Thank you for joining part 2 of my conversation with Vidya Srinivasan!
Vidya Srinivasan, an Indian classical music singer shares how she uses music as a tool for life and finding balance. In this episode, she shares:
- Examples and demonstrations of Carnatic and Hindustani music
- The religious, societal and cultural roots of each type and how music plays an integral part in Indian life
- Her love of film music and her take on American films (why don’t we have music in our films?!)
- The role of the artist in business and how her career singing helps with her work in technology as a presenter and at conferences where singing helps her stand out to audiences
- She talks about how music accompanies her work and times of deep creative work
- How blessed she was to be able to choose her career. She could be an engineer or be a singer. She chose work as an engineer but… not for the reasons you might think
- Where and how she gets inspired to work on music
Want to hear part 1? Listen now
Intro: Welcome. Listen to this next Agile Vocalist podcast.
Vidya Srinivasan: What I’ve noticed is a lot of work that I do, it requires a lot of creativity because I am directly looking at, “Hey, what are the key problems that I should be solving?” Like I might have five different problems. What are the five we should be solving and how can you solve? What is the best way to solve that problem? That requires a lot of creativity, I would say, right?
Vidya: Sometimes when I’m really writing something, when I’m engrossed, it’s funny, but I listen to the same song over and over and over again.
Rachel: Wow, interesting. What is your connection with each of those types of music and then talk a little bit about English, because I think, I’m guessing, that there’s some emotion, there is some context, there’s something that you were raised with that each type may do different things for your brain and your emotions. You want to share a little bit about those things?
Vidya: Yes. I guess this is, again, I just feel I am lucky to be born in a particular part of the world where I was exposed to different languages and I was able to appreciate different types of music. Just a primer, like Indian classical music is the umbrella term, and it has two main subcategories of music. Carnatic music is more prevalent in South India, and Hindustani music is more prevalent in North India. Just to give you an example, this is a Carnatic song. Let me turn on my pitch here and then I’ll just give you a brief example so you understand the different types of music here.
This is Carnatic music where most Carnatic music, songs, talk about the God, different Gods. In Hindu– Just not Hinduism I would say, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, like each of us, we worship different forms of the Almighty. Most Carnatic music songs are in praise of some or the other God, or it’s about nature, or it’s about good human values, but it’s always leaning to its positivity.
Rachel: Oh, okay. Got it.
Vidya: This Carnatic music song is a song about Lord Krishna who is one of our Indian Gods and where the mother of Krishna, Yashoda, tells how fortunate she is that she gets to be the mother of somebody like Krishna. She’s sings,
[Vidya sings a song]
That’s Carnatic music.
Rachel: That’s gorgeous. Thank you.
Vidya: Thank you. The same similar song in Hindustani music, so this is again another song about Lord Krishna, but in this song, listen to the dynamics of how different Hindustani music is as compared to Carnatic music.
Vidya: [Vidya sings a song]. That’s Hindustani music.
Vidya: They have a lot in common, Carnatic and Hindustani music, I would say. One of the main differences I would say is Carnatic music emphasizes a lot more on gamakam, which is the oscillations that you produce in your throat. It’s the [makes sound], like the oscillations, and you have to practice a lot to actually get that, because-
Rachel: I’m sure.
Vidya: -what you’re doing there is your brain is automatically translating the notes, Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. Same thing in Hindustani is [notes in Hindustani music]. It’s all the same at the end of the day. It’s the notes.
Vidya: It is how these notes are used together and what kind of patterns they produce at the end of the day is I think one of the differences between the different forms of music, to be honest. Hindustani and Carnatic music, going back to your question of how did all these different forms influence or shape me up is, I’ve have been I think equally exposed to Carnatic and Hindustani music, but I learned Carnatic music. You can spend several lifetimes learning Carnatic music. It’s so rich. There is so much, honestly. I barely scratched the surface I would say, even though you’re learning for decades now.
That’s the classical music. Then we have the filmy music, which, a lot of film songs are still– the fundamentals are still the same. It’s still the same notes, but the way you fuse the notes and the type of feel you bring into the film music is, [unintelligible 00:06:34] how you feel about the song. Indian films are very rich in music.
Vidya: That was one of the big cultural things that I– Like when I started watching English movies, I’m like, “Why don’t you guys have songs?”
Rachel: Oh, right.
