Are you wondering if your child should pursue music professionally? Is he/she good enough? Is there reasonable scope in the music profession? So, should your child focus on music over academics? What is your role in it? Music is such a vast field today that there are many professions associated with it. It is definitely the right decision to choose to learn some form of music – vocals or instrumentals, sound production, or songwriting, the choices are mind boggling! No surprise then that you are wondering how to approach it – as a hobby or a profession. Listen to what Dr. Bindu Subramaniam, Co-Founder and CEO, SaPa, says about her own plans growing up, and her suggestions for how children should approach music.
Did you want to be a singer or musician growing up?
I didn’t want to be a musician. Even though I was performing on stage. I always wanted to be a lawyer. I felt like I wanted to do something different.
Was this a rebellion?
When I was a teenager and rebelling, I was like, ‘I’m going to listen to this kind of music and my dad’s going to hate it!’ And then I was listening to Nancy Sinatra and Natalie Cole apart from Eminem and Linkin Park and all of that which my dad can’t stand. I was going through his albums, his LPs…I found he had these Nancy Sinatra and Natalie Cole records and I felt so cheated like he had taken my rebellion away from me! Obviously, he had bought those before I was born, so I was quite horrified about it!
I never thought of myself as someone who wanted to be a musician until I reached the point where I couldn’t be doing anything else. It crept up on me which sounds strange considering I grew up in a family of musicians and I’ve always been on stage. But I never really thought of myself as a musician. That was not a thing for me.
We could never say, ‘I have an exam, I can’t practise’, or ‘I have a concert, I can’t study.’
Was the road not laid down for you to be one? Was that not the talk at home?
My parents always focused on (and it was the same for all of us) – you need to be properly educated to be something. Music is always there. But you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. Always – there was this thing, you can’t say, ‘I want to drop out of school and want to be a musician.’ That’s not a thing in this house. You should be educated first. You get a medical degree while being a performing violinist. There is no reason on earth why you can’t do both. We were never allowed to use one as an excuse for the other. You could never say, ‘I have an exam I can’t practise’, Or ‘I have a concert, I can’t study.’
Do you take this philosophy to SaPa?
I see it so much in our SaPa kids. They take solace in their music. When they have exams, they are able to balance. Music is what brings them the joy that they need…it gives them that break. You’re using different parts of your brain. You need to find space for everything that you value in your life. My dad always used to give this example that his dad always gave him, ‘Did you brush your teeth today, did you bathe today, did you eat food…ok…so you have time for all of these things and yet somehow…!’
If you want to make time, you will…
Exactly. So, don’t tell me you don’t have time.
Do SaPa kids want to become singers? Is there an age when you have to decide this?
I always tell the kids at SaPa that you don’t have to be one thing. You don’t have to decide that one thing you are going to be. Whatever you are interested in, whatever excites you, make sure you work hard at it. So, we’ve got so many kids who are doing very interesting things – intersections of digital art and songwriting and singing and violin and piano, and all of these cool things that come together, and they are creators at the age of 10, 12, 14, 16…and then we have kids who are going to college, who are trying to carve their career paths where they make space for the multiple things they are passionate about.
I am a fan of cooperation and collaboration.
How do you feel about competitions – they are quite time-consuming. So, doesn’t it eat into school time?
I am not a huge fan of competitions. I am more a fan of cooperation and collaboration. Music takes time but it’s the same time that you could have spent watching TV.
You have to choose.
Yeah, it’s that Tom Sawyer thing – whatever you like is play and whatever you don’t like is work. For some kids, making a track on Garageband and adding 73 layers of drums and bass is fun, it’s not work. Having said that, there will always be dirty parts of practice. And one thing that all kids and aspiring musicians should know is that practice is ugly. It’s not always beautiful. Your practice will not sound like a concert. It should not sound like a concert. If you are a singer, you will be singing horrible things that you wish you never sang. But you need to make those ugly sounds to sound beautiful. If you are a violinist, you’re going to be playing so many bum notes. But that’s the thing, you practise through the bad then become good … there are areas that you are passionate about. I don’t want the kids later on to come and say, ‘I am passionate about creating but I am not passionate about scales, so I’m not going to play those.’ It doesn’t work like that either.
How important is it for parents to be involved in the practice?
Again, it comes down to the child. Some children are extremely self-motivated but most are not. It really helps for parents to be there to guide. In the beginning, it is very tiresome for parents and that is the reality. If you have to sit and convince your child – ‘Sit for 5 mins, 7 mins, 10 mins’, it’s tedious. But if you are able to show that commitment, then you are modeling the right behaviour for your child. If you find it boring to sit there, then they are going to find it even more boring for them to do it, and they are going to use that. Even unconsciously, saying, ‘My parents think this is useless.’
