Margazhi Notes Music

What is ‘mental practice’ in Carnatic music?

Vocalist S. Saketharaman. Photo: Rajappane Raju

Vocalist S. Saketharaman. Photo: Rajappane Raju  

As Chennai’s music season reaches a crescendo, a look at the phenomenon of ‘mental practice’

Vocalist Brindha Manickavasakan. Photo: Rajappane Raju

Vocalist Brindha Manickavasakan. Photo: Rajappane Raju  


As Chennai’s Margazhi music festival season, the unique month-long Carnatic spectacle, reaches its zenith, musicians in the city are still busy. Almost all leading singers, even upcoming ones, have a concert every second day, while some accompanists, particularly the percussionists, get on stage almost every day, sometimes even twice a day.

Carnatic music is not just melody, rhythm, notes and scales presented in a certain stereotypically stylised way, but is much more complex, sophisticated, scientific and mathematical than it appears. Barring some rare exceptions, serious Carnatic musicians practise their craft quite a bit every day, rarely missing this routine.

So when a singer hops from one Sabha to another during the season, trying to present one concert after another, each better than the former, what happens to the demands of daily practice?

Most concerts end late at night, affecting the singers’ sleep schedule and their early morning sadhakam (practice). Before they recover, the next concert comes around, where they have to present a new set of ragas, pallavis and other possible thrills.

Vocalist Kunnakkudi M. Balamurali Krishna. Photo: Rajappane Raju

Vocalist Kunnakkudi M. Balamurali Krishna. Photo: Rajappane Raju  

This is where mental practice, as it exists in Western music, comes into play. When the musician doesn’t sing or play an instrument physically, but does it mentally with absolute attention to details such as the precision of the note and the microtones that he/she is trying to reach. Even an outlandish improvisation can be practised in the head.

The mind theory

Is the younger generation of Carnatic musicians doing this to cope with the intense demands of the season? Interestingly, yes. Of course, they have some masters to look up to.

One of the most widely quoted and earliest to write on the subject was Marie Agnew in the 1920s. Agnew studied how the mind of some of the greatest Western composers worked, called it ‘auditory imagery’, ‘tonal imagery’ and ‘inner hearing’.

Edwin Gordon, who has a music learning theory named after him, called it ‘audiation’, the musical equivalent of thinking in writing where one hears, comprehends and practises music when there’s no physical sound.

Some others called it the ‘mind’s ear’ or ‘music in the brain’, and have thrown in a lot of claims of scientific evidence that cites neuroscience, brain imaging, behaviour science, experiential testimonies and so on.

Kunnakkudi M. Balamurali Krishna, a leading vocalist of the younger generation and a top performer during Margazhi, explains how it works for him. “Most of my practice is in my mind. The only physical practice I do is the warm-up exercises and voice training. It happens all the time, every moment I am awake.” Practising in the mind has helped him raise the quality of his music, he says.

Walking music

Vocalist S. Saketharaman, another favourite, says that mental rehearsal “becomes the major part of practice as you become more experienced. As a vocalist, one can practise physically only for up to three-four hours a day, but there is no limit to mental practice.” He has composed most of his Pallavis during his travels, inviting curious glances from the people around as he shakes and nods his head vigorously.

“Mentally, I practise the sahityam and even some basic improvisations such as a base koraippu or korvai or the structure of a Pallavi. I term it “visualisation”. How the sequencing of the ragas will sound, how a particular word, note or phrase needs to be emphasised, where thick and thin shades need to be articulated... you can do a lot of this mentally,” says Saketharaman.

For singer Brindha Manickavasakan, the process is not set in any particular order. “It involves the subconscious mind,” she says. “The process could begin from waking up with Bhairavi on my mind, moving to mentally singing a composition, simultaneously reflecting on the phrases and the bhava, remembering another composition somewhere, remembering another artist’s rendition, imbibing something from them.”

Inner symphony

Like Balamurali, she says that that it really expands the scope of one’s music, which physical practice alone may not achieve: “Mind practice helps me go to levels that my voice alone doesn’t. It widens the search and is addictive. Often it brings fresh ideas and a deeper understanding of what’s really happening in a particular place.”

It might not be such a new trend. Famous singer Sudha Raghunathan has written of how she had never seen her guru M.L. Vasanthakumari physically practise even the intricate aspects of music — raga alapana or korvais — except when she was learning something new, probably implying that it was all happening in the head.

Saketharaman recalls how his guru, the late violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, would look at a car’s number plate and compose a korvai in his head, and how his legs would tap a tala even while he was asleep.

So, the next time you see somebody in a Chennai supermarket shaking head, rolling eyes, making vigorous chin movements, or murmuring to themselves, it’s highly possible they have a concert to present. They might well be visualising not just a few phrases or an upper octave, but the entire concert itself.

The journalist-turned-UN official-turned-columnist is a semi-hermit in Travancore.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2020 12:45:23 PM |

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