Interview: V.V. Subramaniam Violin Teaching Has Serious Flaw

Once a professor, always one. V.V. Subramaniam, a leading violinist who had taught at the Government Music College in Madurai is deeply concerned about the standard of violin teaching today. He shared his thoughts with our R. NATRA.IAN. himself a fiddler. who interviewed him.  

We've not heard other violinists talk about the standard of violin-teaching today. You alone seem to be concerned about it. Why?

Commencing from pioneers like Baluswamy Dikshitar and Vadivelu the violin has been well adapted for Carnatic music. Today it has come to occupy a place of pride. While so much improvement has been made in adapting the ways in which the instrument is played for our music. I do not know if our methods of teaching have also kept pace.

Why do you say this?

This is based on my observation and study. Many youngsters who have learnt from other vidwans have played before me and 1 am concerned to see them do so many things wrong. Sometimes I wonder if the fault lies with the student or the teachers.

Can you talk about this in detail?

Certainly. I will.

First. I see from the students who have learnt something elsewhere that their sitting posture is wrong and the method of holding the bow is incorrect. Besides, they make mistakes in bowing and fingering. playing of swara-s and sahitya-s. Sometimes. I find that, when one of these students plays, sruti gets shifted by about half a note or so. and the student is not able to even perceive it. If he is not taught to recognise and feel this by his ear. how can he learn to play the instrument well and also have a good sruti gnanam? The other day. a boy who had learnt some music, elementary though. wanted to learn to play film songs. I was pleasantly surprised that his techniques of bowing, fingering, etc. were reasonably good. When I asked him to sing, he said he did not know how to sing. Then I asked him if he at least knew the song.

He replied in the negative. When I asked him how he had learnt to play any song, he said he did it by observing his teacher's fingering. I was surprised but even more so when he told me who his teacher was.. When I asked him if he had not been taught how to sing, he said that his teacher had a large number of students and did not have the time for it. He had been told to cop what the teacher did and to move his finger slightly up 01 48 down if the sound did not seem right. While crediting the student for the work put in by him. I wondered why he had not been taught to distinguish between the swara-s and made to realise what was wrong in his method of playing. There was another case of a girl whom I asked to sing what she had just played on the violin. She told me that she had not been taught how to sing. Then I told her to first learn some vocal music and then come to me. She came after a lapse of three months and I was surprised that she could not even sing the elementary geetam-s taught to beginners, not even one note.

When asked how she was taught to play the violin, she replied that she was in a group of three girls, who all learned simultaneously. She attended three half-hour sessions a week. She had memorised all the swara-s of a song, though she could not sing them. Even though she was charged only 2? rupees a month, it seemed to me that teaching music in this manner had become a moneymaking proposition, that the teachers least worried if the students were really learning or not. I find that there are a lot of young people wanting to learn to play the violin, but the opportunities for learning properly seem to be totally inadequate. In a nutshell, this is the state of affairs at the moment.

What do you feel should be done to rectify this situation?

In my opinion, the first thing that should be done is to teach a student how to sing before he or she touches the instrument. I always insist that my students learn to sing the first and. many a time. 1 sing and ask the student to follow me on the violin. Unless there is music in the person, how can it be brought out via the instrument? Kural illathavanukku viral' — one who does not have a voice has the finger — is an old saying and how very true it is. Singing makes the student realise what the correct relationship between the various swara-s is. where the sahitya has to be stressed and also which gamaka is appropriate to a particular raga.

Now let us take the technique of playing the instrument. The sitting posture, the positioning of the violin vis-a-vis the body, and the method of holding the bow have all got to be taught correctly in order to ensure proper playing. Here. these photographs illustrate what I mean. (See accompanying photographs). In bowing, which I consider to be very important. His hand has to be steady and the pressure of the bow on the string correct in order to reproduce a sweet soul. Bv properly manipulating the fingers of the right hand, the pressure of the bow on the strings can be varied, bringing out various effects. I do not. think any other instrument can be so fully exploited to reproduce the human voice as a violin can. The bow is about 2H or 29 inches long and in slow bowing the hand should be steady enough to play one stroke of the bow for one or even two minutes. producing an even smooth sound. Many of the students cannot even do this for one minute. They do not have the patience or the inclination to practice adequately. Correct bowing is very important for playing the sahitya | lyrics| properly. The direction of the bow has to be changed to produce the proper phrasing and the pressure on the string must be applied at the correct time to emphasise a particular syllable as needed. No doubt it takes time, practice and patience to do this properly. Also, depending upon the circumstances, the bowing can be hard or soft, and slow or fast and students should be taught all these properly.

