Ego, Effort, and Ending

...not sure when these next couple of entries will post as the government has been hampering wifi services because there are protests in Chennai (what!?!?!) and things are eeeven more slow... So i just loaded them and waited to see when the spinning wheel makes enough revolutions to bring you more information on yours truly...


From the 14th-18th of this month I took a trip around Tamil Nadu (the state Chennai is in) with my Guru and a few other students from the school. This trip was an incredible experience that revealed even more of the history, diversity, and culture of South India. It was the sort of trip that you can only take with real connections to a place. I was welcomed into friends’ homes as a guest, guided through ancient temples with my Guru as an expert guide, and shown the real inside of the Tamil culture of the South. It was a really amazing experience that gave me a sense of closure about my time here. Even though I have a couple more weeks before I actually leave India, seeing some new places and spending some quality time with Dr. KSS make it feel like like the culmination of my studies.


The other thing that made it feel this way was the prevalence of performance on the trip. The main purpose of the trip was for the students to perform at Puddakkotta Temple in Trichy but we also performed at two of the family’s houses. And held group lessons on the bus and in the temples.


In the culture of South Indian music there seems to be a divide between the pursuit of “study” and of “performance.” Previously I had thought of the study of music as the pursuit of the performance of music but that isn’t how they roll in India. There seems to be a general understanding that Carnatic music is so hard that it takes about ten years of constant practice before a student is really ready to perform. Because I’m on a little bit more of an accelerated timetable than that I was given the opportunity to perform at the temple.


So the week before we left I started to get a little anxious. Every time I made a mistake Gurji would stop and correct it and then I would need to play it correctly four times in a row. The piece is twelve and a half minutes long in the first speed and I need to play it in five speeds so its like a half an hour. The probability of me doing that whole thing without making a single error is just so small that I didn’t think I would do it.


So I started asking if we could play it though like I would perform it. Guruji would say “oh yes yes once you have really learned it you can play it one hundred times!” and then we would have a lesson and I would mess up and we would go to correct it. And ever lesson would go like this.


So when we got on the bus to leave I realized that I had no idea how to play the piece. Was I supposed to play it in all speeds? That seemed pretty unmusical. Was I supposed to give an Ragalapana and Taanam improvisation? Every time I did that it sounded bad so that probably wasn’t a good idea either.


Then we get to the house in Trichy and eat this amazing meal of never-ending Dosa and Sambar on a banana leaf and eat a small ripe banana and laugh and chat with our hosts of thirty people (big family!). And then KSS gets out a Veena and plays a Gitam and the other Veena students play and I’m feeling at east and then KSS asks me to get my sax and I’m like “what?!” in my bran.


I said that the people looked tired and that I shouldn’t play but he insisted so I got my horn and sat on the floor.  And I asked ”what should I do” and he just said “all the speeds!” So I tried playing the Varnam in eighths triplets sixteenths sextuplets and thirty-second notes.


And I just sucked. Like SuuuuuUUUUUUUUuuuuUUUUUUUUUUUUuuuuuuuucked.

KSS was playing Tala on his knees and he just stopped because I was so out of control terribly awful and bad. And it just went on and on for like 25 minutes and I didn’t stop because you shouldn’t stop if you’re performing but I wanted to because I was really sucking so hard and everyone hated life while I played the saxophone on the floor there in Trichy.


And then I just kind of got up a little flushed and we all went to bed. Nobody vibed me or anything they just kind of looked disinterested. And then we got up the next day and saw some temples and an old-school Brahmin neighborhood from the 1800s which was deep.


Then we went to KSS’s brother’s house and he asked me to perform again and I’m like “what?!” in my brain. In my brain I’m also like “dude, you have spent every waking moment with me since I last performed and you know I haven’t practiced how do you expect me to play well?” but out loud I just said “ok.” And then he said that I should use a metronome because he couldn’t follow me the night before and I was like “oh shit this is even worse.”


And it was. I sucked even worse than the night before. Which didn’t seem possible at the time. I had to stop probably five or six times because the Tala cycle on the metronome was just screaming at the whole room about how I wasn’t in time and that I was ruining music in a broad sense and we needed to reorient or the whole sonic globe might fly off its axis.


And then I started to get really anxious because I knew KSS was going to ask me to perform the next night in the temple and I knew that I was probably going to suck even worse then. So I pretty much stopped talking to everyone and just practiced the piece in my head for the next day. I didn’t sleep too much and I just went over and over all the little things I needed to remember to get it right.


After another day of travel we set up in the temple. Karthick tied my Veshti around my waist (picture forthcoming) and I sat down to play. There was about 15 minutes of stress about microphones and metronomes and everyone was all frazzled but I just tried to breathe deeply and remind myself how little this all matters. When I looked out into the crowd I saw about thirty onlookers who were hoping that my music would help them pray in this sacred place. It was a lot of pressure but I felt a little detached from everything because I was pretty tired and obsessed with this stupid Varnam.


When I started to play I felt a little nervous but after a few lines it faded away. I started to feel pretty good and I played the first coupel of speeds correctly. It was then that I realized this was going to be a battle with my ego. I was so excited that I might get this thing right that I could hardly keep myself from messing everything up for myself. So I spent most of my mental energy just trying to think about nothing. Somewhere along the way I closed my eyes. I imagined I felt a slight breeze. But actually that was some hilarious Temple dudes who just bought a portable AC unit and decided to test it out on me in the middle of this tune. I got through the whole thing with almost no mistakes. I never got lost and I even sounded good at some sections. When I opened my eyes it was a classic Indian “larger than life” experience. The audience had doubled in size, my hair was blowing back under an artificial breeze, and two photographers from The Hindu were taking our picture.


Perhaps sensing the positive energy in the room KSS asked me on the spot to do an Ragalapana Improvisation with him. This is an unmetered statement of the Raga and I don’t relaly know how to do it. The nice thing is that the accompaniment style is really imitative so I just listened to KSS sing and then played back what he played with a little bit of embellishment. This really had a positive reception. I am just so much more at ease improvising than playing something planned out.


After the show I felt amazing but not in the way that I’ve felt before. I felt some personal relief that I got through it but I also felt something new. This is also probably cheesy but I felt a satisfaction that was greater than my ego. I realize now that almost all of the joy I’ve gotten from performing was from me sounding good. At this show I got a tiny glimpse of what it is like to submit to some more universal sound and realize that I am not sounding good but that I am just allowing music to sound good coming through me. This is a little cheesy and it’s not totally true. A lot of my good feeling was just my ego again and I have thought that I have experienced this before. It’s just a new depth of both feelings and another striking blow for my ego.


I had many people come up to me afterwards and congratulate me on my performance. Of course I didn’t actually sound very good and I am much more of a beginner than any of the other students but it made me feel like this time in India has at least been good for some learning.


As I walked out a shirtless man who spoke only Tamil and worked for the Temple gave me a kind of awkward hug and got chalk from his chest on my shirt. I felt pertty good about that too.