Artistic Success

January 22, 2014

I’ve been on this planet long enough to notice why some people in my field develop into first-rate artists and others don’t.  My students ask me all the time if I have any secrets or tips for gaining mastery as a musician.  Spending time with the remarkable Gundecha Brothers has confirmed my thoughts on this matter.  They perfectly embody what I think are the traits needed to become a great musician, which are (in this specific order):

  1. Talent
  2. Passion
  3. Vision
  4. Work Ethic

Let’s look at each of these.  The notion of musical talent is complex and involves a lot of #2 and #3, but at its most basic level is the ability to learn music quickly and accurately, a feeling for the nuances of pitch, and good basic rhythm.  These are skills that can be developed, but a certain amount of it has to be innate, and if you don’t have it from the beginning, you’ll never get it. 

However, even the most talented people will get nowhere if they aren’t passionate about music.  You have to really want it, more than anything else.  It has to get you excited.  You’ve got to feel a burning desire to make music that is more powerful than anything else in your life.

But talent and passion still aren’t enough.  What are you going to do with that talent and that passion?  What is your vision?  You can love music more than anything else, but in order to develop to a high level you need to be able to point that talent and passion in a specific direction, otherwise you’ll just drift.

And that brings us to the last trait necessary for artistic success: work ethic.  I’ve lost count of the number of times Gurujis have arrived at the Gurukul at 10:00 a.m. to put in five hours of teaching, coming straight from the airport, where they arrived after an overnight flight following a concert.  They never stop.  They’re either performing or teaching.  When they’re in town they teach seven days a week.   Once in a while they might go for some tourist activity when they’re traveling, but that’s about it for entertainment.  Mostly they work.  And work.  And work.  I challenge you to name one great musician who is any different.  You might have a great vision of what you want to achieve as a musician, and you might be very talented and passionate, but if you’re not willing to give up your Friday nights and Sunday mornings to long, hard hours of practice you aren’t going to make it.  I’ve done pretty well for myself as a musician, but as far as talent goes, I’m somewhere in the middle.  Not the best, though certainly not the worst.  But I’m deeply passionate about music, I’ve had a vision of where I wanted to take that passion, and day after day, week after week, and year after year I work at it.  Not because I have to, but because I want to.  I just love making music.

People ask me all the time “how do you do it all?” and people also ask me why I work so much.  Well, here’s the secret: it’s not work!  Work is paying taxes or sitting on boring committees.  Music is bliss and a privilege.  I’m happiest when I’m composing or practicing, and the more challenging the project, the more satisfaction I get out of it.  I can manage a lot of things at a high level because I work on them every day, and because for a long time I’ve had a vision of how I wanted my life to turn out as a musician.  I’m also fortunate that I’ve had guidance from the best people in my field, who have all embodied the traits listed above and are always inspiring.

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I’ve been India for almost six months; I’m two-thirds of the way through my trip.  My Hindi has gone from about 10% to 20%.  (I took a class a few years back and can read and write the basic Devanagari script, but I only speak a little bit.) Not bad, but far below what I had planned. 

“This will be my fourth trip to India,” I said to my friends back in June, before we left.  “And this time I’m going to leave speaking Hindi.”

It’s not going to happen.

Why?  Because learning a language is an emotional experience for me, and I only have the energy for one language at a time.  I thought I could learn to sing Dhrupad at a higher level and get my Hindi together simultaneously, but what I’ve discovered is that the emotional energy required learning a new musical language is equally intense to the emotional energy required to learn a written and verbal language.  My primary objective coming here was to get my singing to a much higher level.  I’m on track in that regard, but it has taken every ounce of physical, emotional, and intellectual energy that I have to stay on track.  I’ve tried working on my Hindi late at night after a full day of practicing and going to class and studying recordings, but I’m just too wiped out.  It goes in my head and then it’s gone the next morning.  It doesn’t stick.

(The other big issue is that most of the people I interact with here speak English, and most of them are fluent.  There’s no reason for them to use Hindi with me when we can communicate much quicker and better through English, and most of them want to practice their English.)

Way back in March of 2013 my friend Kaliope told me that learning a language is an emotional experience.  She teaches in a French school and is 100% fluent in English, French, and Greek, so she knows what she’s talking about.  I thought I understood what she meant at the time, but I didn’t.  Now I do.

