Mentors Rule!

Written by on in My views

Namaste, Dear Music Lover,

At certain key points in our lives, we each can benefit greatly by learning from more experienced people who offer their experience, expertise and guidance.

I hope that, even if you’re still seeking your ideal mentor(s), maybe this post will help to inspire you to keep going and find them! An old adage asserts:

  • When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears

However although that popular phrase is often attributed as one of Buddha’s proverbs, actually it’s recently been attributed to some other (yet unspecified) origin.

Correct attribution aside (and wholly irrelevant!), the wisdom embodied in that phrase is timeless and as valid today as it was when first uttered, regardless of its origin. (Meaning: ongoing confusion about phrases need not deter us from making the connection about the importance of being ready to learn. When either student or guru is unready, learning must be postponed.)

The usual term for a person prepared to guide one in the finer points of some art or science is coach or mentor.

In India, the notion of a teacher has often been elevated to that of exaltation. In such cases, we talk about the guru, who teaches his or her student(s) from a highly-respected (and often, even revered) place. Students may adopt the term follower, disciple or even devotee and can become so attached to their guru that they even move into their home to be as close as possible for more (and better-timed) tutelage.

I cannot express how much I enjoy reconnecting with my parents for even a brief visit back home to feel the love and to recharge my emotional batteries. I’m a West Bengal girl at heart; always will be. 🙂 🇮🇳 But I’m rested, back in shape, and eager to reach for the right takes on our upcoming (emotion-laden) movie songs. The story guides whatever narratives drive our vocals. Part of what most skilled vocal coaches or teachers advise us in film work: it’s not about doing our best versions; it’s about getting out of the way of the story, letting the actors have just what they need to picturise the lyrics in the most convincing ways.

While my worldview has expanded a bit (from touring with the great Bollywood music director and composer Pritam da and other greats in his entourage), being back in W. Bengal has been a breath of fresh air for me! (Actually, several breaths!! Of course, such familial/live-in intimacy between teacher and pupil can be conflicted; gurus can face other obligations [like a full teaching schedule] competing for their attention, too). 

As noted here before, since my earliest music-study days, my dear Baba was my first guru, even when much of his attention was directed more to others visiting our home for voice tutelage. My indirect exposure to some of Babas private lessons (at an early age) inspired me to take up voice study myself, although rather than wanting to teach, I felt called to perform, which after some reality TV experiences, turned into some great work leading me into this Bollywood career (that’s still fairly fresh, especially compared to those of the greats who precede me in covering the [film & concert] ‘waterfront’ for decades)!

While it might be indelicate (or far-fetched?) for me to aspire to mirror the career of an Asha Bhosle or Lata Mangeshkar, I do seriously strive for longevity, and have taken guidance from them to choose the best songs (words & music). To the uninitiated that may seem too obvious, given past examples of insensitive songs that flooded our airwaves [“polluting” Bollywood cinema by lowering artistic standards]—in any case, I’m best suited to perform songs for all audiences.

I’m no militant crusader for artistic purity. I cherish the variety of many influences from diverse influencers. I only know what for my voice feels right, and it’s not offensive dreck, lol. (Don’t worry. I have no long list of undesirables or patrician views about entire new/youthful genres. Yes, that’s not at issue here, but I digress.), and finger pointing isn’t my jam. My focus here is on the importance of mentors to artists. Mentors are not all we need, but they can be pivotal influencers.

While some who sing as a career might say or think that their work came about solely through their own gifts and expertise, who can deny at least the influence of hearing great vocals while growing up? While they may seem effortless, I can confidently assure you that’s rarely the case, with perhaps a few notable exceptions. Tracking great vocal takes is no accidental or miraculous process. Like anything worth doing, it usually involves work in the form of rehearsal (and individual practice prior to that!).

So one way to regard those song hearings is as learning opportunities. I for one couldn’t count the number of learning moments I’ve had—often simply by listening to great songs as performed by singers I admire—whether it’s film music or whatever other context—albeit sacred or profane.

Unless one never listens to radio (nor TV nor watches films), it is impossible to avoid hearing great songs (as interpreted by various gifted singers). We can fall prey to being fascinated by a singer’s pure skills or the ideas presented in their songs. Or we can gather the most possible benefits from carefully listening to many singers, noting the best attributes of each and every one.

I had the terrific experience of hearing a virtual “parade” (mostly single-column, I mean—one after another, at our home studio) of singers who came for tutelage with my dear Baba.

