Alexa Burnston ’22: Exploring Vocal Training Practices of Carnatic and Jazz Traditions

Summer 2021

About the Project

I received funding for weekly voice lessons all summer long. My Carnatic music training consisted of weekly Zoom voice lessons with Professor Vijayalakshmy Subramaniam, a former Fulbright Teaching Fellowship recipient at Duke University. During our time together, we worked through all seven “suladi sapta talas,” the seven key rhythmic exercises for Carnatic singing. We also learned two ragas, or scale structures (akin to major or minor, or modes in western music) and sang the tala exercises with these ragas. After this, we also discussed the role of Carnatic music and the lives of Carnatic musicians, and finally ended the summer by learning the two traditional first songs learned in Carnatic music. Through this experience, I adapted to a completely different form of singing, which required a completely different tone and voice position than what I am accustomed to as an opera singer.

My second project focused on jazz as a classical tradition. In this experience, I was able to meet with Professor Lenora Helm Hammonds from the North Carolina Central University both in person and remotely for fewer, but longer lessons. In our lessons, we began by distinguishing jazz style from the opera in which I was originally trained. We worked on voice health for contemporary music, and sang exercises that challenged my ear training. We also learned standards that I knew from a classical musical theatre context, and put them in the jazz style. We also learned various styles of standards, including Bossa Nova style. We learned various musical modes, and practiced improvising on those modes. This style is different from opera, yet has a similar music theory structure, so I was able to begin singing songs right away, compared to Carnatic music, which takes more time.

Through the generous support of the Benenson Award, I developed a personal blog of my experiences, including most of my weekly lesson recaps, my progress, and thoughts as I conducted this work. I also developed a good number of connections for my future research I will conduct this year for my Program II Capstone. I also decided to continue this work into this upcoming academic year by continuing jazz lessons at North Carolina Central University and applying for more research funding for Carnatic lessons. I will now incorporate this training into my final senior vocal recital in Spring 2022. I am grateful for the opportunity to explore new music traditions. It has been a wonderful experience!