What does that mean that learning a language is an emotional experience?  For me it means that words and phrases (spoken, written, or sung) are rooted in real-world, physical experiences that are intertwined with feelings.  I learned the Hindi words and phrases that I know well through real experiences.  The book work is useful of course, but only as a supplement.  I can’t learn a language from a book any more than I can learn a style of music from a book.

Learning Dhrupad is the same thing.  When I sing certain phrases in certain ragas I have very distinct memories of when Gurujis taught me those phrases or when I picked them up from a recording.  I also remember the feelings I had at those moments.  They are not just sequences of notes; they are definitive moments in my live, real emotional experiences.

I’m pretty hard on myself, much more than most of my friends realize because of my sunny disposition, so I’ve been beating myself up about not doing better with my Hindi (among other things), but perhaps some time in the future.  I know enough to get by with Hindi/English conversations, and I can read signs and I do reasonably well with pronouncing the text in the traditional Dhrupad compositions I’m learning (which I write in Devanagari since it’s much more precise than the English transliteration).  But that’s probably about as far as it’s going to go with this trip.  Maybe I can come back some time in the future and do a two or three-month immersion intensive.  But for now my focus is Dhrupad, and how lucky I am to be able to focus on that.  My life is vastly better now that I’m singing Dhrupad at a higher level, something I could only have achieved with nine months of intense immersion under the right teachers.  It’s an infinite journey, but I’m actually becoming a bit of a Dhrupad singer, something I’ve dreamed of for years.  I’m looking forward to sharing this amazing music with my friends and audiences back home.

 

I just got back from a week in Germany with Alarm Will Sound (AWS).  It was an interesting experience.  I expected when I landed in Frankfurt that I would feel a strong sense of relief at being back in a more familiar Western country.  But I didn’t.  I felt disoriented.  Everything was amazingly clean and functional.  The trains even have a ten minute guarantee (or your money back), definitely not something you’ll find in India!  But it was cold, both literally cold and there was a palpable feeling of distance from the people.  The wealth is staggering.  It seems everyone is wearing expensive clothes and carrying fancy purses and briefcases.  Everyone is busy, busy, busy, constantly checking their phones and looking worried.  No one talks to you.

Being back with my old friends in AWS was a treat, but it’s a completely different experience than spending time with my friends at the Gurukul.  At the ashram-like Gurukul we’re in a quiet, rural environment singing justly tuned intervals over a drone all day, which produces feelings of peace and centeredness.  The students are quiet and humble.  They rarely use profanity or make jokes with sexual innuendo.  Drugs or alcohol are expressly forbidden at the Gurukul, as is sexual relations with other students or friends.  The students only speak respectfully about our Gurus, who encourage us to focus 100% on Dhrupad and not get distracted by media and pop culture.

My AWS friends, on the other hand, are bundles of nervous energy.  They’re very, very smart, and have access to a nearly 24/7 diet of media and technology via their phones and tablets.  They talk fast about a wide range of subjects, though by far the most popular subject is media, for which they have a voracious appetite.  Internet memes, phone apps, TV shows, websites, movies, etc.  A few of them are readers and prefer to discuss books and articles, but most of them are passionate about media.  Profanity is more common that at the Gurukul.  They are irreverent, witty, and energetic.

And of course the music is different.  The biggest thing that I noticed is that in the West—especially in larger ensembles—there is a much starker line drawn between rehearsing music and performing it.  Rehearsals are often tedious affairs, with very detailed work done on minute sections of a piece.  This is necessary, of course, and one of the reasons AWS has risen to the top ranks is because their Alan Pierson leads the willing players through such focused, disciplined rehearsals.  But it can be boring.  Many times I would look around and see half the band playing with their phones or reading books while waiting their turn to polish some difficult passage.  However, when the concert rolls around they are completely focused and involved in the music.  They can turn it on or off.  Teaching is generally also a separate activity, though AWS is involved with some interesting educational initiatives right now.

