In my journey as a vocalist, I often recall a quote by Israeli genius Moshe Feldenkrais: “We act in accordance with our self-image. This self-image — which in turn, governs our every act — is conditioned in varying degrees by three factors, heritage, education and self-education.”
Singing was education I received at an early age. Voice culture training was self-education in my pursuit as a performing artiste. As a child, I learnt basic voice exercises. My mother woke me up at 4 a.m. to practice sarali, jantai and alankaarams, replacing swarams with vowels. This was an everyday activity, upon the completion of which I earned my glass of milk. Teenage brought with it a pronounced change in my voice, following which I set out in search of information on refining the voice, and met Hindustani music maestro Pandit Wamanrao Sadolikar. He suggested practicing all notes below aadhaara shadja, which led to some improvement.
My research continued into the 1980s, and eventually ended up in the home of voice expert Eugene Rabine in Germany. He asked, ‘Why are you here, what are you looking for?’ I said , ‘Right now, I am singing. But, I feel like a caged bird. I want to fly.’ Without further ado, we started working, since I was there for only five days. I went through a series of physical activities — bending, hand movements, tongue exercises, and such while singing. In two days, I exhausted my converted currency but he agreed to continue his guidance provided I cooked Indian food, which he and his wife relished. As I was leaving, he told me to keep practising, and said, ‘I want to connect your body, mind, and voice. Never sing with your voice alone; sing with your full body.’ He also told me not to expect change for several months, and asked me to call him once I deciphered a difference.
Upon my return to India, I continued these exercises. In two years, both my audience and I felt a marked difference in my delivery — this was the turning point in my career. Meanwhile, further research into Rabine’s methods revealed a few tenets prescribed by Cornelius L. Reid, vocal pedagogue, from whom Rabine had taken training.
The first tenet is — working with the voice means working with the whole person, rather than just the voice. The singer is trained to become aware that while the larynx (voice box) is the source of sound, the entire body with its complex system of muscles, nerves, bones and air cavities should work in synchronisation to resonate and project sound. This helps the message of the soul to be communicated to the surroundings freely without impediments, such as breathing the wrong way.
Second, the singer is trained to feel her voice through her body rather than listen to it. Third, feeling relaxed while singing takes priority over technical correctness. Lastly, each voice requires customised treatment.
Some aspects of voice training are common to all forms — Carnatic, Hindustani or Western. It is said that Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, composer of the 72 Melaragamalika (whose two-volume biography Isai Ulagil Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan is widely read) immersed himself neck-deep in water and practiced singing – a classic example of freeing the voice from unnecessary muscular habits. M.S.Amma is also known to have practiced singing aadhaara shadja rigorously with and without the tanpura.
Parallels can be drawn with regard to other aspects too, such as practicing before a lamp — the flame must not flicker whilst we sing, indicating steady exhalation. Another point emphasised by Brindamma, my Guru, is to not sing for many hours at a stretch and strain the voice because the freshness will be lost. Similarly, all musical styles promote soft humming exercises for the voice to gain sheen. Not singing on a full or empty stomach is a rule practised by all vocalists — I stop eating three hours before a concert. Tongue exercises to improve pronunciation is another practice, especially relevant for Carnatic music, a lyric-based form.
In a nutshell, what is a good voice? It has seven ingredients — respiration, phonation, articulation, treatment of a composition/alapana, expression, emotion and communication. Whatever the texture of the voice, emotion, expression and communication beyond basic technical training keeps the audience enraptured. Aligning with sruti should be second nature and not warrant separate mention.
This boils down to Reid’s philosophy — voice training could be termed as voice freeing. Voice freeing fosters in a singer both physical and mental liberation. Before realising this, I had two dimensions — a singer and a person. After adopting the Rabine technique, the two became one.