sharp notes)
  7. Singing ‘sargam geet’ (melody without composition) in simple ragas (fixed grammar of using notes) like ‘Bhopali’
  8. Singing compositions in simple ragas like ‘Bhopali’ with small ‘alaap’ (more assertive use of the grammar of a raga to manifest it fully in slow speed), and few ‘taan’ (simply put, ‘alaap’ in fast speed)
  9. Training the ear – Listening to maestros sing or play the raaga ‘Bhopali’ – learn about 16 beat cycle, 8 beat cycle

The Indian classical music has very large number of distinct ragas (fixed grammar notes) to help compose and perform on a skeleton and easily improvise around it. The simple ragas are Bhopali, Yaman, Kafi, Durga, Baihrav and are good to start with for children.

At the end of six months, the child should be enjoying the music class. He/she should be familiar with his /her ‘natural scale’, be able to sing few ‘alankars’, patriotic songs/bhajans/folk songs, at least one classical composition along with ‘alaap’ and ‘taan’. The child should also be familiar with harmonium and its parts, understand importance of beats, tempo and know-how to use the electronic accompaniments.

What is involved in learning Indian classical music on musical instrument?

The common instruments which are used for playing Indian classical music are string instruments like sitar, sarod, sarangi, violin, veena, etc, wind instruments like flute and shehnai, and percussion instruments like table, pakhavaj etc. These instruments are played both as accompaniment for vocalists or dance and for solo performances. The percussion instruments are used for solo performances as well as for maintaining rhythm or the beat cycles.

To be a vocalist, one need to train the ‘instrument’ – the vocal cords; learning string and percussion instruments requires one to train the fingers, wrist, elbow and the shoulders; learning wind instruments essentially requires one to develop powerful lungs.

Instrumental music does not come as easily as vocal music. Children need to get familiar with the instrument, learn how to handle it, and then learn how to play it. Just getting to play the seven notes may take a few months. At the end of a few months, one can expect children to be able to play ‘alankaars’ in two tempos (speed), a few melodies of simple bhajan or songs. Violin is perhaps the most difficult, and ‘virtuous’, of the musical instruments.

What can be homework for children in music?

At home, for vocal music, children should practice along with drone and harmonium. Regular practice familiarises the students with notes, beats and helps in voice training. The tempo of practice should be slow to begin with and then double or go four times the original.

For instrumental music, say violin, the child should learn to hold the instrument properly, hold the bow and get the posture right. Playing each string separately and distinctly and then going on to play the seven flat notes followed by simple ‘alankaars’ could be practiced at home.

The more the children practice, the more comfortable and skilful they become in playing the instrument.

As part of homework, parents can plan a special outing to a ballet, concerts, folk music festival, or a local production of a musical.

Turn on some classical music for your child to listen to, as he/she works on homework. Ideally, the best choices would be instrumental, as anything with words often proves to be distracting.

‘One to many’ and ‘one to one’ mentoring

Mentoring in music can be either on ‘one to many’ or ‘one to one’ basis. Children have more fun while learning in ‘one to many’ situations. In the beginning, getting the fun element in learning is important; however, as the child progresses from the elementary learning level, for better learning and best results, individual lessons become important.

‘One to many’ mentoring sessions once every few months is also recommended to help children get acquainted with their peers. Meeting peers with similar abilities is important, as it inspires and brings out the best in children. ‘Jamming’ sessions every few months help children assess themselves as to what they have learnt and how their learning has been since the last jamming session. Good peer review is great for learning. Meeting with peers helps children collaborate and work together.

Participation in orchestra and solo performances

After the child has learnt at least one composition properly, he/she is ready to perform. The performance may be as a part of orchestra, where differently skilled children collaborate under the guidance of the teacher to produce mellifluous music. As skill levels improve, the child can even go on to perform solo for family and friends and then at school and other public platforms.

Other genres of music

Children should be exposed to western classical and world music (non-English music). This can be done by either going to the concerts, listening to recorded music, through internet, etc.

‘If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.’

— Albert Einstein


‘Hindustani Classical Music Voice Training for Beginners.’ Retrieved from: https://www.wiziq.com/course/14962-hindustani-classical-music-voice-training-for- beginners

Gokhale, Manjiree. ‘Basics of Voice Culture.’ Retrieved from: http://www.ragascape.com/Ragascapes/31.html

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