Similarly, while playing a varna one phrase should be played in one direction as a karvai. Just like taking a breath while singing, an akaram is also permissible by putting stress on the bow. It is here that the slow bowing technique helps, as I explained before. To be able to play a phrase fully in one direction of the bow, the bow must be held and positioned properly. Sometimes I see students holding the bow in the middle and this makes it difficult for them to accommodate the phrase fully in one direction of the bow. Holding the bow in the middle, without doubt, facilitates fast playing and perhaps this is the reason why some students prefer this. Some violinists when playing two or three or four swara-s of one phrase, mistakenly call it tana* bowing, though it is not actually so. Correct tana playing requires the playing of one or two or three notes per bow in different combinations. Even while playing a geetam. bowing according to the phrase is important and can easily be seen in Purandaradasas Malahari geetam Sri Gananailut. Although the stanzas have the same notes, since the phrases are different, the bowing has to be done differently to suit the phrases.

The other important aspect which has to be taught is the fingering technique, that is the use of fingers for playing a swara For instance, in one octave alone. there are around 90 different fingering positions and I can play around 40 or so. To play in all the fingering positions one needs a lot of patience and practice. Likewise, fingering speed and synchronisation with bowing is equally important. One can play one note per bow or two or four or eight but again that needs a lot of practice. Naturally one starts playing plain notes first, then with gamaka-s in various raga-s.

Are there any comments you would like to make about the teachers?

Yes. Firstly, in spite of the fact we have developed a musical notation system, one cannot learn music from textbooks alone. The bhaa of a particular raga or where a particular gamaka has to be given can only be taught by a teacher. So. there is an intrinsic limitation in trying to learn from a textbook. Also, there may be a popular vidwan that plays well. But then, because he is popular, can he be considered an authority on leaching also? The ability to perform in a kutcheri is not the same as the ability to teach correctly; these are two different skills. Likewise, a person may be an excellent teacher, but may not perform well on a concert platform. It is my belief that today's good vidwans must do some research and take pains to develop young talent. It is important that they insist upon the correct technique of playing. It is important, too that they leave the students to develop a style of their own rather than insist upon the students copying their own style. I have seen this sometimes - copying the teacher's style. Some students go to the extent of copying their sitting posture and other mannerisms!

As I said before, the teachers must tak.' more interest in seeing that the students learn something rather than making teaching just a money-making proposition. Motivating the students is also important. For instance, to break the monotony and to motivate them I teach my students two exercises or songs in parallel, one slightly easier than the other. The objective is that the students should not give up and at least attempt to play the easier one which in itself is a gain.

What about the quality of teaching in music institutions?

I had ample opportunity to observe the situation when I was attached to the Government Music College in Madurai. It was not good. The syllabus lays down that a student should learn about 20 kriti-s in three years. Considering that indiscipline and other unfavourable conditions prevail in educational institutions and considering that there are at least four or five students in a violin Class it is virtually impossible task to give attention to all students. Then there is no uniformity in teaching or methodology. I also found that some of the instructors themselves did not know the correct method of playing.

What then can one expect of the students?

When I insisted that bowing should be done in a particular fashion, it merely brought out a difference of opinion. What about teaching materials and aids? This again is a sore point. We do not have proper books, or teaching aids. etc. and even if there should be interest in preparing them, there is no one to finance their production. I am willing to undertake the task but I cannot afford to do so on my own. having burnt my fingers once.

What happened?

Some years ago. I wrote an elementary book on the history and anatomy of the violin titled Violin Varalaru (the history of the violin). According to me the information contained in this book is a must for every violin-playing student. I offered the manuscript as a gift to the Madras Music Academy, requesting them to publish it. but they returned it. unwilling to accept it for publication. Finally. I published it on my own and in the bargain lost money. Such is the sorry state of affairs when one wants to do anything constructive.