Choral Music Struggles to Gain Ground in India: Insights from Conductor Nadezda Balyan

[Fact 1: Choir singers wear a smile to keep their singing from sounding flat.
Fact 2: Choir singers not only harmonise their voices but also their heartbeat.]

In the bustling city of New Delhi, a unique symphony unfolds under the baton of Nadezda (Nadya) Balyan, the passionate conductor of the Delhi Chamber Choir (DCC). Gathered in a semi-circle, over 20 Indian singers sit with backs straight, their eyes fixed on Nadezda, taking her every cue to harmonize their voices and, somewhat remarkably, their heartbeats. The conductor’s instructions are precise and heartfelt: “Be stable. Breathe in, breathe out. Shut your ears and sing. Control your tone. Use your head voice, not your chest voice.” As they sing, smiles adorn their faces, a subtle technique ensuring that their melody remains buoyant and unaffected by any potential flatness.

Nadezda Balyan, an alumna of the Moscow State University of Art and Culture, helms the Piano Forte School of Music and Art in New Delhi while also directing the DCC. With a background rich in musical education, including a Bachelor’s degree in Piano and Choir conducting from Tula Music College and a Master’s degree in Music Theory from the aforementioned Moscow university, Nadezda’s life has been an unwavering journey in music. She reminisces fondly about her early years, saying, “When I was a year old, I used to walk towards the piano and play some melody, and my grandfather would say, ‘Oh, she’s going to be a musician someday.’ I became a pianist first. Later, I decided to try my hand at being a conductor. I also sought training in vocals along with music theory.”

The art of conducting concerts, as Nadezda sees it, is a captivating endeavor that brings performers together. A conductor’s role isn’t merely to lead but to unify, setting tempos, shaping the ensemble’s collective sound, and managing the interpretation and pacing of the music. “The best part about conducting is to be able to teach and choose the repertoire. I get to spend hours researching and listening to great music in order to choose my favourite pieces and present them to the choir,” she says.

Nadezda’s innovative approach has resulted in a rare fusion of Western music and Hindustani raags, the most recent being the well-known rag Desh. For those unfamiliar, Desh has served as the foundation for many iconic patriotic compositions, including the timeless “Vande Mataram.” Nadezda comments, “Time has now come when all the barriers are being broken and genres, styles and languages blended. New choir composers are collaborating with Indian musicians to come up with some amazing works.”

Specializing in acapella, a form of choir singing devoid of instrumental accompaniment, Nadezda emphasizes its unique challenges. “You have to be clear and strong in your hearing, and your voice should be strong and steady enough to control the pitch.

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. If you can’t hold your breath properly, your pitch will fail you. So believe me when I say, people who sing Acapella music are extremely hardworking,” she explains.

Initially, Nadezda’s school attracted a large number of expats interested in choir singing. Over time, however, Indian singers have become increasingly involved. Despite this, she acknowledges that choir-singing is still struggling to establish itself firmly in India. “The journey has been slow. It took quite some time for DCC, too, to become popular. We usually explain to the audience what we are performing, who is the composer and why the music is the way it is.”

Nadezda is optimistic about the talent and potential of Indian singers. “Such a good ear for music, and amazingly rich voices. People from Tamil Nadu and Kerala have an excellent base in their voice,” she notes.

Her musical journey has taken her and her troupe to Mumbai, which she finds more receptive to Western music than Delhi. After Mumbai, she believes that Bengaluru is the next best city for acapella, followed by Chennai, which she admires for its talented musicians. “Singer-composer Kalyani Nair is excellent. Along with Western classical music, she is conversant with Hindustani music as well. I think Chennai is lucky to have a lot of good musicians in the conservatory as well. And A.R. Rahman and L. Subramanian have given such amazing compositions to the world.”

Like many creative endeavors, choirs face challenges, particularly in terms of funding, which limits their performances in other Indian cities. “We don’t earn enough money to pay our singers and book the venue,” Nadezda admits. Nonetheless, she remains hopeful that fusion concerts will eventually turn the tide in their favor.

Undeterred, Nadezda is dedicated to reviving choir singing. “We conduct workshops for new entrants. We are also planning to take our performances to the South soon; hopefully, our next destinations will be Bengaluru and Chennai,” she concludes, ever committed to her mission of spreading the harmonious art of choir singing across India.

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