Vidya: You guys don’t have enough songs. Indian movies are filled with songs. We have songs when somebody is happy, we have songs when somebody is sad. [crosstalk] We have songs when the child is born. We have–
Vidya: We have songs for everything. Filmy music, I would say, again, the umbrellas I think, there’s this classic, there’s filmy, and there’s independent artists who experiment with different types music, but what you mentioned, like Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, they’re all languages. It’s almost like it’s a matrix. One the one hand, you have the different types of music, on the second hand, maybe Y-axis is types of music, X-axis is all the languages, and you literally can have so many combinations.
Rachel: Of course.
Vidya: You can have Hindi Hindustani music, Tamil Carnatic music. It’s all the matrix. For me, I would say, a lot of times, I’ve noticed is when I get super involved in a music, the language means nothing to me. I forget the language, honestly, because for me, I think it’s the–
Rachel: The notes.
Vidya: Notes and it’s the melody that the song brings to you. I appreciate music for not the language, honestly, not for the form, honestly, it’s for the soul it has and how much it is able to communicate with your soul.
Rachel: What about music in English? Any differences in comparison to the others that you talked about? Does it make you feel differently, relate to a different–?
Vidya: To be honest, not really. I’m a huge fan of Adele because the depth in her voice, I mean her lyrics for example are pretty much about like breaking up with her ex or somebody dying.
Vidya: Most of her songs are very melancholic, it’s very sad.
Vidya: But the voice and the melody that she captures in those songs is just beautiful.
Vidya: I really like Sia’s songs.
Vidya: I like Rihanna’s songs, like some of her songs are really good. I like Tim McGraw. The Humble and Kind is one of my favorite songs now.
Vidya: I like John Denver’s songs.
Rachel: Oh, nice.
Vidya: I think it’s not– and country music– Well, we have folk songs in India, but it’s not even close to what country music is over here.
Vidya: It’s very different. The art form is very different. I guess folk songs in India are like country music over here, although it kind of means similar things, but I still feel unable to connect with English songs, even though I’ve been exposed to it much later in my life than some of the Indian art forms I would say, but I also try mashing up different languages, different songs because I feel at the end of the day, they have a lot more in common than we give credit to.
The way I– Again, I play around with this mash-ups, I keep listening to the same song, especially when we were commuting to work, I had like a decent 30-minute commute, and I actually just listened to the song over and over and over again until I learned the song, because I’m listening to the same song over and over. When you’re listening, you’re like, “Wait, there is some other song that has something in common with this.”
That’s actually how I get these mash-up ideas. Like there’s We Were Young, for example. There is We Were Young, and there’s a Tamil song called Vaseegara. I was just singing. I was singing When We Were Young, and suddenly I started singing Vaseegara, and I’m like, “Hey, these two actually have the same beats.”
Rachel: Could go together with each other.
Vidya: Yes, and similarly, Ed Sheeran’s Photograph.
Vidya: I was singing Photograph, and I was like, there’s another song called Nenjukkul Peidhidum in Tamil. I’m like, “Hey, these two can go together.” It’s kind of interesting, because they have nothing in common. To the bare ears, it seems like they have nothing in common, but actually, when you get to the depths of it, they have so much in common.
Rachel: Do you do anything with those mash-ups? It sounds like they’re commuter ideas to some degree.
Vidya: Yes, I take my iPhone, and I record it so I don’t forget it. [chuckles]. My aspiration, this is where the 48 hours come into picture. I would actually love to record them properly and put them out there, because it’s interesting and also I feel it brings about the fundamental notion that, “Hey, all music is actually the same.” You can just pick one track, like one backing tracks for one song, and you could see how much it has in common with so many different songs.
Vidya: I’m sure there’s going to be much more people like you and I who are interested in exploring all these different musical forms, and they might appreciate. For now, it’s all dumped on my iPhone, but I’m hoping someday I get them out.
Rachel: [laughs] What I see in you is, you’re part scientist, engineer, technical business person, and part artist. What’s the role of the artist in business?
Vidya: Yes, that’s a fantastic question, I would say, because I speak about this quite a bit. I do a lot of public speaking. I started very serendipitously, I would say, just to gain confidence. Because again, in the tech industry, women were and still are minorities. There’s not a lot of us here, so confidence is a huge issue for many of us, I would say, and I walked through the same path.
