Dr. Bindu Subramaniam, Dean of SaPa Music Academy, wears many hats in musical and non-musical circles – a singer-songwriter, author, entrepreneur, mom, and educator. She has a master’s degree in law from London University, a master’s certificate in songwriting and music business from Berklee College of Music, a Montessori diploma, an MPhil, and a PhD in Music Education.
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). Along with her brother Ambi Subramaniam, she started a contemporary world music band, SubraMania in 2013. In 2018, she created The Thayir Sadam Project with Ambi and Carnatic fusion artist, Mahesh Raghvan.
She has a very interesting take on how music is an indispensable and aesthetic aspect of life that all children must be exposed to. Read on to learn how her journey and experiences with music have played an influential role in her perspective and pursuits.
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 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. 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.
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 connection between Western and Carnatic music?
If you look at the foundation of the notes and you look at certain ragas corresponding to certain scale patterns…there are definitely a lot of connections.
Was learning all these forms of music your choice?
We never asked ourselves whether we wanted to learn the violin. It was just the right thing to do! So, we all learnt the violin because we come from this lineage of violinists. But I always felt more like a singer.
I believe in collaboration & cooperation over competition.
Of course your mother was a singer, so genetics…
Well, genetics does not really appeal to me. I felt I could express myself with my voice. I feel that nature vs. nurture stuff, people use nature to hide behind a lot of flaws. People think that unless you are born with it, you will never get it. You should not think that they need to win a biological lottery to achieve something. It negates the need for hard work. To me, hard work is everything.
I have not come across a child who, when introduced to music in the right way, won’t like music.
How important is it for children to be exposed to music?
It’s really important for all children to have music exposure early in life. So much research is there to prove how useful it is for children. I have not yet come across a child who, when introduced to music in the right way, and by that I mean in a way that is meaningful to them, that still won’t like music. It’s very natural for children to move to a beat, to respond to sound. Even babies do it. They express joy when they listen to music. When we say kids are not inclined to music, in my personal experience, it is that they are not inclined to the methodology that we present them with. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with music as such. If kids are not engaging, we should look at the methodology and not the music first.
I never thought of myself as someone who wanted to be a musician. I always wanted to be a lawyer.
What were your influences growing up?
Pop was encouraged. My parents are extremely open-minded and so, my mother had done a degree in world music, which was African and Indonesian music. My dad had been writing for orchestras. His first orchestral commission was around the time I was born in fact. So, I have been listening and being in the US, (of course, it’s the same for kids in India today), you have access to pop and contemporary music. So, in the morning, on the way to school, there would be MS Subbalakshmi. I don’t think they ever said…’This is not good music’ or ‘You can’t listen to any music’.
So, is it okay for kids to listen to hard rock and heavy metal? As opposed to classical music?
Any music that resonates with you is good music. And when I say good, it doesn’t have to be technically perfect but one of the really important things with music is that it makes you feel things. Whatever music makes you feel something is good music to you. However, it’s also a good thing to always look at expanding your horizons. Even as adults, we can be pretty closed-minded about what music we like and don’t like. So, we expect kids to mimic what we like but we don’t necessarily like what our parents liked! All of us think that the pop music of our childhood was great music and the pop music of the current generation is garbage! So, it’s about us being open-minded but also being open-minded enough to realise our kids can and will appreciate different styles of music as long as we can get them to be open-minded listeners. Then, that’s enough.
So, it’s okay for children to not want to learn Western classical, Carnatic, Hindustani or any other classical music of the world?
There’s actually research that shows that we like music that we are familiar with. I think the study was with Native American and Japanese music to kids in a US elementary school or something like that…after listening to music 3 or 4 times, you start developing a taste for it. And this has been proved many, many times in different circumstances. It’s also the reason why a pop song on the radio will have the same hook line come like 6 or 8 times in the same song. After you’ve heard the song once, the second time you’ve heard it, you’re already so familiar with it that you’re singing along. So, I think that before deciding that you don’t like something, you need to give it a real chance which means listening to it in small doses multiple times and seeing if there is something that you like about it.
So, parents can play the music that they would like their kids to listen to and over time, they will start liking it!
Yes! Shantanu Moitra always tells this beautiful anecdote, which I think is so powerful. He says that when Tagore was in Europe, he went to an opera and he wrote back home to someone saying, ‘I went to the opera and I wasn’t really that impressed. I didn’t get it. But I sat through the whole thing and at the end of it, everyone around me was so moved. Some people were crying and clapping and cheering. It was an overwhelming experience for everybody but I felt nothing. So, I have decided that I will be going to the opera everyday for the next one month so I can understand what it is that they feel.’
Absolutely. And that’s mind-bending in a way. We are so quick to dismiss things.
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.
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.
“My dad has practised 16 hours (a day). And Hariharan said he would consistently do 8 hours (a day) of singing over years.”
Is there a number of hours children should practise – as a hobby or if they want to become professional? Do you have a set number of hours you were told to do?
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 tiny kids who’ll do 4 hours a day and teenagers who are able to do 1 or 2 hours a day. It’s a very very personal thing. The thing about practice is you need to figure out how long you are able to stay focussed. 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.
Someone like my dad has done 16 hours. When I met Hariharan, he was saying he would consistently do 8 hours of singing over 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. It’s more important to be consistent, regular, focussed, and mindful than to say that everyone should do 4 hours a day every day.
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.
We’re not Tiger Moms.
Was it encouraging that your siblings were learning with you?
Yeah, yeah. We all struggled together, complained together! It helps to have siblings in the same boat as you are.
