For years I dreamed of being a full time music student. I imagined if it ever happened, it would be at a local university. Little did I know what was in store. I have tremendous gratitude that my desire has been fulfilled in such a unique and profound way. However, the experience has also been very difficult.
Studying music in India has been a lot more intimate than I anticipated. I believe 6-7 students is the maximum at one time since I have been here. Some students are here for just one class, some for a week, month or three months. Since the summer heat arrived, I have been the only student.
Students come from far distant corners of the globe to study with Ustad Ji; South America, North America, Poland, France, Hungary just to name a few. I have really enjoyed getting to know each of them. Truly, we are all one human family.
Learning music is really an organic process. It is like a gradual unfolding. As Ustad Ji says, “Change is slowly coming”.
What are classes like? We spend a lot of time doing what I think of as going on a musical journey. The method is call and response. Ustad Ji will sing scales or patterns of notes, then we repeat. Sometimes it feels easy and sometimes you get lost in the complexity. Ustad Ji’s proficiency even leaves long time students in the dust at times!
We begin singing using Sargams, the sounds Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. After some time, we move into vocalizing on aaah.
When singing the elaborate patterns, if a mistake is made, Ustad ji has a way of making a loud clicking sound that lets you know you got it wrong. Or sometimes when I have made errors recently, he just yells out, “No!” Then, I try again, again and again… 😂 Sometimes I think he has the patience of Job.
Sometimes we sing raag in the shud (natural scale) and sometimes it will be in a more unusal scale. For example, we might sing all natural notes with the exception of two notes being flat.
The system of raag in Indian classical music is thousands of years old. A simple explanation of raag, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is that raags are a similar in some ways to musical modes. Each raag has specific notes and characteristic musical phrases. The specific notes for a given raag will be used in a composition. This gives a composition its unique flavor.
Ustad Ji says all feelings are contained in raag. The raags were designed to evoke specific feelings in people. Happiness, devotion, surprise, longing, romantic feelings, bravery of a warrior etc. Some raags are prescribed for a specific season of the year, such as Basant for springtime, or a certain time of day, such as Asavari for late morning.
It is truly a magical recipe and a fascinating technology. As I sing along with Ustad Ji, there are many times I feel like the sounds are carrying me into distant lands, familiar from dreams.
Occasionally, towards the end of class, Ustad Ji will give a new composition. We chant the melody of the composition together using Sargams and when he feels it has been learned sufficiently, he will give the words to the Shabad. Then the whole composition comes together.
I have learned about 17 different Shabads and 13 different raags at this point. All of them unique and beautiful. I can honestly say there hasn’t been one I don’t like.
There are days Ustad Ji will say, “It is my turn to listen, you sing”. This means he wants to hear the Shabads and/or exercises he has been teaching. He will give corrections and say what needs more practice.
I spend time on my own studying the text of the Shabads. This is when I work on pronunciation as well as understanding the meanings of the Shabads which (hopefully!) enables the meaning and feelings to come through when I sing.
I didn’t expect to be learning tabla as well, nor did I know how much I would love it! Tabla is as integral to Kirtan as the raag notes or the words of the Shabad. The beat of the tabla (to me the heartbeat of God) pulls it all together and taps it into your psyche for ultimate upliftment and evolution. I am still a very beginning tabla player, but it has allowed me to follow and count the beats precisely while singing and that is priceless.
At times I get frustrated, wondering if I am progressing. It is difficult to judge from the inside. I really don’t care for the sound of my voice, but the feeling in my heart when singing is like a wonderful panacea so I keep going. My heart (my Soul) loooooves music and particularly Gurbani Kirtan in raag.
I spend an average of 2-6 hours practicing daily, depending on the condition of my voice and if it is a class day or not. Another 1-2 hours is spent on studying Punjabi each day. On Saturdays, I travel about an hour each way (25 minutes by rickshaw and 30 minutes walking) to attend my Punjabi lesson.
And how is the Punjabi coming along? Sometimes I feel stuck in the mud. I have spent so many hours studying grammar and vocabulary, yet I am very far from being able to speak smoothly and my comprehension is limited by my vocabulary. But now and then something shows me I am making progress. Moments when I am able to understand a dialog completely, ask questions or give directions feel a bit like magic. It is like I am gradually beginning to understand and use a secret code.
I speak to Ustad Ji in Punjabi, as I am able. It takes him by surprise at times. His eyes sparkle and he might release a beautiful laugh. He says I have a good vocabulary. I really love Punjabi and am looking forward to the day when I can have a sophisticated conversation. Maybe 10 years from now?? 😂 Well, hopefully not that long!
Ustad Ji is not only a masterful music teacher but guides us through wise Soul lessons as well (in a unique way only an Eastern teacher can). He once confided in us that it was his job to test the students ego and anger. Poke, provoke and elevate – as Yogi Bhajan used to say! I have reflected that what Ustad Ji has taught me about being the best person I can be, has been the most important, life changing thing about studying with him.
I can honestly say I am never bored. Sometimes it is a challenge to find time to do things like venturing out to buy food, wash my floors or do my laundry (no washing machine). The midnight oil usually fuels my writing time for the blog.
The difficulties? Sometimes they are technical and music related and sometimes they are on the planes of Humanology and spiritual growth. A friend and mentor of mine once remarked that I think I have come to India for music lessons, but that my Soul has come for quite another purpose. I often feel the truth of that statement.
One technical challenge I experienced was getting familiar with reading and writing Indian musical notation. My compositions are all written in another language, and the western system of bars and a staff are completely absent. The sheer volume of work hours spent hand writing notations was overwhelming for a while. The system of Indian musical notation is precise and effective once you are familiar with it.
Early in the summer, I began to have difficulty singing. I had to take some days off and thereafter limit my singing time severely. We diagnosed that I was using my voice incorrectly. Besides inferior sound quality, it was causing me physical discomfort. It felt like going back to scratch. I understood that my voice needed to be re-built from the foundation up to correct the bad habits.
It was frustrating, but I looked at the bright side. If I could figure out the solution, the problem would be gone for good. I have been practicing with deep listening and great care and I am making progress with correcting the issues.
The inherent isolation of being in this foreign land has pushed me into a place of introspection with an inability to avoid self confrontation. Distractions we usually have so handy (family, friends, social activities, media and electronics) are so limited in my daily horizon, that I am unable to avoid being extremely present with my thoughts, emotions, feelings, patterns and flaws. Mother India has turned me inside out and shaken me relentlessly.
Towards the middle and end of my first three months here, I felt a spotlight thrown upon some of my most limiting behavior patterns and negative, automatic responses. These were things that were negatively effecting my life and relationships yet I hadn’t even been aware of them. I think beginning my Sahej Path (leisurely reading of the entire Siri Guru Granth Sahib) was the catalyst for some of the deep shifts and awakenings I experienced. There is strong power in being here and meditating on the sound current of the Shabad to allow such profound shifts to happen with things I have been oblivious to my whole life… The awareness and changes have not come without tears.
I have had a mirror silently brought before me that has given me the ability to choose and act as opposed to react; to be aware of my flaws and have the opportunity of growing past them and to have more compassion for others as well as myself. For the first time in my life, I felt like I clearly heard the voice of my Soul. That silent observer that often gets crunched aside, yet whose guiding force and yearning are the only thing that will ultimately bring satisfaction to this little human life.
I wonder how this precious time will color my future. What other depths of my Soul will be plumbed, churned and purged? What will be the result of all these tireless hours of practice and study? Only time will tell.