Not only did I learn how he inspired and taught them to improve both their technique and their rendition of various pieces (from songs to raags of various kinds) in many different styles and contexts (for as we know, one style likely won’t work in another context)… I also gleaned something about the idea of being given a project or assignment for a singer to prepare for her or his next lesson or two. I could readily see which students actually took their notes/assigned tasks to heart and worked hard to improve (and we all either grow or die! It’s simply a fact of life, not a threat.). The results proved it.

So I saw the gradual evolution of various students based upon how they responded to Baba’s teachings. It was both edifying and instructive to witness the many ways students either did their assignments or in some cases they only offered excuses to account for their failures to complete their tasks as assigned. Guess which type tended to “succeed” in the field of music? Right. The ones who applied themselves to the tasks noted by their mentors!

It is surely no indictment of the gurus when their students don’t put in requisite time and effort to be prepared for their next steps. However, as my dear Baba has also taught me, every singer has her or his own correct pace at which to master the materials that the guru offers, so overloading a student can be as fruitless as giving them wrong information.

What I’m hoping you, Dear Music Lover, will receive from this blog post is that a) finding the ideal mentors for your needs may be no simple task. And b) it’s no total solution for all needs—the work remains (but with the best available guidance one needn’t unnecessarily re-duplicate one’s efforts in order to achieve mastery).

My primary thought to convey about this is that finding a mentor is not an arbitrary or insignificant process. It can be your neighbor, or someone far, far away, and while it’s commonplace to travel to take lessons, like I commuted to my classical lessons in Kolkata in my early youth, and was later fortunate to meet and learn from a host of masters along my Indian Idol involvement [and afterwards]), the thing to stress here is that no matter how good or gifted either the guru or student/disciple is, there is no way to avoid the “10,000hour rule” that says one must put in the long hours while learning to fully accomplish the sense of mastery plus the skills needed in order to be able to always perform at a high level (without fail). Do you know who else repeats such thinking? Pro athletes! (And many other noted performers.) Also: In the WWW age, student and teacher can even meet online in real time no matter their physical distance!

One of the reasons great singers (like Asha ji) have thrived so long doing many playback songs in films is simply that she can provide consistent excellence and mastery, so that producing song numbers is more of a smooth and reliable process, not a totally huge risk each time, when her voice is doing the vocals.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, the commercial movie business is in all aspects definitely a business. Actors are often brought into projects based on their proven box office potential. People in business have little time for the antics of insincere or unserious singers. Party animals tend to miss or show up late for sessions. I’ll get straight to one point: I’m no party animal. I think that’s helped my career at least somewhat. I like parties too, but work and play seldom mix well when the work is more than a game-like endeavour.

In other words, it’s “a safe bet” to bring in SRK or other major star talent in order to ensure that not only will people show up to watch it, the entire project will benefit from knowing at the outset that the directors and producers cared enough to make the best possible movie, for all involved. Producers want safe gambles in the music that’s part of their films, too.

There’s simply too much at stake to risk hinging the best songs’ popularity on new voices. Hence, often this implies it’s best to use a proven voice. Which yes, makes entry to the field difficult, however, like anything worth pursuing, any newcomer must surmount the built-in obstacles, plus any further complications thrown their way while they strive to simply do good singing—or really, their best work!

My first film credit number (a novelty song) could’ve ended badly. Because I took the opportunity seriously [even though it had silly comical intent], I like to think that helped others working with me to see [and hear] my true potential for other, more conventional (or e.g., romantic) songs. I’ve also seemed to do well with so-called folkloric styles, especially the lively dance songs associated with big “production numbers” involving dozens of dancers and elaborate choreography. In truth: I love it all!

As long as such-like songs feature prominently in our Indian cinema, I feel confident that I’ll have more opportunities to contribute to the playback repertoire. All of the preceding (I hope) suggests that aspiring singers are best advised to seek out and follow the guidance of gifted others who preceded them in this field. I truly cherish the times I’ve spent with Asha ji celebrating her (and good times with other greats like Pritam daArijit ji, et al.)!

In the playback realm, the various and often challenging learning opportunities are virtually unlimited, yet there simply isn’t time to ‘reinvent’ the process to cater to newcomers. What you’ll find if invited to be a part of any film, is that you’ll be surrounded by amazing people who are used to doing and getting their absolute best.

Because many of our best songs originate to reach film audiences, it can be among the first avenues that young south Asian artists try to pursue, in order to reach audiences (at least in South Asia). But without some seasoned guidance, an aspiring singer can lose their way. Leading to disappointments (or even failures).

