The violin is one of the most famous instruments around the world. Its Indian history can be traced back to the 1800’s. The instrument gained popularity in southern India as it suited Carnatic music perfectly. It occupied the role of an accompany instrument for its adaptive nature. Over time the instrument has been extensively used in Hindustani classical music as well. Indian classical music has produced many great violinists and that tradition is still going strong.
Ambi Subramaniam is one such young violinist who belongs to the Gen Next of Indian classical music.
Son of the legendary violinist L. Subramaniam and vocalist Vijayashree Subramaniam, Ambi’s initiation into music was at the age of 3 when his father gave him a tiny violin. The young Ambi would imitate his father.
The early days
The young violinist gave his first performance in Colombo, when he was 7. Ambi was influenced by his father in taking up the violin. It was the constant exposure of the best possible quality of music, teaching and his natural ability that had a huge impact in drawing him towards the violin. Though the violinist had his preference clear, he did undergo training in piano and vocals.
“I have always seen myself as a violinist first. Having said that, learning the piano has been very useful to me, as it helps a great deal while I compose. I feel that when you learn multiple instruments and learn singing, you end up getting different perspectives. If I sing a song, play the same song on the piano and then play it on the violin, I will end up playing interpreting the song three different ways. Each discipline helps the other,” asserted Ambi.
Growing up he was exposed to some of the greatest musicians of different global musical traditions. This exposure has influenced the way he thinks musically. Ambi and his siblings learnt their music together but were free to explore any genre they preferred. His sister is an English singer-songwriter while his my brother is a doctor who also sings ghazals.
“To us, music is something we have grown up with and has influenced our entire lives. We have had the opportunity to grow in our careers as musicians because of our parents’ open-mindedness. They have always been passionate about teaching us diverse musical styles. This gave us the opportunity to interact with some of the most reputed musicians from around the world,” said Ambi.
The importance of practice
The siblings were assigned to the best teachers for their respective choices. This did not mean they had a lenient upbringing. A rigorous practice session was integral to their daily schedule. Practice forms an integral part of any musicians life. It does not matter whether one is a seasoned musician or has just started his sojourn. The pre requisites of being an acclaimed musician are discipline and commitment. They are developed by working hard during the practice sessions.
“Talent takes you forward but hard work is irreplaceable. Immersion is key. My father has a saying – ‘Music is a vast ocean and no one can claim to know it all. The more you know, the more you realize how little you know’,” quipped Ambi.
The violin is used in almost every style of music across the world. It can be played across various genres of music as a solo instrument or as part of an orchestra. The violin makes it presence felt in many diverse forms. It is this nature of the instrument that allows violinists to be able to collaborate across genres and styles. A lot of violinists have experimented with genres.
“Firstly, it is important to study and understand the styles of music that you want to play. Whether you are talking about fusing multiple styles to create a different sound, or collaborating with an artist from a different genre. The moment you are able to do that, you find it easier to de-compartmentalise,” said the young violinist.
Performing alongside his father and other musicians
Ambi is not averse to tread the path less taken. The violinist does not want to be labelled as only a solo or duo or even an ensemble performer. The process of studying different genres, artists and trying to write music that brings out the best out of different groups is something Ambi is fond of. Even for his performances, the line-up is not important. What catches his fancy is how challenging is it going to be. The idea of composing for different setups, artists and genres is the deal for the violinist.
“When I perform with my father, I try to ensure that what I am playing complements his phrases. We always keep an eye on the musical big picture, and that means different things on different days. Sometimes, I play more and other times I step back. We try to perform in a way that brings out the best in each other,” said Ambi.
“I am very grateful to have played with brilliant musicians who bring out the best in me. I think all you can do is give your best and not worry too much about the rest. That always translates into a fun performance.”
The violinist and the teacher
Along with performing across the globe, Ambi is also involved in his family’s music academy. His sister Bindu and him, run the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts (SaPa). The academy trains musically inclined children as young as three years old and helps them grow into passionate musicians. They started the SaPa in Schools program in 2014 to create an ecosystem for music education in India and integrate music into the mainstream curriculum. They now work with over 30,000 kids across five states.
“Our vision is to make high quality music education accessible to all children, regardless of economic or musical background. We have been taking several new steps in that direction,” gleamed Ambi.
Though having his hands full, the violinist is aiming to acquire more, musically.
“I am currently working on getting my Ph.D. in music. My doctoral research focuses on a new global violin playing technique that will allow a musician to be able to adapt to different musical styles,” quipped Ambi.