Online music classes are a huge draw among the young brigade of learners. Guru’s also have remodelled themselves to the changing times and have become savvy with technology

It is seven in the morning and T.S. Krishnamurthy, violinist and vocalist, is listening to his student Shruti sing the varnam — “Jalajaksha” set in Raga Hamsadhwani. As she begins the charanam of the varnam, he asks her to pause and add some emotion to her singing. He urges her to read the composition and understand the meaning of the words penned by Venkata Subbaiyer in this varnam. Shruti accepts her teacher’s words and sings the rest of the varnam. Though this sounds like a scene from a regular carnatic music class, what distinguishes this teacher-student duo is that they are sitting miles apart from each other. Shruti is in front of her computer in her house in Connecticut, USA, and Krishnamurthy in front of his computer in Bangalore.

“Teaching music online is a commonplace practice now. Gone are the days of face-to-face learning,” says Pandit Parameshwar Hegde, Hindustani vocalist, who, like Krishnamurthy, conducts online music classes. A few years ago, many musicians in India stepped out of their guru-shishya-gurukula paradigm that required a student to be in the presence of his or her teacher in order to learn a performing art form and opted to teach kritis over the internet by posting recordings and conducting Skype classes.

“Initially, it was difficult to digest this concept. I wondered if it was even possible to teach music through the internet given our conventional mindset about the guru-shishya parampara. Further, I was also curious to see how body language advice can be passed on to my student through an online medium,” says Vrinda Acharya, who conducts both online as well as regular music classes at her house in Malleswaram.

Most musicians conduct both online and offline classes and witness a discernible difference between the two. “Nothing compares to sitting in front of your student and helping him or her learn how to open their mouth while singing, how to pronounce words and put talam. But, it is not impossible to teach the same over the internet as well. Of course, there are nuances that can be best taught when a teacher is in front of the student but when technology enables music learning across distances, then why not use it?” asks Krishnamurthy, who also teaches violin online with the help of a three-way camera.

The need for such classes arose mainly because there was a growing demand for such a model from Indians settled outside the country. “Generally, most students learning online are Indians settled abroad. They would have begun learning here but then would have had to move out of the country for various reasons. They do not want to stop learning music. So, the online model works well in such cases. These students are very dedicated, adhere to schedules and are technologically sound as well,” says A. Chandan Kumar who teaches the flute online.

Surprisingly, there are sufficient takers for online classes from India, in fact within Bangalore itself. “There are students here too who prefer to learn online instead of travelling for hours from one part of the city to the other for a one-hour class. Sometimes I have a combined class with one student in Jayanagar, one in Dallas and one in Rajarajeshwarinagar and this is made possible online,” explains Krishnamurthy. In Chandan Kumar’s words, the ratio between Indian Americans and Indians learning online is ‘fifty-fifty’.

A plethora of challenges accompanied the transition from offline to online. Latency, firstly, continues to affect these classes. “A teacher and a student during an online class cannot put talam together or cannot sing together. There is always a slight time lag that will create chaos if we sing together,” explains Vrinda. In order to overcome this, most teachers put their side of the audio on mute while their student is singing to ensure clear communication during the class.

Secondly, one would assume teaching how to play an instrument over the internet would be harder than teaching vocals, but musicians have managed to lay down some conditions to avoid such difficulties. “I don’t teach beginners over the internet. Beginners have to come to me personally to learn how to play the instrument. Once they know the basics, it is fairly easier to teach them on Skype,” opined Chandan Kumar. Teachers also urge their students to pay annual visits to them to revise and polish what they have learned online. Kapil Ramnarayanan, came to meet his mridangam teacher, Arjun Kumar to polish and fine tune his skills. “It is harder to learn mridangam online especially if there are issues with the video quality for instance. I started online classes after learning with Arjun Kumar for about a year. Annual face-to-face classes help in improving fingering technique,” said the 13-year-old from North Carolina.

Suchethan Rangaswamy, who teaches veena on the Internet feels that the online model is markedly different from the guru-shishya parampara in a lot of ways. “Learning online is more expensive. Also, the online model expects you to teach something new with every class which is not mandatory when you are under the tutelage of a guru for a number of years,” he explains. He continues that economically too, the online model makes sense to musicians dependent solely on classes for earnings. “Carnatic music is not very remunerative here. Teachers who are completely dependent on classes find it difficult. Therefore, it makes complete sense to try the online model. It guarantees a fixed income,” he explains.

When asked about the impact of such a model on a traditional performing art form, most musicians feel that in a way the online model is keeping classical music alive. “If we did not have access to this technology or we chose not to use it, it is likely that these students would have discontinued learning music completely. Is that desirable at all?” asks Chandan Kumar.

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