Voice training

Voice engineer

Print edition : April 04, 2014

A lecture-demonstration by Ananth Vaidyanathan at the Annual Conference and Concerts of The Music Academy in Chennai in January 2012. Photo: S. Thanthoni

Ananth Vaidyanathan, voice trainer for contestants in television shows, believes that a strong, musical voice is everyone’s birthright and as such has embarked on a mission to free singers from vocal imperfections.

HIS work with aspiring playback singers competing for such prizes as the “Airtel Super Singer” award is already part of contemporary folklore. It is impossible to walk down a street or into a shopping mall with him without admirers stopping for a handshake and an autograph from him. With his arresting appearance—long, coloured, brushed-back straight hair and salt-and-pepper beard, brightly coloured, ornate sherwani-suits and colourful jewellery—he is a show-stopper wherever he goes. Ananth Vaidyanathan is a superstar whose mass appeal lies, believe it or not, in his reputation as India’s leading voice expert, something that would have surely remained in the background but for the spectacular improvement television audiences watched take shape before their very eyes and ears in the voices of young singers.

Ananth’s mission in life is to free vocalists from the fetters with which the inhibitions of modern life and microphone-oriented technology have conspired to bind them. He believes that the human voice is a singing voice, that a strong, musical voice is everyone’s birthright. Permanent transformation is within the reach of every vocalist who needs help.

A typical “Ananth Vaidyanathan voice training session” is more than that; it is a high-quality music lesson, distinguished by his mastery of numerous genres of music —Carnatic, Hindustani, film music, bhajans, ghazals and what have you. He roars, he bursts into a song, now crooning, then making imperfect sounds, all in imitation, and teaches by the example of his own nuanced vocalisation of Hindustani or Carnatic ragas. He is brutally frank while analysing the singing of a student, but he also encourages and compliments generously when he/she gets it right. The key to proper vocalisation is to use the body, your musical body as he describes it, wholeheartedly, as a child would. He is fond of quoting the German voice expert Frederick Husler, according to whom man has a singing, not speaking voice, it is an instrument of expression of feelings through sound, not one of communication through language. Children and animals either sleep or run, leap or jump; they do not walk like adult humans. Their voices start out as shouting, singing voices, but as they grow older, mellow into understatement rather than natural expression, language rather than music.

Ananth has been trying in the last couple of years to draw vocalists in the classical idiom of Carnatic music into his fold. Amidst general scepticism about the suitability of voice culture for Carnatic music, a few young vocalists have sought him out to train under him, with the blessings of their traditional gurus. One of the key areas he addresses is that of self-belief and confidence in the singer. To him, music is a whole-body activity, a product of musical thought, not merely technical mastery. A musical phrase should not be the product of a notating mind, Prof. K.G. Ginde, Hindustani vocalist and one of Ananth’s mentors, once told him, and it remains one of the trainer’s firm beliefs. “The whole Carnatic mind is nowadays gripped by the so-called strength of ability to notate music,” he says, “while the great ragas demand understanding of the contours of individual ragas manifest in their true form of nada.”

Prominent among the young seekers of voice improvement with Ananth’s help are Carnatic vocalists from overseas, less fearful than their domestic counterparts of criticism by peers and seniors and focussed on maximising the potential of their voices. Born and brought up in Los Angeles, United States, Aditya Prakash, a Carnatic vocalist (also lead singer in a “world music” band), swears by Ananth’s methods. “He deconstructs every note you sing and points out minute flaws in voice production that can make a huge difference. His simple exercises make me aware of every breath I take before entering a note, of how my tone sounds as I change my breathing or vowel placement, and give me the insight to search and find the right technique to open my voice.”

Sushma Somasekharan, from Singapore, is another talented young vocalist who had voice production problems, which Ananth has been able to correct in a short while. She is ecstatic that Ananth’s emphasis on the singer “becoming the music” has been an inspiring goal to work towards. She has made quick strides “from rendering disjointed vocal phrases to achieving a natural, unbridled physical motion of the voice”.

Born in Jamshedpur in 1957, Ananth started music lessons when he was seven, but it was after he came to study at Loyola College in Chennai that his serious training in Carnatic music began. He became a pupil of ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ T.M. Thiagarajan and also learnt a few songs from other reputed vidwans and vidushis, all of which gave him a solid foundation in the art. He went on to graduate in business management from XLRI, Jamshedpur.

By now attracted to Hindustani music, Ananth then joined the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata, as a student of vocal music. But some “errors in the training methods I followed damaged my voice ”, leading to the eventual loss of his voice, speaking as well as singing, in 1981.

It was a cruel blow to a young man with considerable musical talent and acumen, but it led to his developing a keen interest in voice engineering. Help first came from the late Sunil Bose, who taught at the academy, but during “more than 12 years of agony and ecstasy”, he worked “with some fascinating people” to regain his voice after a Ford Foundation scholarship took him to Europe. The voice expert Peter Calatin of Ireland was his “final saviour”.

Ananth started singing again in 1993, but a debilitating illness ended his concert career even before it took off. While working for HMV, he came into contact with some film musicians in the course of recording albums. He started teaching Hindustani music to singers of light music. Some of them reached the finals of shows such as Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Indian Idol.

In what turned out to be a masterstroke, Ananth arranged for Peter Calatin to visit India and train several vocalists on the initiative of some leading Carnatic musicians, first Vijay Siva and later K.N. Shashikiran and S. Sowmya. That exposure led to his eventual role as a voice trainer for contestants in television shows since 2007.

Ananth says “singing is an extreme-level activity of the total vocal apparatus, which in silence is in a state of relaxed repose” and “in speaking, erected to about 10 per cent of its capacity”, but external triggers such as unexpected news can startle you into action. A gentle stroll can be transformed into an eager run and “a hoarse whisper that could barely ask for a cup of tea into a screaming machine”. The trigger of expression infuses the vocal apparatus with purposeful energy. In music, “the intention set by the lyrics, the feeling intended through the … cascades and explosions of the music, and finally the attitude of projecting this feeling to the listener” form a palette of triggers that a singer should adopt.

While his trainees from Carnatic music have improved their voice usage, their career and travel preoccupations make it difficult for them to devote regular time to the pursuit. Also, many treat the science as a quick-fix for problems with their voices, not as a holistic system of voice training and management. And the typical reality show tends to focus more on the end products than the process, which remains largely untapped beyond the final. In such a scenario, it would hardly be surprising if Ananth were to look for ways to take his music and voice engineering lessons to a much larger student population directly through schools and colleges. Such a major campaign will be a real boon for voices, especially in Carnatic music—with its growth and expansion worldwide accelerated by technology but fraught with the danger of vocal imperfections growing to epidemic proportions, thanks to sophisticated amplification that can camouflage poorly trained voices.

V. Ramnarayan, editor-in-chief of Sruti, a monthly magazine on the performing arts, is a columnist on cricket and music, author, translator, and teacher of language and style.

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