Saturday, October 10, 2015

The teaching of music

Back in the day, I would amuse people by telling them that I could teach someone to play the guitar in ten minutes. Since a lot of people mistake skill development as learning and long term oversight, adjustment and direction of coursework as teaching, their amusement is justified. They are, of course, very welcome to their understanding of teaching, and, I might add, their take on it all is a very commonly held opinion. For them, there is a very large music teaching industry that has sprung up with droves of students corralled in tastefully laid out premises choked with instruments, furniture, teachers, managers and administrators. They are welcome to put themselves or their children through years of toil and turmoil within those torture chambers that pass for music schools.

But no. That is not teaching by a long shot. A great teacher understands that there is a fundamental, critical difference between a person who wants to play an instrument and one who wants to merely learn it.

To play an instrument, one needs something more encompassing and proximate than the mere ability to create nice sounds on some weird looking contraption made of strings, keys, tubes, drums, skins or combinations of those elements. One needs to have the desire to consort with one’s instrument. One needs an untrammeled, unbounded, unreflecting joy bordering on reverence at its mere proximity. One must thrill with ecstasy at the mere chance to make some sound  - any sound - come out of it.  One must cease to see it as one’s instrument of choice and understand it as one’s object of adulation and see the potential it holds to make one whole. One must love the idea of the instrument in one’s life and one must be brave enough to think that it can become one’s whole life.

The recognition of a future disciple:

A great teacher of music knows how to recognize this desperate desire, this hopeless longing on the part of a student to love and be loved by a guitar, a sitar, a piano. Such a teacher seeks that desire in his students…seeks it…seeks it…whether asleep or awake, every single moment of every single day for it is a rare thing indeed.  He hunts for it in the eyes, in the hands, in the hearts, in the minds of those who come to him for instruction.  He desperately hopes, longs, desires to see the desperation, the longing, the hope in a student. If such is found, then the teacher knows he has found a disciple and not just a student. He knows then that his cup is then made fuller by an eighth.

With pleasure and anticipation he will proceed to bring the disciple into his fold and give him shade. He will know, in the first instant of contact with such a one, exactly how he should be taught to woo his instrument. In just ten minutes he will be able to make his disciple cry out in wonder “oh my God. My God. Who would have thought that such beauty could ever fall in love with a guy like me? Who would have thought that such a gorgeous thing would allow me to embrace it and call it my own?”. Ten minutes it all it takes for a teacher to see the entire life of a disciple laid bare before him. 

The great teachers of this world subsume their egos and live only to thrill at the sight of their charges carving out a life for themselves in the company of an instrument that they too loved and married into in a different time, in a different way.

From there to the end of a never ending journey, is the joyful engagement of the teacher and the disciple living and existing for the betterment of the one. The discipline, the exercises, the special little tasks serving merely to tighten an already firm and affirmed love affair between the disciple and the instrument.  

This my no means indicates that a teacher will ignore or marginalize the rest of the students. However, with them, there will be a sort of clinical, twilight relationship. The love of a teacher would not be lesser but that teacher knows only too well the egos, the parental pushes, the peer pressures, the educational goals that drive them to class. Certainly, the teacher will instruct them. She will remove the debilitating agents and conditions be they parental zeal, indiscipline, emotional vapidity or iffy love affairs and make sure that the coursework is completed, the exams sat, the “distinctions” obtained. She will dismissively wave away the thanks with a “you did it, not me”. This is a terrible state of affairs all too common in our time but not actually a great big disaster. 

However,  great teachers emerge from such skirmishes relatively unscathed but bad ones? Their lot is darker. Forever debilitated by ego overdrives and personality clashes, they must suffer the psycho-emotional backlash of insisting that it has got to be their way or the highway. They must deal with violating their students' minds, hearts and bodies and being mentally and physically shot to death by them – literally and figuratively. 

The recognition of the future teacher:

Now I said that the identification of a disciple will only fill an eighth of a great teacher’s cup because, in my experience, they would be lucky to find four disciples in their lives and even if they do, their cup would only be half full. I have a reason for saying this. Even among disciples there are a rarefied few who can become teachers in their own right. These are a teacger's successors. These are the ones that every great teacher yearns for. The great ones they can never seek or want but can only pray for and wait for.

Those come neither for instruction nor for learning nor for playing. None of that is important to them. In lives past they’ve been there, done that and all of it is the merest technicality, effortlessly remembered, mastered, discarded. Only such a person can be taught to teach and not merely to play. Such a one comes filled to the brim – with emptiness. Such a one is full of the lack of desire and bursting at the seams with lack of ego. Such a one can touch an instrument - any instrument - and see in the sounds, a cocooned sampling of the entire universe. Only such a one can achieve that miraculous ability to teach because she is completely cognizant of the fact that she is empty. And empty, she gets plenty. Continuing to want only empty she can therefore distribute plenty in endless bounty.

Such a one can teach brilliantly and such a one can perform any instrument brilliantly. If by some chance, such a one graces a teacher, the teacher would take her… to feed and nurture with the teacher’s very blood. Over years, the teacher will empty herself into such a one in a way she never could with a disciple whose skill set and mindset are limited to singular relationships. Removed from relationships, there is only the certainty of union. Of such magical connects were the great gurukulas (teacher-teacher bloodlines) born in the east, especially in the centuries long aesthetic traditions of India. Such ties are not easily explained in words. Having been privy to them as a growing child, I truly know that it is impossible to unpack them casually. Those unions are complex and only fully understood by such teachers and such students.

That is why Ustad Allaudin Khan gave his school to Ustad Podiappuhamy the universally accomplished multi-instrumentalist/ singer/dancer/teacher and not to Pandit Ravi Shankar the sitar playing disciple. That is why Ravi Shankar couldn’t really impart universal absolutes to his daughter Anoushka. That is why Barenboim the conductor/pianist/activist/humanist/advocate is a teacher and Barishnikov the dancer never was and never will be. 

The myth of mushti:

This connect is rare. Many a great teacher has died and their spectral knowledge buried with them for a successor never made her existence known. Never into the teacher's orbit wondered the next in the bloodline. He had to be content with teaching disciples to do... not to teach. Of all the tragedies that a teacher must live through – and there are many – that…is the greatest. That... is the most agonizing. 

And yet, to the ego-warped idiot who senses recalcitrance on the part of a teacher to “show his all” this reluctance is seen viciously and disastrously as a “hiding of knowledge” or “mushti”. He little realizes that it is his own inadequacy that is preventing the sharing of something he is not capable of absorbing as happened to Musila in the presence of Guttila. In the modern world, with a dilution of the bloodlines of the greatest teachers of this world, the Musilas are many and the Guttilas few. 

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