Even if practice doesn’t make perfect, I will keep singing

Music and dance are the keys to success, writes Shoba Narayan.

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There has been much chatter recently linking success with performance art: music and dance. The logic is that working with creative teams, be it in an orchestra or dance troupe, is great for your development.

In her talks and articles, author Joanne Lipman, author of Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations, suggests that music is the “key to success.”

Quoting sources as varied as Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and Allen Greenspan, the former federal reserve chief, Ms Lipman makes the case that music helps achievers process things better in all aspects of life. When you play the violin in an orchestra or when you dance as part of a company, you have to pay attention to cues: both visual and musical.

Music allows us to see patterns, learn timing and think in rhythm: all of which are necessary for writers and stand-up comics.

Personally, I sing because music connects me to aspects of myself that I cannot even fathom, let alone understand.

It brings forth images to my head, unbidden and unasked; images that may lead to an idea for an essay or speech. Music centres me and forces me to be in the moment. Most importantly, it links me to a culture. It is part of my identity. It pleases me to be singing the same song that was sung 400 years ago. Occasionally, my music surprises me.

I began learning music in Chennai, which was then – and now – the bastion of Carnatic music, the type of Indian classical music that is practised in southern India.

From December through February, the city transforms into a hotbed for Carnatic music lovers, who come from far and wide to listen to daily music concerts given by the country’s top artists. This is the “Chennai Music Season,” as it is called and it is in full swing as you read this. Female singers rock the stage. Well, they don’t exactly rock. They sit cross-legged, clad in demure silk saris, surrounded by a violinist, drummer and other accompanists.

The top singers are all women: Aruna Sairam, Sudha Raghunathan, “Bombay” Jayashri Ramnath (who was nominated for an Academy Award for Pi’s Lullaby in Life of Pi), S Sowmya and Nithyasree Mahadevan. There are men too: Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Abhishek Raguram, TM Krishna and Vijay Siva. Most of these singers are under 50 and are at the peak of their careers.

On some really bad days I ask myself why I sing.

Instead of berating myself for faltering during some difficult phrases, wouldn’t it better to simply be a listener rather than a singer? Why do I still sing? Well, I think I have a tentative answer and it can be summed up in one word: contradiction.

I like to think of myself as easy- going. If you met me, you would agree. I don’t think I am uptight or obsessive. But maybe that’s wrong: certainly, in my music I am hugely self-critical and obsessive.

This in the end is perhaps why I keep practising music. This is also why I sing. Music reveals the deepest parts of myself: the parts I don’t accept and don’t like.

By holding up this mirror, it also shows me the ways that I must change.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

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