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Mental Practice

‘What is ‘mental practice’ in Carnatic music?’

Published on

Sat, January 5, 2019

Published in

The Hindu

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.

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.

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.

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