So, I think that as long as your child needs you to be there, you need to be there. And it’s hard. I’m not saying it’s easy. Maybe sometimes, there are ways to motivate your child to practise when you are not there, but most children I’ve seen need some hand holding from their parents – when they are young at least. Once they hit the double digits, if you have been practising from the age of 3, 4, or 5 years, then by the time you hit 7, 8, 9, 10, you are okay.
Were your parents involved when you were learning outside?
Not so much. But we were raised in a generation when you had to do what you had to do! It’s not the same with today’s kids. I can’t really lock my kid…(not that my parents locked us up!) but I can’t lock my child in a room for 2 hours and say…’You have to finish this, this, and this’…it will not happen.
If you want to be a singer, work really hard towards it. You can do it.
What would you say to children who want to become singers?
My advice is always to work hard…in many things – that you are passionate about. If you want to be a singer, that’s great. Work really hard towards it. You can do it.
Your daughter also learns the violin. Was that your choice or hers?
That was my dad’s choice. Whether she becomes a violinist or not is a completely different issue but she will play the violin. She trains in Carnatic and Western violin. She does Carnatic and western singing, she plays the piano, She’s very into gymnastics. She’s a songwriter.. And she’s starting on the idea of production of Garagebands. I’m very okay with her doing many different things as long as she’s working hard.
At what age do children understand working hard?
I think they can internalise it really quickly if we present it to them in the right way. Working hard is not punishment. As soon as we realise that working hard is inevitable and it is a powerful tool that we have…That’s another reason I think we shouldn’t harp on talent as much as on hard work. If you tie in results to hard work, it’s much better than tying it to talent.
Music and all forms of entertainment were affected by the pandemic. What would you say to a parent concerned about the economic prospects of music as a profession?
I think the economy always bounces back. If you are looking at a child, you should be more concerned about building their skills right now than their employability. You don’t know what employability will exist 10 years from now in any field. What is it that we want to pursue once we are financially stable? We want to pursue what we are passionate about. So, you couple that desire to pursue things you are passionate about with the fact that we don’t know what will make us employable. And you can reach the conclusion that it’s okay as long as you work hard in different directions. You will always find a way to connect the dots and earn a living. It’s good to encourage children in whatever they are passionate about. But nothing has to be an excuse for anything else. If you are going to let your child drop out of Grade 6 to pursue fashion designing, not a good idea. If you are able to give your child a supply of fabric and she spends nights and weekends making creations, I think that’s a good thing.
The game is constantly changing and you have to keep sharpening your mind and your skill sets.
You stand for non-competitive excellence. You are not a big fan of competitions, but do you feel children put their best foot forward when they take part in competitions?
Competitions do bring out the best in kids. But there’s a certain type of child who performs well in competitive environments. I think throwing all kids into a competition all the time is not productive or healthy. Some children do really well in competitive environments, but some kids end up questioning their own self-worth, so unless…competitive sports and all…that’s great…you push each other and excel, that’s great. I’m not going to blanket say it’s bad but I don’t think everybody needs to be pushed into competitive environments all the time. As parents, we need to be very cognizant of how competitions affect our children. All kids are different. Some do extremely well under high pressure scenes, some feel judged, and some curl up.
But how do you know unless you try them?
For me, I’m not a huge fan of competitions. For me, if you can achieve excellence, results and you’re looking at getting better every day, you don’t need competition. But if there are environments where you feel your child will thrive there, I’m not going to say, ‘Don’t do it.’ The biggest drawback of competitions is, it’s an ‘us vs them’ thing. You’re pitting someone against somebody else. As opposed to working together with people. At SaPa, I find our kids work together so well because they are not competitive with each other. We’ve always emphasised cooperation and collaboration over competition.
How important is it to keep backups in the music profession?
You should always be challenging yourself and upskilling and learning. Ambi has been teaching himself video editing, I’ve been trying to teach myself production on digital audio workstations. There’s always something to learn. The game is constantly changing and you have to keep sharpening your mind and your skill sets. You’re never done. My dad, at this age, is learning software and he’s creating symphony orchestra scores on his computer. This is a man who doesn’t check text messages and yet he is able to write a score for a 70-member orchestra note by note. So, you are not done. My mom is sitting on her iPad and learning different songs everyday. We’re never done.
You can also read more on choosing music as a career.
Dr. Bindu Subramaniam, Co-Founder at SaPa, wears many hats in musical and non-musical circles – a singer-songwriter, author, entrepreneur, and educator. She has been performing on stage since she was 12, and her first solo album was critically acclaimed and nominated for a GiMA (Global Indian Music Awards).