In Hindustani music the lines between practicing and performing and teaching are blurrier.  My Gurus include students on almost every one of their concerts, including big ones at major venues.  (The students are playing tanpura and singing backup vocals.)  And when practicing Dhrupad one is just as engaged as when performing it.  Part of this is because it is a soloist or chamber ensemble tradition, so one is pretty much always singing or playing, but it’s also because Dhrupad involves improvisation, which isn’t something you can turn on and off as easily as you can an isolated melody or riff.  This is why our lessons with Gurujis often turn into informal performances.

One is not better than the other, they’re just different.  The improvisational language of Dhrupad gives it an immediacy and level of communication with an audience that I rarely feel with Western classical music.  And the purity of the music produces feelings of wonder and peace that I rarely experience when listening to modern Western music.  But the notated tradition, the large ensemble, and disciplined rehearsal practice of a world-class Western ensemble like AWS produces an astonishing and inspiring variety of musical sounds and concepts.  The ability of my friends in AWS to traverse such different musical terrain over the course of a single concert is mind blowing.  It is a testament to their musicianship and discipline, as well as their far-ranging intellectual curiosity.  It is stimulating as a listener.  Even though it uses extensive improvisation, Hindustani music, by contrast, is much more homogenous.  Indian classical musicians rarely experiment with form or orchestration.

I feel lucky to be able to bounce between the two worlds.  It’s humbling and inspiring, and also useful as I can take what I perceive to be the strengths of each tradition and the community that perpetrates it and make those strengths a bigger part of my life.

Homesick

November 27, 2013

Homesickness is a physical problem for me, not a mental problem.  I actually feel it.  For me it’s a dull ache in the stomach, with a tinge of nausea. It spreads from there, to a weakness in the knees and a spacy feeling in the head.  It’s hard to get things done when I feel homesick.  Everything seems like too much effort.  Staying in bed is the best option, just counting the days and hours until I get to go home, wishing the present would go away.

Home isn’t perfect.  America has lots of problems and my regular working life can be stressful.  But still, it is home.  I know my way around.  There is no language barrier.  I’m comfortable there.  I can get the food I like and I’m more in control of my time.  The strong infrastructure makes it much easier to get things done and I feel healthier and more powerful.  And I have the woods and my beloved trails.

Going to Germany was disorienting (more on that in the next blog post), but returning to India was even harder.  I’m happy to be back in the warm bosom of Dhrupad at the Gurukul with my amazing teachers and wonderful friends, but that dull ache of homesickness has hit me again.  I know it will pass, but that doesn’t make it any easier.  I’m deeply grateful for the Fulbright experience I’m having here and there are many things I love about India, but when I’m feeling homesick all I can focus on are the things that bother me.  I wish people would stop staring at me.  The pollution is abominable.  The conservative social mores and the public racism in this country are ridiculous.  The corruption is frustrating.  I wish there were real mountain biking options in Bhopal.  And where or where are the trails?  Ugh.

But then I realize once again that home is where I make it.  I watched a documentary a few weeks ago about the folks living in refugee camps in Syria.  I can’t imagine how they must feel.  That is real struggle and real suffering.  So I shift my thinking.  I think of all the things I love about this place and all the incredible opportunities I have.  I feel gratitude that my family is here, my precious girls and wife that I love above all.  Being with them is the greatest blessing, no matter where.  I focus on how lucky I am to explore this ancient music with no distractions, guided by the best teachers on the globe.  I also think about how much I’ve been able to positively impact the students at the Gurukul through my teaching of Western music. And I think about all the genuine friends we’ve made with our neighbors.  I feel something nice spreading from my heart to the rest of my body and slowly, slowly that dull ache fades away.  I’m back in the center again.  I’m home.

Next week I’ll hit the half-way mark for my Fulbright experience in India.  It has been life-changing in so many ways.

When I showed up I knew I wanted to go much deeper into Dhrupad singing, but I didn’t know exactly how deep.  I knew I wanted to improve my voice and get to a point where I could sing a bit with my various creative projects.  I also wanted to just learn more about the pitch side of Hindustani music to broaden my vocabulary as a composer, improviser, and teacher, but I didn’t have any serious ambition to perform as a Dhrupad singer.  I didn’t think it was possible given my age and my background as a percussionist.  I was wrong.