One topic that I speak a lot about is how to pursue a multi-dimensional career, to really double down just on [unintelligible 00:12:48], you can be whoever you want and be a technologist. Going back to your question on how does arts play into tech, I would say, directly, it helped me when I had to pick up public speaking. My job entails me speaking a lot, working with several cross-functional teams, communicating upwards to my management/leadership, giving–, speaking to customers and speaking to CTOs and CEOs of different companies.
This requires a very concise, consistent, confident way of communicating, so I had to practice that a lot, and public speaking really helped me. What helped me break into public speaking easily was music, because I was so used to being on stage. I got thrown on the stage from my age five. My first show was when I was five years old. I’m so comfortable holding a mic and singing before thousands of people. The only difference here was I was not singing, I was speaking. That really helped. The virtual ones are a little bit different, but for the most part, even when I speak about tech, I actually start with a song. Singing is my way of breaking the ice even in a very serious technical talk.
Rachel: Interesting, and so when you break the ice with a song, what do you feel or what manifestations do you see that you know that the audience is loosening up? I mean, do they smile? Do they shift around? What are some of the ways that you know that you’re making an impact?
Vidya: See, first of all, most sessions, most talks I give are like 30 minutes or like an hour sometimes. That’s a long time to hold your attention,-
Rachel: It is.
Vidya: -unless you really connect with the speaker. Music was a way for me to connect with the audience and for them to connect with me, because I tell them, “Hey–” I literally, like I don’t even say, “Hello, I’m so and so.” I literally walk up the stage and I sing.
Rachel: Oh, okay.
Vidya: Everybody, they stop looking at their phone, and they look at me. That’s what I wanted. I wanted them to look at me. Then I tell them, “Hey, if you’re paying attention, I’ll close it with a song,” or maybe I’ll sprinkle a song here and there. I have so many people who actually know me for the songs I sang during the session [laughs], because they remember. They remember that, “Hey, aren’t you the person who sang Alicia Keys in that talk? Oh my God, I love the song, and I love the talk you gave. It was really– blah-blah-blah.”
I think it really helps you, because there are so many people who speak about so many different things. You go to a conference, you have hundreds of speakers. How do you stand out? I’m like, “Hey, I’m the one who sang.” That’s a way for me to, I think it helps me in two ways, one is connect with the audience. Two is, gauge the room and loosen up a little bit. Because if I’m directly jumping into the topic, let’s be honest, no matter how many times you speak, when you newly get on a stage before a new set of audience, you still are a little bit nervous. The heart is beating fast and you’re like “hmm-hmm,” but music helps me calm down.
The three or two minutes of me singing makes me feel at home, and I get comfortable with the stage, I get comfortable with the audience, and that gives me the clarity of mind to get into my talk. That’s the direct impact, I would say. Secondly, the creative side. Again, sample size is me here.
Rachel: You are statistically significant. Yes, you are.
Vidya: I’ve noticed is, a lot of work that I do, it requires a lot of creativity, because I am directly looking at, “Hey, what are the key problems that I should be solving?” I might have five different problems. What are the five we should be solving and how can you solve? What is the best way to solve that problem? That requires a lot of creativity, I would say. Sometimes when I’m really writing something, when I’m engrossed, it’s funny, but I listen to the same song over and over and over. I don’t know if others do it, but I do it. I literally pick a song that is very slow, it doesn’t have a lot of percussions and stuff. I just listen to the song. Sometimes I’m listening the same song like 50 times in a day.
Vidya: Yes, when I’m writing, so–
Rachel: Helps you focus?
Vidya: Yes, it helps me focus and actually it helps me get into the zone. Like I know when I am in the zone and when I’m not in the zone and I’m getting bombarded. [crosstalk] context, but certain tasks require you to be creative, require you to think, require you to really be in the zone, and music really helps me get in the zone. I don’t put on a playlist. I pick one song. That song will keep running until I finish the document.
Vidya: My dad told me, he was like, “You can study music if that’s what you want to do or you can study engineering if that’s what you want to do.” It was a conscious choice that I made because of, remember when I told you that I was in high school. Definitely was a part of many more people who were also musically very talented and were trying to break into music. The musical industry can be very, very competitive. Really brutal sometimes. You really need to be connected to the right people at the right time at the right place to actually [crosstalk]. That probability scared me a little bit.
Rachel: Oh, interesting.
Vidya: Because even when I was doing TV shows and stuff, I used to have recordings at, it used to start at like 11:00 PM and go all through the night.