One cannot abandon a) hope of better days, or b) more opportunities to improve and excel/succeed. But as in acting, a long enough string of failures is virtually their professional film career’s death knell. I like to think I’ve been blessed to find myself in the company of so many gifted/talented others. I’m so grateful to them and to audiences who’ve consistently supported my work. THANK YOU to one and all!

So, I suggest that one continually-operant factor in playback singing is, “Can we make it easier on ourselves by, instead of being a lone-wolf artist ‘coming from nowhere’, instead easing our journey a bit via the advantages of studying with a great mentor or guru?” I certainly have mine (and they know who they are, which isn’t public info.—an artist can and maybe should have some permanent secrets—right?).

Maybe you only need a few months of voice lessons to get your skills where you want them. Or maybe like many prominent artists, you never stop learning and taking lessons, often with the same teacher who helped you ‘break into’ this field of the lively arts?

When I learned how passionate film legend Amitabh Bachchan ji is about libraries, I wasn’t a bit surprised to also hear that he insists he never stops learning. If he sees ongoing education as a key to success, who are we to argue?

A side-note to the wise: Few genuine mentors will ever seek to throw shade on their younger counterparts, seeking credit for their successes, or pressuring them into song choices the teacher feels are their right/best songs, or avoiding potentially-controversial material. Masters often note that great art is seldom routine or perfunctory in any aspect. According to multi-media visual/aural artist Yoko Ono, great work should elicit strong audience responses as a matter of course. That (for lack of a better term) provocation is one of an author’s essential requirements.

While I cannot offer a list of potential mentors, the fact is, if you pursue singing with the same level of enthusiasm as I and others have, you’re very likely to face similar opportunities to meet and learn from several masters. You’ll know when you’ve met the right teacher—it will occur when you are ready (and trust me: great tutors/gurus are already well-prepared with requisite knowledge and experience). When the stars are in proper alignment, the right personal-experience moments will occur.

I’m simply noting that I also think patience is likely to be the #1 quality that you as a potential student need in order to be able to work with that special guru. (The better they are, often the less-available they become, as well.)

I gladly and gratefully credit my music mentors with certainly inspiring me to stay active and earn more film credits—by “being in the conversations” from having done competent or better work to date, so if you’re able to showcase your ability to the people choosing singers, maybe they will want your sounds, too.

It’s not automatic! There’s always more to any job than having the skills and showing up on time. Like anything worth doing, it helps to truly apply oneself in the learning process (and if you ask me, never view yourself as knowing everything—which in most situations is all too easily disproven). It also doesn’t hurt to maintain one’s dignity and composure. One point to remember if this all seems too daunting: we produce literally thousands of titles annually in India.

While the Bollywood Hindi segment of the industry tends to dominate with about a full third of all projects, there are Tamil, Assamese, Bengali/Bangla and several other language films needing soundtrack songs, too! So again, if given all the preceding, you find yourself at a loss for any work, maybe another career path would be in order (or at least a temporary solution until the stars align to help you catch a break).

Also, it’s always better to outperform (here I mean artistically) than to underperform (and potentially disappoint). As I often say, budgets aren’t only about money. They’re also about time and completion prior to the producers’/directors’ deadlines. While it’s ideal to lock in a perfect take on the first try, if after 3 or 5 goes, it’s still not right, maybe playback singing just isn’t your cup of chai. Claiming that you aren’t prepared to sing the song(s) given to you [due to X, Y or Z excuse] won’t help you to establish your reputation. This field resembles pro sports in that the tolerance for failure is minimal—as it should be.

Stay motivated… and in these difficult times… stay in the mix Dear Music Lover! Most importantly: STAY SAFE!! Longevity is only possible for those who keep body & soul together. For me, the support of loving family and friends only adds immeasurably to my innate survival instincts. While it’s not inconceivable, it’s unlikely that a loner could summon the courage to approach the film industry with not only the technical skills but the long-developed confidence that a multi-year progression of lessons and routine practice sessions can help to build.

Whenever it seems that the journey is sadly impossible, just remember this:

Success requires Work!

Photo credit: Luxe Fashion Ave.



PS: It’s best to only associate with people who will offer honest opinions free of envy… those who can admire your current level of success can also not interfere with your drive to work toward your future goals (no matter how lofty or by conventional standards improbable).

After you’ve moved on to greater heights, you may well see the same angry people who tried to block you from success on the way up going after their next imaginary rival. (Some folks need a lot more time to learn lessons.) Best plan: focus on your journey, not those of others. But a great guru is like a form of permanent insurance (even if you outlive them; if you do, it means that in their honor you can pay the teachings forward to others).


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