My guru, Ramakant Gundecha, thought otherwise.  He told me earlier this year that he thought by the time I left I’d be ready to start performing.  Of course, I trust him 100% as a teacher—he knows what he’s doing—but I figured maybe he was being a bit over-ambitious, perhaps eager to show off one of his foreign students.

However, after nearly four and a half months of intense, focused practice and instruction, my singing has indeed improved by leaps and bounds.  My pitch is much more precise, my voice is more stable and even in all registers, and my basic sound has opened up considerably and is more consistent than ever.  I still have a long ways to go, but the second half of my experience here will be even more productive than the first half, so I believe Ramakantji is right: I will be ready to perform and I very much want to do so.

I can’t imagine my life without Dhrupad now.  Singing Dhrupad every day has made me realize how very mechanical my life as a Western percussionist is.  I’m not being critical of Western music or the percussive arts—after all, I do love them—but most of my time in that area is spent striking keyboard instruments that are based on the world’s most mechanical (and harsh sounding) tuning system (Equal Temperament).  And on keyboard instruments there is no way to slide between, say, a C and a C#.  But as I know very well now, there is a UNIVERSE of music in those microtones.  And if I’m not playing keyboard instruments, I’m banging on drums and cymbals, which are noise-making instruments in the literal, scientific sense.  And all of that is with sticks that are outside of my body.  Singing long tones in just intonation for hours at a time has sensitized me to a whole world of pitch nuance and phrasing that isn’t possible with my regular instruments.  Practicing Dhrupad is a calming and centering activity, and one that has opened my heart and my mind in myriad ways.

This will have a profound impact on the future direction of my career.  Of course, I could just practice Dhrupad and not worry about performing it, but I want to share this music with people and having performances lined up definitely helps motivate me on a daily basis to practice better.

I’ve already made some changes to open up more time for singing.  I resigned from full-time percussion playing with Alarm Will Sound (though I’ll continue working with them in other capacities) and I’ve stopped commissioning solo marimba pieces from other composers.  I still intend to tour as a solo marimbist and I am involved with several chamber groups as a percussionist, but singing will become a big part of my work over the next decade and that will by necessity require less time on my percussion instruments.  This is all a bit risky, especially since it will make me less marketable (presenters have a hard time understanding polymaths . . . ) and I’ve already built a lot of momentum in my other areas.  But I’m not going to worry about all that too much.  I’m just going to focus on the music.  It will all work out in the end.  It has to; I must sing Dhrupad!

  1. The Classical Music

I think India’s classical music—especially Dhrupad—is some of the most perfect music ever created.  It has everything: the depth, refinement, and seriousness of Western classical music, the structured improvisational rigor of jazz, the tunefulness of pop music, the deep grooves of folk music.  The Raga system has endured thousands of years and it will endure a thousand more.  It is truly one of India’s greatest gifts to the world.

  1. The People

Like any country, India hosts the whole gamut of humanity, from the very best to the very worst.  But the best Indians are some of the best people on the planet.  They are as cultured, intelligent, educated, creative, and honest as the best from anywhere else, but what makes them distinct is their depth of emotional sensitivity and the openness of their hearts.  I know that’s a generalization, but it’s true, and something Indians are justifiably proud of.

  1. Good Chai

It’s possible to get a good cup of chai in America at someone’s home or a fancy Indian restaurant, but the stuff they sell at Starbucks, et al, is pure nonsense.  And even if you do get a good cup of chai, it’s just not the same as on the side of a road somewhere, while striking up a conversation with a friendly person.  And the best of all experiences is enjoying a fine cup of chai in someone’s home while sharing a laugh and watching the kids run around.  Good chai is a powerful conduit to strengthening social bonds.

  1. Small Businesses

The large corporate businesses that have destroyed many towns in America are making inroads in India too, but thankfully they are still far outnumbered by small businesses.  It’s a marked difference that one feels every day.  The shop owners here generally care about doing good business with you because they aren’t paid by the hour.  They have to retain their customers or they won’t be able to survive.  So they work with you, they’re genuinely friendly, and happy to help you out however they can.  It makes shopping much more personable and meaningful.

  1. Commuting by Motorcycle

Motorcycles and scooters are ubiquitous in India, and they are a great way to get around.  They are much more fuel-efficient than cars, take up less space on the road, are easier to park, fun to drive, and are much cheaper to buy and maintain.  Everyone rides them here, from rich to poor, men and women. 

