Stage performances can be unnerving. Even accomplished musicians and singers can become edgy before performances. Is there something you can do to prepare yourself to play well on stage? How do you hold your own when you are in the company of a maestro? Dr. Ambi Subramaniam shares his experiences on performing on stage as well as on sharing the stage with his accomplished and celebrated father, Dr. L Subramaniam.
How old were you when you first gave a concert?
The first time I was on stage, I was 6. My brother, I, and my sister were singing something, I don’t remember what! The first time I was on stage with the violin, I was 7, but what was really nice was that there were a lot of positive experiences that I had as a child on stage and, to some extent, that has nothing to do with your technical skills or how good you are. I’m sure I was playing a lot of nonsense on stage!
Was it a Carnatic piece?
Yes. I was not on the road at that age. I would play once in a while, here and there. Whether I played a good concert or a terrible one, I came off stage feeling good.
Was it because you were surrounded by your siblings and your family?
At that age, obviously there is no pressure and you are not thinking about a thousand things in your head that can go wrong…’What will this person say,’ or any of those things. You are just going and doing something you enjoy doing. And more often than not, even if you do something badly, I was a 7-year-old kid. People would mostly say nice things to me!
It was probably cute if you made a mistake…
Exactly. So, by the time I knew what was going on, I was about 13, and I had decided that I wanted to become a musician. That was also the time I started travelling a lot for concerts – with my father. We used to do it together. At that point, I had already had these positive experiences, so that pressure was not there. It was just the pressure of playing with my dad. In those kinds of respects, my dad doesn’t really give an inch, in the sense that he has been doing it for so many years. And sometimes, there have been instances where he would plan something but would do something completely different on stage!
There have been instances where my dad would plan something but would do something completely different on stage!
Would it be impromptu on stage?
Yes! There have been instances where he has announced the name of a piece that he is going to start and then between his announcing and playing his first notes, he would have changed his mind again!
I remember once, he announced something but when he started, I realised that it was different – not that piece at all! Obviously, he has his reasons, but he would tell me that at that point, if you feel like playing a piece but you end up playing something else, you will not perform it at the level you could do it at. So, if you really want to play something but your mind is somewhere else…if you are playing something because you have to, then (it doesn’t work)…I get that now! At that point, maybe I didn’t, but I think those were great learning experiences because it kept me on my toes.
Did he do that to keep you alert so you would pick up quickly? Or did he actually want to play something else between announcing and playing?
Initially, I wasn’t sure. I thought it was the former. But now, I am pretty sure it’s the latter because he does that now whether I am playing with him or not! I generally like to be prepared when I play in a concert. I like to have a plan in my head so I can execute things better. As I am playing more concerts now, once in a while, I also end up doing that. Like I plan something and go there but, for some reason, I think that that is not the right song to play then. You think that the audience will like something else or you think that the sound is better for a different type of piece looking at the acoustics, or your mind is somewhere else. But 5 -10 years ago, I would have fought that. Even if I had wanted to play something else, I would still have played the piece I had practised. I wouldn’t have had enough confidence to execute something that was in my head but that I had not worked on.
I remember once, we were in a temple in Mauritius, when we were playing. All of a sudden, my dad was inspired by that place and the mood, and he created a composition there!
Now, you are more confident…
It’s a process. Now, I try to fight that a little less in my head.
You are ready to take the challenge…
To some extent I would say, when I was starting my career, or even 10 years ago, the focus would have been on getting things right. I would think in my head that I need to have one perfect concert where I don’t make any mistakes. I go and come off stage feeling like everything I wanted to do I did, and it came out well, I didn’t miss any notes – all of that. But now the thinking has changed, I don’t think there is anything like a perfect concert, but the idea is to grow every day and be able to execute and challenge yourself differently every day. Now, if I look at a ‘perfect concert’ where I got everything right, and there were no issues, I think that that could possibly be because I had not challenged myself enough. Especially in an improvised setting, if you are nailing everything, you are not trying hard enough. You always have to push yourself.
Your goals have changed. From getting the notes right to doing something that challenges you more…
Yeah, because I realise that sometimes, especially in certain situations when I am on tour or am doing the same set, again and again – playing the same songs in different places, I feel that if you are prepared and you are doing this for a while, your mind stops working.
You start playing mindlessly because your fingers know what to play…
Exactly! I find that dangerous because if you are playing on autopilot, then you are not growing at all.
True. Did your father choose pieces that you knew when he was improvising?
Sometimes yes, and sometimes no! I remember we were in a temple in Mauritius, there is an amazing Devi temple there. We were invited to play there, and when we were playing, all of a sudden, he was inspired by that place and the mood and he created a composition there – like he was going to play for that temple…
Would he tell you the ragam, how would you pick it up?
So, what preparation is there? He doesn’t know what the next line is going to be himself, so what will he tell me?! I really enjoy these challenges. You really want to do your best, obviously, but then, at that point, it is important not to put pressure on yourself, because the moment that happens, your mind switches off. Sometimes, you are put in these situations and you may not do a very good job, and I tend to analyse these things – ‘What went wrong, what should I have done better?’ or ‘This is why this didn’t happen well,’ so, in my head, I want to be ready for the next time so nothing like that happens again.
How do you prepare for these impromptu performances?
For example, we were playing one of these kritis where my dad was playing a lot of embellishments around, going all out with the piece. And at that point, my mind was working well, I was in a good space, my fingers were working fine, so I was trying to play everything he was playing, and I thought I had done a very good job. But then, we heard the recording and I realised that I had totally destroyed everything that he had tried to do! Because, however fast and however accurate you are, if you are listening to somebody else and trying to play the same thing. you will always be a split second behind, and while you are doing that, you are coming in the way. So, I decided that the next time something like happens, I would make sure that I would be giving space and adding to those embellishments. Even with this kind of thing, if there is a new composition, I won’t necessarily try to play exactly everything he is playing. You are trying to create a space where the other person can do their best.
Since you had such a positive experience on the stage from the beginning, did you not experience any stage fright?
No, I have been lucky. A little bit of those nerves came a lot later, I would say because when you are older, you start overthinking and start getting worried about not being able to land. If you are playing a piece, there is always that one hard phrase so you’re thinking, ‘I shouldn’t mess up there!’ and so you’ve already lost the battle. Those things were there but luckily because of those positive experiences, I didn’t really have too many nerves when I was playing on the stage, but having said that, a few butterflies in your stomach is always a good thing, because if you are feeling nothing, it probably means that you don’t care!
Amitabh bachchan said that each time he records for Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), he gets a bit of nerves. That is a good thing.
Yes. One musician told me this and it helps a lot. Sometimes you do things to get your heart rate up. Even if it is jumping up and down before you go on stage, it really helps.
To warm your fingers? Do you have a routine?
Ideally, I like to prepare myself and make sure that the first note lands. Especially in music festivals, when one person is playing after the other, what ends up happening is that your first 10-15 minutes becomes a warm-up. Personally, I don’t want to do that. There’s always a balance – warming your fingers up but also not over-practising before you get on stage. That can tire you out once you get on stage.
Striking the perfect balance…
Yes, I made that mistake once. I wanted to practise well for this concert so I kept playing the whole day. By the time I was on stage, I was mentally exhausted. That was a good lesson for me.
How was your on-stage performance that day?
I am guessing it was not very good! I think I was about 15 or 16 at that time. Halfway through the performance, I was mentally ready to stop.
Dr. Ambi Subramaniam is a violinist, composer, and educator. 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 and ‘India’s 24-year-old Itzhak Perlman’ by Ozy Magazine.