Some Tips and Resources for Learners
There is an abundance of resources available these days for both serious and casual students of Hindustani classical music. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for a few links to resources you may find useful. Meanwhile, here are a few voice training tips and simple voice training exercises to get you started on your journey.
Voice Training Tips
The style of voice production is different in different genres of music. Think of how different an opera sounds compared to jazz music. Or how different Hindustani (north Indian) classical music sounds compared to Carnatic (south Indian) classical music. In fact, almost all genres of music have their own distinct styles of voice production. Therefore, it is important to find role models within the specific musical genre of your choice. For instance, it would not be appropriate to use an opera singer as your role model for voice production when trying to sing Hindustani classical music. Or the other way round.
In Hindustani classical music, a strong and free chest tone is used for most of the pitches, and an appropriate mix of chest and head tones is used to sing the higher pitches - the higher the pitch, the greater the proportion of head tone. The trick is to increase the ratio of head tone so gradually and smoothly that the transition is seamless.
Expanding Your Chest Voice Range
The human voice changes quality at different pitches. The chest voice is the voice that comes most naturally when speaking or singing within your most comfortable pitch range. As you go further down the scale to lower pitches, you will find that your voice begins to acquire a croaking quality (vocal fry) at some point, and it becomes uncomfortable to sing. Now if you go up the scale to higher pitches, you will again find that your natural voice begins to break at a certain point and that you cannot comfortably sing pitches above that using your chest voice. The range you can sing comfortably without straining in any way is your natural vocal range. Different people have different vocal ranges for their natural (chest) voice. Some people sing low pitches more comfortably, while others sing high pitches more easily. Some people have a naturally wide pitch range and others can barely sing one octave. But everybody's natural pitch range can be expanded to a certain extent with voice training. The first step in vocal training, therefore, is to expand your natural pitch range to the extent possible.
See the section Voice Training Exercises below for a few exercises that are recommended for steadying and strengthening your voice as well as for expanding your natural pitch range. As you go through the process of initial vocal training, you will find out where your chest voice range begins and ends. You can then chose a tonic (sa) that locates your main octave comfortably in the middle of that range (just for reference: women tend to choose some pitch between G and B as their sa, while men generally settle on some pitch between C and E♭). Once you've found the best sa for you, it is a good idea to stick with it.
Learning to Sing at Higher Pitches
Serious Hindustani vocalists need a vocal range spanning about two octaves - the main octave, halfway down the lower octave, and halfway up the higher octave. Some people can get this range comfortably with their chest voices, but most people don't. If you don't, you will have to master the technique of mixing chest and head tones smoothly. Different pitches resonate best in different cavities within the body. Specifically, going from the lowest to the highest pitches, the main resonating areas are the chest cavity, the tracheal tree, the larynx, the pharynx, the oral cavity, the nasal cavity, and the sinuses. The key is to learn how to project your voice appropriately to achieve the maximum resonation possible for all the pitches you are required to produce.
Well, theory is all very well and it is good to be aware of it, but the best way to learn how to mix chest and head tones effectively is by imitation. Most good vocalists have had the good fortune of learning with a teacher whose style they were able to observe and imitate over the years. In other words, if you have access to a good teacher with great voicalization technique, seek training from them. If not, you may want to find a vocal role model and try imitating their style.
Singing in Ākār
Right from the outset in Hindustani classical music, one must learn to sing in ākār - which means to sing using only the vowel sound ā. Most people are used to singing songs with lyrics, which contain both consonants and vowels. Constants play the role of stabilizing the voice and helping it transition from one note to another, so it is much easier to sing tunefully when you use consonants. Take the consonants out, and suddenly you are left without a crutch, the notes seem to merge into each other and become blurry. The challenge is to train your voice to sing each note with precision and clarity without the consonants. Serious students must eventually practice singing in all of the pure vowel sounds - a (the schwa sound), ā, i, u, e and o, as well as the nasal consonants n and m, because the voice behaves differently with different vowels. Some notes are harder to hit with certain vowels.
One of the reasons it is important to learn to sing clearly in ākār is because when you are singing rapid note patterns at dizzying speeds, a pure vowel sound is all there is time for. You cannot afford the luxury of consonants and lyrics at those speeds. Another reason is that Hindustani classical music requires the artist to improvise melody, and singing in ākār allows the artist to focus on and freely explore melody. Apart from all this, there is the very important fact that melody can be experienced at its purest when no distractions in the form of lyrics are present.
Voice Training Exercises
Below are a few practice exercises with scores and audio demonstrations. The audios are first done in sargam (the Hindustani sol-fa syllables) and then in ākār.
Useful Resources for Students of Classical Music
Please note that I am not sponsored by or endorsing any of the products or services listed below. I simply offer them as examples of what is available out there. The idea is to point you in the right direction if you would like to study Hindustani classical music and do not know where to begin.
1. Digital Tanpura and Tabla
The first thing I would recommend for all learners of Hindustani classical music is to acquire a digital tanpura and tabla to practice with. There are many such products available these days, both standalone devices and software that you can install and play from your computer or smartphone. Digital versions cannot replace the real instruments but they are worth having for their convenience and easy accessibility. I use iTablaPro.
2. Online Hindustani Music Database
The SwarGanga Music Foundation offers well-organized databases of ragas, taals, bandish and so on. The raga database provides information on close to 500 Hindustani classical ragas, the bandish database offers nearly 3000 bandish, and the taal database includes a list of 64 taals. Audio demonstrations are available for most of the ragas, and also for many of the bandish and taals. Most of the information on this website is free, but notations and complete audios of the bandish are only available to paid subscribers.
3. Online Hindustani Music Schools
There are many schools of Hindustani classical music that offer lessons over the Internet these days. Students can register for paid online lessons with a real guru in vocal or instrumental music, for basic or advanced classes, for group or individual lessons.