  1. Efficiency

People generally have less money here and so are more thrifty and efficient.  For example, in America the roads are taken up with giant SUVs that only have one person in them.  In India people pack into smaller cars.  People don’t run A/C here unless it’s really hot (like over 100 degrees), etc, etc.  The very rich are still wasteful, but the rest of the folks are not.  It’s something I’m going to try hard to bring home with me as a lifestyle change.

  1. Kid-Friendly Atmosphere

With the exception of some hard-core classical concerts or theatre productions, it’s fine to bring kids anywhere here.  In fact, it’s encouraged.  Family is at the center of Indian culture and people are used to having kids around.  It’s really nice to be able to bring the kids everywhere and not worry about people giving us mean stares or “tsk tsks” when they make some noise or touch something.  And people here will go out of their way to help you be comfortable with the kids.

  1. Respecting One’s Elders

In Western cultures the respect for elders has eroded completely away.  I see millions of young people in Western countries who are adrift, and whose lives would be greatly improved if they would simply tone down their ego and open their hearts and minds to the wisdom of the elders in their society.  This is something I figured out on my own in my early 20s.  It made my time at university and beyond much more productive and enjoyable.  I’m enjoying spending an extended time in a culture that still values its elders.

  1. The Historical Monuments

Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Sanchi, Sarnath, etc, etc, etc.  India has incredible historical riches.  I feel so much wonder at the gorgeous art, architecture, and the colorful stories that surround them.  It is simply mind-blowing to look at a sculpture that was made 5,000 years ago.

  1. Rooftop Culture

Earlier today I was practicing my drum on our roof while enjoying a sunset.  My kids came up and played for a while and my neighbor came out on his roof and said hello.  Some boys were flying kites on their roofs a few houses down.  It’s a party up there every day and it’s really fun.

  1. The Food.

It’s such a basic part of my life I take it for granted, but I do love Indian food.  I marvel at the way a good cook can coax so much subtlety and nuance out such simple ingredients.  And the variety as I travel around the subcontinent is astonishing.

  1. The Smile and Head Bobble

Most of the time it means “yes.”  But sometimes it means “no.”  And sometimes it means “thank you.”  And sometimes I have no clue what it means.  But it’s really endearing and infectious.  My own head bobble is getting better and better.  I’m pretty sure I’ll bring it home with me next year! 

First Dhrupad performance

October 8, 2013

Last night I gave my first Dhrupad performance.  It was at a small house concert we organized.  Several of the neighborhood families came over.  They each brought some food and  drink.  Image

We gutted the dining room area and laid down a rug and pillows.  We lined the back walls with chairs for folks who preferred to sit up a bit more.

I sang alaap, jor, jhala in Rag Todi, as well as a composition I wrote that is based on a Walt Whitman poem.  The performance lasted about 25 minutes.  My friend Roman Das accompanied me on pakawaj.  He’s a fabulous player and a great person.  After I sang, one of my fellow Gurukul students also performed.  His name is Vic and though he’s much younger than I am at 23 years old, he’s been studying Dhrupad for four years and is thus a kind of senior student.  He gave a nice performance.

I felt a little keyed up before we started.  Even though it was just a casual house concert, I viewed it as a kind of “midterm” test for the last three months of work here in India.  I think I passed with good grades, though.  When I listened to the recording today I heard a lot of good things.  My voice has improved by leaps and bounds over the last year.  There is still much to do, but of course it’s infinite.

Our neighbors were just wonderful.  All of them have been so nice and welcoming.  Indian hospitality is alive and well here in Lake Pearl Spring and I’m honored to know them. Curiously, though, none of them knew anything about Dhrupad.  So there I was: a white man foreigner from Idaho, U.S.A., explaining the basics of this ancient Indian music to native Indians.  That’s the 21st Century for you!!

Jessica took pictures and managed the kids.  We put the little ones upstairs in front of a movie.  Nonetheless, there were frequent squabbles and crises.  All of which she managed with her characteristic grace and intelligence.

I’m looking forward to more performances down the road, but for the next few months it’s back in the woodshed for lots and lots of practicing.