Did you help each other?
Not really. We just used to make fun of each other! We became compassionate, good human beings much later in life! When you are a kid, you are very ruthless with your siblings, you don’t help each other!
Did you imagine playing in a band together as kids?
Not at all.
So, Subramania and The Thayir Sadam Project came later?
Yes, much later.
What was the inspiration for that?
So, in Russia, they spelt my dad’s name as Subramaniac rather than Subramaniam! I always liked the name. I found it funny. So, I thought that that would be a great name for a band. And by that time, Ambi and I had both been performing individually as well as performing with our parents. But we hadn’t really done much together. We thought it would be a nice, safe space to experiment in…to create the kind of music we felt like creating…on that day…whatever that was.
“What I think is really important for every singer is to have a regular vocal warm-up routine.”
What is your working relationship like?
Ambi and I live together, work together…we’re always in each other’s hair…we never had to find time to work together…we’re in each other’s faces all the time. We both compose, come up with melodies. I do a little more of lyric writing, he does a little more of the arrangement styles…nowadays, he does more of the melody writing but I also write melodies. We’ve started songs in a bunch of different ways. One of us will have a phone recording that we came up with on a plane or somewhere random…we’ll share that. Or if we have to write something for that…we ask each other what we should do. It can happen in any number of ways.
Are there some specific habits that a professional singer or musician should have? Like we used to hear that singers cannot eat ice creams…
I think it depends on your own voice. I mean, especially with ice cream. Because I know that SPB used to eat icecreams and have no issues. My mom on the other hand, if she even looks at ice cream, it’s not going to be a good thing for her. I personally am not a fan of ice cream but that’s because I have very sensitive teeth. I don’t know, I think the ice cream eating thing is a myth. But there are certain singers who protect their voices. What I think is really important for every singer is to have a regular vocal warm-up routine and that can be lip trills, saralevarase, long notes, whatever works for you. But you need to have a regular, consistent practice. And then there are just good vocal habits like hydrating well. It’s really important. On show days, I carry extra bottles of water to remind myself to hydrate. I also try to talk a lot less. If I am out in public places, restaurants, where the noise levels are high, I try to talk less because you end up talking louder without realising it. And that puts some strain on your vocal chords. Those are the key things. So, have a warm up routine, hydrate well and don’t strain your voice by talking or shouting.
“The only way over it (stage fright) is through it.”
You have been on the stage from a very young age. Did you go through stage fright?
I had tremendous stage fright. My knees used to shake. And not just with singing. I used to take part in debates, quizzes, elocutions, and public speaking and all of those things. I think stage fright is a very real thing especially when you are a tween and a teen, and that’s really when it hits you, you care what other people think about you. Unfortunately, I think that age is coming down. Now, you look at 7 and 8 year olds and they are much more concerned about what people are saying about them than a generation earlier when you really weren’t self-aware. When you didn’t have self confidence issues till you hit your teens.
Everybody goes through this. But if you have been performing, if you have been exposed to performance and speaking, when you were a small child, then you have fewer anxiety issues around performance as you grow up. The only way over it is through it. If you are afraid of public speaking, the only thing to do is speak a lot in public. These things are very real. One thing that helped me as a singer was to realise that the audience is on your side. Nobody comes to a concert to see a musician fail. They come because they want to be part of a good experience. So, your audience is on your side. You just have to give them a little bit and they will be with you. You have to be open and engaged with your audience and not be scared of them. So, that really helped me a lot. If you feel like you need a second…I always talk to my audience, at least get one laugh before I start. The moment you realise they are on your side, you’ll be okay.
What did you do when your knees were shaking?
(Laughs) Well, I didn’t run away! I don’t think I had that option. I would sing offkey…I got over it. You have to power through sometimes.
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.
“What we do at SaPa is developing methodologies that make things engaging and fun for young kids.”
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. Developing methodologies that make things engaging and fun for young kids.
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.
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.
Do you see a future in Western classical, Carnatic, pop – does one have more scope than the other?
No. I think there is great scope in music and art of any kind. Music will always survive. There are people who are top classical musicians in all forms – in the Western, Carnatic, and Hindustani space. There are famous pop musicians and pop has some 150 sub-genres… I think the most important thing is to have a solid foundation. If you look at people who are at the top of their game in any form – pop or film music – many of them have backgrounds in some classical style of music because that brings in structured learning. And if you have any sort of structured learning, then you can become a great pop musician also. It doesn’t matter what style you channelise your musical abilities into. So, I think it is important to have foundation and structured learning, and then find what you are passionate about and pursue that.
Is one version more lucrative than the other?
Is Beyonce making more money than a leading Carnatic artist? Definitely! As a classical musician or as a pop musician, if you are at the top of your game, you will be comfortable and happy.
Is there still an audience for classical music today?
Absolutely! Very much! With the internet, you can find more global audiences. Everything is a very big niche. If you are talking about people who like Polka in South Bangalore, that’s a very small demographic – probably just you! If you’re looking at Carnatic music around the world, even if that’s just a few million people, that’s a lot of people.
In terms of monetising, is pop or Indian classical or any other form a better bet?
Monetising is a totally different ball game. I’m sure you can name Carnatic or Hindustani musicians in India who are making a great living. My dad is one of them. Similarly, there are tonnes of pop musicians sitting in the US who can’t make rent. Making it big as a musician in any field is hard. But if you are going to put in the work, put in the work for the style of music that you are passionate about. It’s not that your odds are better if you choose to be a pop musician or they are worse if you choose to be a Carnatic musician.
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.