Mrs. Monali Bala is a very talented, multi- faceted artist, and I am honored to say she is my music teacher. Some of her skills include being trained in both Carnatic and Hindustani style classical singing, as well as being the lead vocalist for the band “Tuning Folk”. She is a brilliant music teacher who runs the music school ‘The School of Music’ in Chennai, India. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she stepped up to the challenge of social distancing teaching by moving all of her classes to the online learning environment, which had only been reserved for international singing students like me before 2020.
Monali Auntie as I call her, is not only an accomplished musician but also a community leader who continuously works to make a difference in people’s lives by running various charity events for minority groups and the poor.
One of the things that inspires me the most is her eagerness to learn even though she is already such an accomplished teacher and artist. As I said before, she learns dance, is trained in singing and even learns the awe-inspiring Indian martial art, Kalaripayattu.
Please learn more about her story and the difference she makes in the following interview.
For the readers, can you give an introduction,some insight into your music school, and how music is a part of your life everyday?
Right. Hi Shreyas, thank you for asking me to do this interview and being a part of your blog in some way. I am a professional musician, I do all kinds of work. One of the largest parts of my time is my music school in Chennai. Till the COVID started, it was a different story. For the past ten years, I have been having a music school called The School of Music, which started as a vocal school initially, for different genres. It slowly moved on to taking different kinds of music, like instrumental music. We teach Carnatic, Hindustani and light classical singing, along with drums, guitar, piano, and veena. Now, we have two Indian classical dance forms. We have different offerings for students with different interests. Post-COVID:19, we have been doing most of the classes online, but we are hoping that things will move on. We have started 1:1 classes for instrumental classes, but we have restricted group classes, and we are doing them online. I also do a lot of solo programs, which are all classically based. I also have a band, which is called Tuning Folk, we are a basic band of 5 members, and we do a lot of contemporary folk and classical music. I am the lead vocalist in that band, and there are other musicians as well. This is what it is. As you must have understood by now, music has to be a part of my day to day life because first and foremost, I am teaching music all the time. Right from 5:30 in the morning, I am with my students, mentoring my students and teaching them. Some days, I wake up earlier than that and do practice, I will do an early morning raga. Similarly, I might stay back at night and do a late-night raga at 12. I also mentor musicians who work in a different field, like music directors, playback singers, where there are a lot of other theoretical and compositional elements to the music. I have also done a lot of composing for dance forms, and I create the entire music which goes with any Indian classical dance forms.
I also have a very large collection of musical instruments, which actually got featured in a recent writeup for a newspaper :
“Monali’s collection of musical instruments is one of its kind in Chennai , the oldest being a 120 year old English piano and a 100 year old Veena, apart from innumerable guitars, Veena, keyboards, electronic piano, tanpura, tanpuri, harmonium, drums, Tabla, mini harp, dan bau, sitar, cello, ektaras, several world percussion, ghottuvadhyam, violins, tabla, ghatam ….”
This is most of my work, in a nutshell,
How has your music career changed since the pandemic? I assume that many events and concerts were cancelled. Were there any large plans that you had that were put on hold? How were you able to make up for this gap at home?
The first month, when the pandemic hit, the month of March, I had 4 cancellations. People just said that they were indefinitely postponing the events. I do believe that it is postponed, as I know that most of these organizers would like to have these programs, and are at a loss since they were forced to be cancelled. it is probably going to happen a few years down the line. For practical purposes, it was a cancellation. A few of them were solo and a few band rehearsals. Those have been stopped. No one has decided to go ahead with programs past April. Now we are having a few, but they are only through the online medium. There are pros and cons to having a concert online. The pro would be that you can reach an audience across the world. Even people from other countries will be able to tune in since it is all online. However, the main issue with this, is that no one wants to pay for online concerts. The moment it becomes online, people think that it ought to be free. That’s a challenge. Singing in front of people, I interact with a lot of students, which ensures that I am still engaging in that social interaction, However, many artists only depend on programs, and they have been hit quite a bit more. Some artists have a combination, are fairing better because we are still in touch. Yes, I miss singing in front of large crowds, but I am taking it with optimism.
How difficult was the transition into the lockdown period in regards to teaching classes and a music school? What were some of the obstacles that you faced? How did you conquer them, and are there any that are still unsolved?
I was lucky enough to have embraced online learning very quickly. I started doing this almost 8 years ago, in 2012. I had already been using Skype and Face Time during that time, so I am not new to online classes. That number has gone up over the years. The medium was not different, but the scale was a lot larger this time. It has gone up 6 to 7 times. Every student became online, so there was no difference in my teaching from a student in the U.S, to a student living in the same building as me. This is a true story, there is a student I have who is living right above me, but we are still forced to do online classes because of social distancing. teaching you online, and teaching this girl online, there is no difference anymore. At first, there were some challenges. All of my international students were one on one, but when I needed to do online classes for the students in Chennai, many of them were group classes. That was the main challenge, I had to adapt my online medium for group classes. The main problem was the bandwidth and the lag which happened through the zoom calls. In school, when face to face interaction is possible, there are many times when you can ask them to sing together. There are also some phrases where you can sing one on one, and we would ask them to do it individually and would give them double the time to repeat it. In zoom, one cannot do it. There is no question of singing together, there is lag, and it is just not possible. Everything must be one on one. Some teaching methods have changed. One thing I do is when I am teaching a new lesson, I would ask all of them to go on mute. Let’s say for example that some 4 people are learning together. I tell all 4 of them to go on mute, and I sing, and I ask them to repeat in their houses in mute. That becomes like broadcast learning. After I finish my singing, I keep the same beat structure so they can hear it. After a certain part of the music has completed, I ask them to unmute themselves one by one so I can hear them sing that part out loud, to me and the rest of the class. I would them correct them. This is a challenge I have overcome it in this way. I have combined the musical interaction and broadcast learning in one class.