Vidya: Yes. If you look at some of the TV shows that I gave, recording, we used to get ready at like 11:00 AM. By the time everything was set up, the mic checks, the tech checks, and all the people arrive and blah-blah-blah, the recording started at 11:00 PM, and some of the songs that I sang in that show was like at 1:00 AM, where I was actually yawning, because 1:00 AM is time for sleeping. Similarly, when I used to sing scratch tracks. Scratch tracks basically are, when you work with budding music directors.
They can’t really hire these top singers to come and just figure out how the song is. They basically work with amateur singers like how I was back then. They experiment like, “Can you sing this? Can you sing that? Let’s see how it sounds,” for that. You basically work with several recording studios, and they used to call at random hours, like 10:00 PM, “Can you come and do this scratch track?”
That honestly scared me a bit on how long will this go on?” It was very uncertain that– I wasn’t sure of how I could control my destiny there, because it was not just dependent on how good of a singer I am and how much effort I am putting into it, but so many things had to align over there.
I guess it’s partly true in all industries, but it was much more in the musical industry, and that was what compelled me to pursue engineering where things looked a lot more stable, is one way to put it I guess, where I could control my destiny in some way or the other if I was willing to put in the effort. I also had the guidance of a lot of my cousins and friends who broke into engineering, who came to work for some of the amazing companies, tech companies over here, and they encouraged me like, “I think you can do both, if you really want to,” but one would be your primary and one would be “side hustle.”
Rachel: Right. Side hustle. Where do you get your inspiration to work on a song, particular places you go or states of mind that you need to be creative about music? Where do you get inspired?
Vidya: I would say quite a few places. One is, there’s always some form of music playing at our house at all times, because both me and my husband, we both really like music, and he has much more theoretical musical knowledge than I do, honestly. Like he can listen to a song and tell you what ragam it is. Ragam is– You know the ragam, right?
Rachel: Yes, I do. I was reading–
Vidya: He can listen to it, and he can just say, “Oh, this is this ragam.” He learnt violin like I mentioned. Because kids learn something or the other. We appreciate music quite a bit, like if he finds something interesting, he sends that to me. If I find something interesting, I send it to him. We have a shared playlist.
Vidya: [crosstalk] we keep dropping songs. Whenever we go on car drives, the car starts with a song. We as a family listen to a lot of songs. We watch musical shows quite a bit, I would say. There’s a lot of inspiration. A lot of times we discover songs when we are listening to Spotify or Amazon Music or something, the new mix comes up or YouTube Music, like something new comes up, or we see something on TV, and that stems up, “Oh, these are like the next 10 songs that I should go and listen.” A lot of inspiration is right here at home.
I guess a challenge for I think all of us is when you are a mom, when you have a demanding job, when you have things– more things that you can handle at any given point of time, I think finding that “me time” is always hard. Right?
Vidya: I realized that, it’s very hard for me to find an exclusive “me time,” so I’m just going to make all time our time and music time.
Rachel: Okay. Yes.
Vidya: Whenever, like I said, when I’m writing something, I turn on music. We sing songs quite a bit at home instead of speaking because that’s too boring. We just sing. We try to infuse music in most things we do, and car drives definitely are my favorite, especially when I’m driving to work. That’s when I actually get to practice a lot; singing practice, experiment. I do a lot of that. A part of me is kind of looking forward to going back to work and those car drives.
Rachel: Oh, interesting. Yes, your mobile studio time.
Vidya: Mobile studio time. Yes, definitely.
Rachel: I really have enjoyed this so much. Anything you want to add or just, we’ve sort of talked on journey, and I’ve interspersed questions, but anything you want to add?
Vidya: I would say music definitely can help you in more ways than you can imagine, honestly. When your listeners, if they’re feeling low, if they are wanting a shoulder to lean on and they don’t find any immediately, like they can probably use music.
Vidya: Especially right now, I know your listeners are not just in the tech industry, you have listeners much beyond the tech industry. Juggling everything can be quite stressful, and for those who are not able to do meditation, music can be a meditation.
Rachel: Yes. It’s true.
Vidya: Definitely has been one for me.
Rachel: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Outro: That was inspiring. Be sure to listen again soon.
Speaker: Agile Vocalist is created and produced by Rachel Medanic. Contributing editors include Ben Krueger and Daisy Owen. Design by Amanda Whitesell and Sacha Brandt. With special thanks to my husband, Dave.