Whether you are a student, aspiring singer or musician or a professional performer, how many hours a day of practise is advisable? Can small children sit for long hours of practice? Is there an age-wise chart that parents can follow for their children? What should you do on days you don’t feel like practising? Dr. Bindu Subramaniam, Dean of SaPa Music Academy, answers all these questions.
Tell us a bit about your musical journey. What have you been trained in?
I started learning music from my mother. My grandfather, Professor V Lakshminarayana was a Carnatic musician. I started learning Carnatic music as a child – singing, and then the violin. All of us learnt the violin. My parents were keen that we play the piano. So, we all had piano lessons. At some point, there were Western violin lessons. I was really interested in Western singing so I learnt Western voice lessons. That was my childhood. Later, I was very drawn to pop music. I was singing and playing throughout, and in my 20s I decided that I wanted to do pop music, so I did the Berklee courses. Essentially, I learnt a lot of Carnatic music plus Western classical and contemporary music.
When did your musical training start?
I think it is really hard to give you an accurate answer for that because when you are 6 months old, your parents will be like Say ‘Sa…’! I don’t know when I formally started. It was very much part of everything.
You had in-house lessons.
Yes. My parents were very optimistic about teaching us in the beginning! But, at some point they thought it would be more serious to send us outside for music lessons.
Did you practise music outside of class growing up?
We were supposed to practise. We did. I feel that the most effective way to do something is to have some sort of routine around it. Even my brother who is a doctor (would practise). We all used to practise. We were also not just taking lessons in-house. We were sent out to learn music from other people to have a little more seriousness. We learnt the Indian violin from my dad. But Western voice, Western violin, and piano were all from external teachers. We were based in LA at the time.
Were you doing all this at the same time? Wasn’t it confusing?
Yes, we were, largely at the same time. Somehow, we didn’t find it confusing. When you’re a kid, you don’t overthink things. And start finding connections. Whereas if you were to do the same thing as an adult, we explain…how does this work? It’s much better to learn all these things when you are a kid. You find your own justifications and connections and things…
Is there a certain number of hours children should practise – as a hobby or if they want to become a professional?
I don’t have a set number of hours that I would prescribe to kids. We’ve had our summer challenges over the last 2 years and what is amazing is that we have seen tiny kids who’ll do 4 hours a day as well as teenagers who are able to do 1 or 2 hours a day. It’s a very very personal thing.
What do you do when you don’t feel like practising on a certain day?
The thing about practice is you need to figure out how long you are able to stay focused.
Mindless practice is not very effective. You go into autofiling mode and if you’re thinking that you’ll do your violin scales when you are watching TV on mute, it doesn’t work very well. I discovered this through a very scientific process! If your attention span is 30 mins or 45 mins or 1 hour, do that. If you need a break, take that. But always try to make sure you do a little more every day, every week. The only person you are measuring yourself against is you. There is no point looking at some other kid who is able to do 8 hours.
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.
Are there any tricks to help children to practice?
We try to gamify everything. If you have to practice scales 5 times, you keep 5 marbles, or nicely coloured stones. Everytime you play it nicely, you put it there, or you make a stickered chart, or…Hard work doesn’t have to be torturous. So, any method that you can devise that can make something more interesting for your child, I am all for it. That’s a lot of what we do at SaPa Music Academy. Developing methodologies that make things engaging and fun for young kids.
How many hours do professional musicians and singers generally practise? Do you have a set number of hours you were told to do?
Someone like my dad (Dr. L Subramaniam) has done 16 hours. When I met Hariharan, he said he would consistently do 8 hours of singing over many years. And the kind of control he has over his voice, very few people have. If I were to say, ‘I will sit and do something mindlessly for 8 hours’, I don’t have it in me. If I were trying to do 8 hours, even those 2 hours when I could have been focussed would have become mindless. So, always move towards a bigger goal but I don’t think there is a right number. So, when you ask yourself the question, ‘How many hours should I practise singing or play the violin?’ I would say it’s more important to be consistent, regular, focused, and mindful than to say that everyone should do 4 hours a day every day.
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).