the beginning of lessons

If I haven’t been posting, it’s because every time I think about writing a blog post, I realize I should be practicing instead. I have really dived into my studies of Hindustani classical music this week – I have a lesson every day, and there is always so much new material to practice. My teacher is only in town for a few weeks before taking off for a concert tour for the next few months, so we’re starting with a bang.

It has been really cathartic to spend so many hours immersed in making music. As a composer, it’s often difficult for me to find time to practice. Both composing and practicing have a sense of timelessness about them – you let the music dictate how much time you spend on it, and you enter a state of mind that detaches from self consciousness, and attaches to the consciousness of the music. On the other hand, you have to have at least a certain amount of allotted time in order to settle into that state without anxiety.

Being in India is really good for that. While efficiency can sometimes be a problem here, the high-strung energy that I’ve always felt, especially in New York, doesn’t exist in this environment. It just seems that time moves a little slower, that things are a little less urgent – and that makes it easier to float into a quiet, meditative space. (Though, for those of you who know me well, don’t worry – I’m still using OmniFocus..!)

I decided, upon coming here, that I would mainly train in Hindustani vocal music, as it is easier for me to learn through singing than to learn the technique of an instrument. Singing also addresses the elements of words and sargam (solfege) that are so important to the learning process.

We start each lesson with alankaar, or exercises. I was actually surprised today when my teacher related this to Hanon exercises – it was exactly what I had been thinking! They are basically patterns in a given raag that repeat going up and down the scale. A lot of them are patterns that are familiar to western musicians in our own music instruction, but they sound different for two reasons: the raag often has a combination of flatted and sharped scale degrees that sound distinctly non-western, and also there is ornamentation, even in the exercises. Each raag has specific tendencies that define it (maybe a specific slide from one note to another, a short cut-off when descending to a certain note, an embellishment with the surrounding notes, etc.) and a seasoned musician will often sing this ornamentation intuitively, even in the alankaar.

We are also singing Raag Yaman (the same notes as the Lydian mode, but used very differently. For example, the upward scale starts from the 7th instead of the tonic). I love Yaman, and of all the raags, I definitely know it the best. I have worked on Yaman three times with three people, and each time it opens up a little differently to me. In the west, interpretation lies mainly in the non-pitch elements, but in Indian music, there are actually variations of note patterns and ornamentations that color the raag slightly differently each time.

I am finally starting to get my voice to do some of those gamaks (ornaments) that define the sound of Indian classical music. I have a very long way to go, but I am making progress every day. Each time I practice, I feel each phrase releasing into slightly more subtlety, and that process has been very gratifying, even at this beginning stage.

I have been thinking a lot about how to explain the things I’ve learned to western musicians. The concepts are not conflicting to western music, it’s just that there is a different hierarchy. For instance, Indian music places a lot of emphasis on what happens between the main notes whereas in the west, most of the emphasis is on the notes themselves. When I practice, instead of notes, I think of each phrase as a shape. Kind of like one of those cool straws we had as kids, that made a shape the liquid would flow through in little curlicues as we sipped (forgive me if this seems irreverent, it’s the best metaphor I can think of right now). It is the closest representation I can imagine of the phrase. I trace each phrase with my hand, and try to bring my voice along. I think I will be better at explaining this once I’ve studied more.

Today my teacher asked me to sit in the rehearsal for a concert he is giving tomorrow, and to play the tanpura. This is the instrument that creates the drone, and though now they have little electronic boxes that do that, there are still actual tanpura players at concerts. I had never touched a tanpura before today, but it was amazing to hear the sound of the strings resonating so close as I played. It felt like I was being enveloped in this beautiful, multi-dimensional sound. Also, this was the first time I have actually played with Indian musicians. Being a part of the music, if only a small part, was such a special experience for me.

Anyway, it took me about halfway through the rehearsal to realize that my teacher actually wanted me to play tanpura at his concert tomorrow as well! I’m really excited, and also really glad I brought one of my favorite saris along.

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