Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Learning music - Part I

We were young then. My friend Nishadh and I. He was a mere esraj visharadha at the time and I was merely a guitar player. Decades before musical fusion became a distasteful fad, the two of us would interleave the sounds of the esraj and the guitar because their tonal qualities and auditory outputs seem to fit well together – especially if the players were soused in alcohol. 

Although both of us were classical exponents, at those times, we would play the lighter pieces together. That night, we were at the tail end of an hours-long session of tunes fueled by booze that in turn was fueled by harmonies when Nishadh played the opening notes of “Muhudu pathula” the famous song from “Muhudu Puththu”.  I promptly plucked out a compliment in C minor. At one point in that exposition, Nishadh reached out to the higher C and did something with that note that I thought was impossible to do with the esraj. He seems to create the illusion of actually playing the C, C sharp and B (C flat - in eastern music there is a universe of difference between B and C flat) all at the same time, magically transforming the entire flavor of the tune. I almost dropped my guitar in shock but still had enough presence of mind to indicate that he should repeat it. As he redid his bit of musical skulduggery I changed the guitar response into a rapid mix of B to C bends and c to C sharp hammer ons on the A5 string interspersed with open E6 staccatos with the effect achieved by stopping it with the chiquito on the 5th to get the E harmonic to ring out. It was his turn to be astounded. As it ended, I burst, “what you just did machan… that… is the mark of an ustad”. He says, “… and your trick completed it… that… is the mark of a master”.

Afterwards we were quiet for a long time, just cradling our instruments, sipping drinks and looking out into the patch of greenery at the back of my home.  By the by he breaks the silence, almost in  soliloquy, murmuring “we can be taught to play 12 or even 16 notes a second on a string but we can never be taught to believe in the power or the possibilities of a single note. We have both been students. We are trying to be teachers now. We must always remember that we cannot teach someone to do what either of us did today. They must know it for themselves”. I murmured back, “technique can never stand-in for understanding, nor theory for practice, nor lust for love”.  We finished our drinks. The magic was both replete and complete. We put our instruments away and safely walked out of each other’s lives for the next twenty years. Such, then, is the potent energy and magic of a single note of a single song.

 It is a good story that, despite the fact that it is true. It is also a good Segway to discuss the idea of learning music or anything else for that matter. Sure we’ve all learned a thing or two as human beings and flogging this topic seems to be slightly silly because most people know what learning is without anyone having to slice, dice it or define it. Or…do they?

Well, I thought I did until I was taught, quite by chance, that I didn’t know jack about it. I learned of my inadequacy because I did something I rarely did as a teen – look up. Straight at the TV where Amaradeva was saying “to know music, you must have, in that order, asha (desire), siksha (discipline), abhbaysa (exercise), sathsanga (the company of those on the same journey as you) and guru (teacher –either a person, a book or experience). If you fail to acquire even one of those, you may learn things but never know them. If you have them, you never stop knowing and never stop expanding the types of things you gets to know”.

That was a blinding brilliant bolt that sparked into life the very sinews that bound my body together. That day I realized the difference between learning (igenuma) and knowing (danuma or danima). Learning was a clinical, mechanical, hit-some-miss-some effort whereas Knowing as Amaradeva said it required one to feel (danima). I realized that up to that point, be it chess or math or music or speech, I had been feeling nothing and merely learning so, small wonder the only feeling I had was “low” and the only way I knew how to deal with it was to keep my head buried in some novel or other. 

The tough thing is "to feel". Can it be taught? Well, no... and not no neither. :) Part II will explain.

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