If you’ve read any of my other pieces for The Michigan Daily, you’re well aware that I practice Carnatic music, a form of classical Indian music, outside of school. Carnatic music has always been an integral part of my identity, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to pursue it for the past 15 years. It’s been a form of expression, culture and, most importantly, fun for me — I would never in a million years quit pursuing it.
Or at least that’s what I thought.
In March 2020, the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, and everything shifted to a virtual medium. My classes, social gatherings, club meetings and vocal lessons were now taking place over Zoom. Being able to attend classes and club meetings in my pajamas was a silver lining I was able to embrace. Moreso, I have my fair share of long-distance relationships with family and friends from around the world, so limiting social gatherings to late-night FaceTime calls, movie nights using Netflix Party and virtual game nights wasn’t a new concept for me. But taking Carnatic vocal lessons over Zoom was something I was not prepared for.
When the pandemic hit, I figured music was going to keep me sane. Of course, I planned to dedicate all my free time to music. It was nice having more time to practice, and I was excited at the thought of being able to learn more than I usually would during a non-pandemic year. However, the exact opposite occurred.
I think back to my very first vocal lesson with my guru using Zoom. In general, Carnatic music is extremely detail-oriented. Every nuance must be executed with extreme clarity and precision. Whole sentences we would speak to each other would get cut off due to poor connectivity, Zoom glitches, or other external factors, so being able to pinpoint exactly how my guru was singing a certain phrase became a daunting task. He was patient of course, repeating every phrase multiple times, but even still, it was difficult to pick up exactly what he was singing. In-person, I’m able to pick up a phrase almost instantly and sing it back to my guru. However, over Zoom, he had to repeat himself multiple times, and sometimes when I would sing back a phrase to him, there would be a lag, which made my guru think he needed to repeat himself again, resulting in us singing over each other, then stopping, then one of us awkwardly starting to sing again. This vicious cycle took place after every phrase we learned. Even my guru stated his frustrations with this system. When asked how teaching over Zoom affected his ability to teach, he mentioned that having to repeat himself multiple times in hopes that even just the basic outline of a phrase would stick with a student was draining. This task was especially draining for him with the beginner and intermediate students. I’m fortunate to have had 15 years of training under my guru, so I’m a little more experienced. But for the younger students who are trying to grasp the intricacies of Carnatic music, it’s almost impossible.
Not only do we focus on the intricacies of pitch and melody, but rhythm is a core component of Carnatic music. In Carnatic music, we have something called “talam,” which is the way we keep track of rhythm. Talam is kept by the singer tapping their hand on their leg for a cycle of a certain number of counts. Some compositions are set to a cycle of eight counts, while others are set to six, etc. Each phrase must correctly line up with the cycle of counts, or, as we put it, “come to talam.” Along with the complications previously mentioned, observing talam was almost impossible. Sometimes, the audio and video would lag, or they would not be in sync with each other, so trying to observe how each phrase came to talam was painfully difficult. Other times, the video would freeze, but the audio would continue, so I was unable to watch my guru keep the talam. Once again, my guru mentioned how it was extremely difficult for the younger kids too, since they would experience the same level of technical difficulties as me.
Aside from the actual music being shared, my guru and I found it difficult to connect with each other on a personal level. Usually, before and/or after our lessons, we’d be able to have a coffee together and talk about our lives outside of music. We weren’t able to do that over Zoom. The lessons themselves would take up so much of our energy, we wouldn’t be in the mood or have the motivation to chit chat afterward. My guru is a father figure to me, and to lose that personal connection during our classes was a deeply saddening shift.
Overall, the quality of our lessons tanked. I didn’t feel like I was grasping the concepts deep enough; I was only getting the mere outlines. Usually, I’m able to learn a composition (depending on the size) in one or two classes. But over Zoom it would take four or sometimes five or more. It was frustrating, and it felt like my skill set was diminishing. I started to lose my confidence as a vocalist.
I couldn’t even imagine how my guru must’ve felt. Going through this cycle for dozens of students, attempting to carry on the passion for this art form through a computer screen every week. He said it wasn’t easy. Again, he mentioned how it was difficult to conduct lessons with me, a senior-level student, so with the younger kids, especially those who have only been learning for only a year or two, it was almost impossible. There was no motivation to teach, because the students, including myself, didn’t have the motivation to learn. And the scariest part: Music was no longer fun for me.
This was the first time in my life where I thought that music was no longer fun.
I wanted a break from music.
This feeling carried through for almost a year. I wasn’t motivated to learn, practice or even listen to Carnatic music anymore because of how draining it became. It felt like a chore. Every week I would lay in bed thinking about what excuse, if any, I could come up with to avoid logging on to my Zoom vocal lesson. Trudging to my room to practice felt as if I was trudging to a chamber of emptiness I once found peace and solace in. Every time a Carnatic music composition would shuffle on my Spotify playlist, I would skip it so fast, not wanting to listen to the delicacies I once aimed to attain. There was zero motivation left in me to continue, and it felt pointless to do so. Though I didn’t feel the same level of passion for music during this time, I still continued my lessons. There was no way I’d be able to completely give it up, and it wasn’t like I had anything better to do with my time, but the mere thought of it no longer being fun was scary enough in hindsight. We stuck with Zoom music lessons for a year and a half, and the second I received my second dose of my COVID-19 vaccine, I texted my guru asking to schedule an in-person lesson two weeks out. The feeling of finally being able to see my guru in person and project my voice in his home directly to his face and not alone in my room to a computer over Zoom through a low-quality Macbook microphone was the most refreshing feeling in the world. On the way to my lesson, I blasted Carnatic music. The second I opened the door, I was greeted with, “How much sugar in your coffee, dear?” During the lesson, I was able to belt out each phrase my guru taught, picking up the intricacies faster than I remembered I could. It was beyond satisfying to watch my guru sing a phrase and have it come to talam. As the lesson wrapped up, and as we were saying our thank yous and goodbyes, I excitedly said to my guru, “See you next week!” My guru replied, “See you, dear. I’ll remember how much sugar you want in your coffee next week.”
MiC Columnist Smarani Komanduri can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org