At what age should you start music classes for your child? Should you wait till they show some mild prowess before you register them for formal music classes? Or should you make the first effort and condition them to become musical? What is the easiest music instrument for a child to learn? Dr. Ambi Subramaniam shares when he started music classes, what he started off with, how many hours he practised, and the possibilities for children as far as music is concerned. 

What have you been trained in musically speaking?

Growing up, we learnt Carnatic singing, Carnatic violin, Western violin, and piano. We, actually, learnt the piano for a number of years, but I stopped somewhere in the middle. I am practising it now again though. 

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When did you start learning music?

I started learning the violin and voice when I was 3. I think I started the piano at 6 or 7 .

You directly started the violin at 3?

Yes.

That’s like a rite of passage for all of you.

Yeah, but I think that was nice because I don’t think any of us felt that pressure at that age. Like you need to do this and that, but looking at Bindu’s daughter and all of that, I feel it was more that as parents or aunts and uncles, these are the things that make them happy, so they just want to make sure that, whatever excuse they had, we’re at least exposing the kids to those things.

That’s wonderful. Is it really possible for a 3-year-old to play the violin?

It depends on what your expectations are! I don’t think I would have played anything extraordinary!

I mean even holding the violin and bow…is it something 3-year-olds can do?

Yes, you can. You have much smaller violins, they are of different sizes. They are tiny violins and for me, at that point, it was more about sitting with my dad and imitating what he was trying to do. In that sense, the ‘learning process’ wouldn’t have been formal at all. It was more about developing a love for the instrument and being in that environment and imbibing a lot of things. So, by that time you know what is happening, you have some set of skills!

Do you know when you actually fell in love with the violin?

I think I always enjoyed playing the instrument. Probably when I was about 13. That is when I decided that I wanted to become a musician. That shift happened at that time.

You were also a good vocalist at that time. 

Yes, we all learnt, I did enjoy singing a lot, and that continued into my early 20s. But, at a certain point, you have to take a call and I wanted to spend all my time on the violin. I was worried about not having time to do one properly and doing everything badly!

Is there any adjustment process that happens when you move from a smaller violin to a larger one?

There is, because the spacing is different. So, if you put a bigger size violin in a kid’s hand, there is always that adjustment. The first month or so, everything will sound out of tune. And it can also be a little frustrating, if you are playing at a certain level and then all of a sudden, nothing seems to work! There is that little bit of adjustment but after that you set the standard, or you figure out what your new spacing should be.

At what age can you use a full-size violin?

Generally that is at about 12.

By 12, wouldn’t your fingering have set if you are learning from a very young age?

The adjustment is not that hard to do. It requires a little bit of time, because I think as you get bigger, the smaller violins start to feel smaller and smaller. If you are trying to play a semitone in one of the smaller violins, which you have outgrown, you will struggle to play that  as your fingers have gotten too big for that. 

Does the size of your fingers matter? Is it easier if you have more nimble fingers? 

I would say it is an advantage for certain things but for the most part it’s more about finger dexterity that you work on. For example, I have long fingers so that does help me, but like say in a standard position, if you are supposed to be able to play 4 notes, even people with small fingers can reach 5 notes if they do those finger extensions and practise. If you have long fingers, you might be able to reach 6 notes. Just like with the piano as well, even people with small fingers, adults, of course, can reach an octave. But if you look at some of these pieces by Chopin with the left hand, he plays an octave and a half! But nowadays, we use the pedal for that. So that’s not a big deal. You can still play all of that but legend says that since he had super long fingers (we don’t know any of these things for sure), he was able to play one and a half octaves without shifting his hand!

How many hours did you train when you started? Did you practise outside of class?

When I was in school, I used to practise 4 hours a day.

How old would you have been – 6?

A little later. I used to practise a lot during summer holidays. I always used to complain about that, but my dad used to say that summer holidays are a time when you can catch up. You don’t have school, you don’t have any other thing so now, you can practise and practise!

You learnt many forms of music growing up. Do you feel one helps the other?

Oh yeah, for sure and I think it unlocks a different side of music for me because the way I approach the piano is different from the way I think as a violinist, and I feel I enjoy composing with the piano. Because I feel that my relative lack of skill with the piano helps me write better lines. Sometimes, if you have the instrument in your hands, like if I have the violin, I am always worried about writing things for me specifically. So, you write things that you can play, you try to do something that you know works for you but then when I’m playing the piano I’m thinking more of melody, more of the composition. I’m kind of decoupling the ‘me playing’ part versus the ‘me composing’ part.

Dr. Ambi Subramaniam is a violinist, composer, and educator. He is Associate Dean at SaPa Music Academy. He started performing on stage when he was six years old and was described as the “new king of Indian classical violin” by the Times of India. He was also described as ‘India’s 24-year-old Itzhak Perlman’ by the Ozy Magazine.

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