Certain theoretical aspects of music are where I have to hear them sing in front of them and I can correct them. Those aspects have left the teaching for the time being. I think I will wait until I meet them. I am also trying to developing how to teach theory online. I realized that I am going to face this challenge with my international students as well. For example, if I want to teach you theory, I cannot wait for you to come to hear or for me to go there, as that is just not practical since we both live on different sides of the world. I have to figure out a way to teach you. I am developing a way to solve this, but it is still a work in progress. The second problem is related to the bandwidth providers. Since there is so much load due to the pandemic, there are times when the picture gets blurry and the video lags. This is not really in my hand though, as until the bandwidth improves, there is nothing much we can do about it.
For me, I know that music will always be a source of joy and a de stresser during any intense situation. How has music helped you cope with the uncertainty of the world and the pandemic situation?
I am a lifelong learner. I always like to learn new things. I find that I can learn new things meaningfully. This learning can be in my music, and other things as well. I learn a lot of newer things within the music. I have got the opportunity to read research papers from other musicians, listened to different music, and been able to implement that into my learning. I listen to other genres, and I can identify the deeper meanings of these songs, and understand. I have started connecting with different musical cultures. I have also started focusing on other art forms that are somewhat tied to music. I learn Odissi and Bharatanatyam. I have started putting more time to that. You need music to dance, and I use my music to dance. I have told you a while back that I am a very serious practitioner of the martial art known as Kalaripayattu. I have got a lot more time to practice that now, and I would say that overall, music is very powerful and deep. I have used this time to increase this power of music, and my knowledge of other forms that I am practicing.
I know that you have been volunteering and helping the community in Chennai. Can you explain your journey throughout this process? Were there things that you learned from this experience? If so, can you please share these lessons?
Yes. Community Initiatives are something that I have been involved in for the past 6 to 7 years. I have been deeply involved on a sustainable scale. Every year, we have a community art festival anyway, which happens in January. Across different art forms, art forms which have not been giving their due, everything finds presence on a single stage. All art forms are beautiful, and all art forms deserve to be treated equally. Similarly, all artists must be treated equally. After this started, some of us also got together to teach in community spaces, where anyone can come and learn. The fee is very small, and even those who cannot pay the fee, we sponsor. This has been happening have been going on in four places for the past three years. This is an initiative which we have already been doing. I also got involved in a campaign which helped ensure some food security for poor people. We asked families to prepare two extra servings of food a week. This didn’t need to be anything special, all we needed for them to do is prepare some extra servings of whatever they were already eating. Everybody was ready to do this, as it was not too much work and it helped contribute to peoples lives. I moved out of that place, so I was unable to continue there after that. I am also part of an initiative which helps people in Bengal with sanitation and education. This last campaign which I have been involved in is part of the pandemic. There is a lot of lack of programs. There are many artists whos entire livelihood depends on performances. What happens to these people? The pandemic has ensured that they have nothing, zilch earnings. Many of them were dependent on temple festivals, church festivals., marriage, or small home functions. These have completely been wiped out. There is no festival, no congregation. If they are not able to survive, they will just leave their instruments and take up odd and menial jobs to fill in the pay gap. This was something that was troubling a lot of us. We had a campaign that would gather funds for all musicians. There were also a lot of migrant works, as they were caught in the middle of their journeys when the pandemic started. We made sure that they had some food security. The other populations that were struggling a lot were the transgender population. It was the same thing. They were always looked down upon in the country, and at best they get small jobs and basic things. However, a lot of them are performers in artistic pursuits. As it is, they are marginalized by society, this pandemic resulted in them suffering a lot. The same thing, we raised funds that helped the transgender population. The fourth group I helped was the differently able population. I have nurtured many students who have autism, and work with different organizations every month to create events for special needs children and adults. I helped in running campaigns for migrant workers, performers, the transgender community, and special needs children.
I just felt like this was the most important duty as a human being, to help other human beings, who just don’t have anything during this time. I think this is lessons that everyone should learn. We have been blessed with a lot of things, but some people don’t have enough. As I always say, if you are given more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall.
What are some of your personal reflections in regards to the pandemic, and what would be your message to the public as we struggle to cope with this pandemic?
One of the learnings and this learning is not something that has come from the pandemic, but the pandemic has re-enforced, at some point in time, we have gotten too greedy. We have just been hoarding, and our wants have far exceeded our needs. There is something we need – a safe place to stay, food on the table, good clothes, holidays – but our wants have far exceeded our needs. This unequal distribution has made the world so topsy turvy. Some people have billions, and some people have nothing. I don’t think that is fair, because everyone is a part of this world. There has to be a semblance of people who have nothing returning to normalcy. There cannot be a few people who have everything and many people who have nothing. So I think we as human beings need to reflect on this polarity, and much of this has happened because of our greed, and because of our need to dominate. The second thing we need to reflect on is the environment. What have we done to the forests? Look at any country, look at the mess we have created in the oceans, mountains and forests. We have spoiled the earth completely. Global warming is our own doing. We need to think, are we going in the right direction. We need to look at who we are. We have created too many borders and circles around ourselves. It should not work that way. There is no difference in what a man or a woman in a remote part of Africa wants versus a man or woman living in New York wants. Why would it be different? We have to embrace people, colour , race and religion don’t matter for divisions. We should embrace the differences. We are all people living on this tiny planet at the end of the day. Unless we do this, things are not going to improve. Don’t look at yourself, look around you. If you can touch lives, your life has been worth living. If you have lived only for yourself, you haven’t lived at all.
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