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Why I Hate Music Stands

Growing up, we used to joke about a local singer who always would carry in her “vanity bag”, her song book so that she is never caught off-guard, should someone ask her to sing. In the event, someone really asked her to sing, she would start off by singing a very poplar Bengali modern song (বাংলা আধুনিক)- a song she would sings everywhere and yet needed her song book to read the lyrics. Of course, in those days, the lid cover of the harmonium, an instrument commonly used by singers to play along with, served as the music stand.

Fast forward a few years., I was at a concert by a very famous singer from Kolkata who was the “star attraction” of the evening. He entered the stage with several notebooks which he carefully placed on a table next to him. He opened one of them to his desired page and placed it on a music stand. Then started to sing. It was a very popular Tagore song. He sang four more Tagore songs, each time opening a page from one of his song books. He then switched to singing a popular Hindi film song, and then another very popular Bengali Adhunik from the Golden Era. Before each song he repeated the routine of opening the selected song from one of his song books.

Now a days, all most all performers come with their own orchestra and sing to scored music. So I will have to conclude that even though the order may differ, the singer (and his/her musicians) know exactly the songs that the performer will sing. The set of songs vary minimally between different programs. And that is where I find it amazing… how can someone sing in public if he or she is unprepared? Yes, knowing the lyrics is a part of your preparation just as preparing to sing the right tune. How can an artist justify taking money for a performance and yet be under-prepared?

I hated it when the legend Asha Bhonsle had a piece of paper with four lines of a Sanskrit verse scribbled on it, which she sang with tentative confidence at the opening ceremony of the 1987 Cricket World Cup. If you remember, the weather was very bad that morning in Kolkata, and it made it very difficult for her to read the lyrics. We could see how uncomfortable she felt.

When Leonard Bernstein was taking courses in “Conducting” from a Maestro while he was a student at Harvard, he was asked by his teacher, “Mr. Bernstein, what is the second bassoon doing in bar 201?” Bernstein momentarily looked at the score to find out, to which the Maestro remarked, “Mr. Bernstein, if you do not know what the bassoon is doing, by what right are you conducting this piece?” (This is narrated by Sidney Harrison in his book “How to Appreciate Music”, EMI Music Publishing, 1981. p. 58) The point here is very simple, if you are on stage, to perform, better be prepared. I find it insulting to the audience when I “professional” artists come on stage to perform under-prepared.

Several years ago, I was requested by a young friend of mine to accompany him on the keyboards for his Durga Puja performance. I agreed and told him to send me the song he was planning to sing. On the day of the first rehearsal, he came over and we went to my music room. I played the intro and he started to sing the first stanza. By the time he was on the third line or so, he started humming the song. I stopped playing and asked him, “What’s the matter?” He very apologetically said that he forgot to bring the lyrics. I remarked caustically, “So you come here to rehearse with me- I spend several hours to prepare the song, and you didn’t even bother to memorize the lyrics!” The rehearsal was over for that day. He promised to come back the following weekend fully prepared. It’s been several years now and I have seen this young friend of mine (yes, he is still my friend) perform several times on stage. Guess what? He has stopped using a music stand and song book!


Postscript… I am indeed blessed that one of the most revered authors of our time, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, responded to this article. Here is an excerpts of a letter she had written to me on December 31, 2012.

Hi, there, Raktim, I have just been taking a look at your website, which is very smartly laid out. Not surprising, as you are such an arty person! You are into all the arts, it seems! Interesting little details – I admire Bernstein too, and am a fan of Badal Sarkar.


One question about music stands. I understand what you are saying about being prepared in advance for performances of songs, and of course opera singers also sing without clutching pieces of paper, but can complex orchestras playing Western instrumental music or indeed singers and players together doing oratorios and the like do without stands? I have never seen such performances discard stands….

Enough. All the best for your projects…

The “Dida” is her way of pulling my leg when I made a typo and addressed her as “Kataki-da” to which she wrote back, “…Somebody else did it once, and then apologized by saying that it could be both di and da – join them up and it becomes Dida”

We did correspond further on the subject on more and I do cherish them all.

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