Thursday, March 22, 2018

Shaping a life in classical music

Paper presented to the Seminar on Pedagogy of Performing Arts, hosted by the Lalit Kala Kendra, Gurukul, Savitribai Phule Pune University, on March 6-7, 2018. 

This seminar is focused on the pedagogy concerns of the University system.  The system represents a massive commitment of public funds. Those concerned about the social value of this commitment are best equipped to evolve the processes suited to its objectives. I have neither studied Hindustani music in the University environment, nor taught in it. I can therefore contribute only tangentially to the theme of today’s seminar. 

Whatever I say is based on 60 years of research on a perfect sample of one – myself – and my interactions with some of the leading musicians of our times. As I see it, we are talking, essentially, about shaping lives in classical music. And, this will be the focus of my observations. 

I have a mildly eccentric view on the serious engagement of individuals with classical music. Most of us in this room consider ourselves “trained musicians” or “trained musicologists”.  We also gladly admit that we are whatever we are because of our Guru-s/ teachers. In my view, this is a culturally conditioned notion, not entirely supported by the reality. I state this as an academic observation. And, I say this with the benefit of studying with some of the finest Guru-s, and without the slightest disrespect to their contribution to my evolution. But, if I, or my Guru-s, try putting our fingers on what precisely was taught, when, and how, we are likely to come up with amusing answers which carry no conviction. 

Thousands of people go through degrees in music or personalized taleem, but never emerge as either musicians or musicologists. It is also possible to prove that many who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of classical music in either pursuit, and even excelled, had no degrees or taleem. So, whether we are talking of the personalized system of art transmission, or of institutionalized teaching, or something entirely different, the key to excellence in classical music lies within the aspirant, far more than in the environment which may claim to shape his/ her potential. In addition to their natural endowments of musicality, musicians and musicologists of any significance are born with an obsession with the mysteries of patterned sound, and pursue that obsession irrespective of economic and other consequences. 

Allied to this is my view that a life in classical music may flower as a commitment to either performance or scholarship. From my own experience, I can say that when I was only pursuing performance, I was also acquiring a great wealth of musical thought. And, when I began to pursue musicology, the quality of my performance improved steadily and perceptibly. From this, I infer that the same person may pursue different routes simultaneously or at different stages in his life. The two are, indeed, distinct professions, because they are accountable to different audiences and constituencies. But, this does not make theory and performance distinct pedagogical issues – except at an advanced level and except in the department of communication skills. A life in music is a life in music. 

This is so because our music is a process, and not a product. It has no existence independently of performance.  Without a deep involvement with the process, you qualify neither for musicianship, nor for scholarship. Society changes.  The aesthetic assumptions underlying performance change.  The music changes. Theory gets re-written. But, musical thought and performance remain perennially connected. 

Having laid out my perspective on a life in music, I shall proceed more systematically to look at the shaping of musicianship, which I possibly understand better than scholarship. I shall deal with the following dimensions of musicianship, and consider what each one might signify as a pedagogical issue. 

1. The basic equipment of musicianship
2. The communicative dimension of musicianship
3. The expressive dimension of musicianship
4. The meditative dimension of musicianship

The basic equipment
An individual qualifies for a serious involvement in music by having an above-average endowment of two faculties: 
(1) Pitch differentiation: the ability to distinguish sounds as being either higher or lower than others.
(2) Pattern recognition: The ability to identify sound patterns. 

Pitch differentiation is, I suspect, largely a genetically ingrained faculty. An above-average score on this dimension is required for intense involvement with all categories of music. Classical music certainly demands more refined pitch differentiation abilities than other categories of music. I am not aware if research in neuro-acoustics now enables aspirants to improve their scores on this count. My suspicion, however, is that the possibilities for such enhancement would be limited. 

Pattern recognition is an entirely different ability of the mind. The word “recognition” provides the clue to its character. We recognize patterns only by relating them to familiar patterns stored in the mind. Some basic patterns may be genetically embedded at birth – I don’t know what science has to say about this. But, beyond this, our entire bank of stored patterns is acquired either involuntarily from the environment or by the purposive cultivation of the mind.  

Classical music demands a more sophisticated ability of pattern-recognition than other categories of music. A person’s ability to perceive, store, and recall patterns is largely a function of the intelligence and memory. These, too, are grey areas in psychology. There is, to my knowledge, no consensus on the degree to which these are genetically ingrained, or acquired, or to what extent these can be enhanced. 

Of immediate concern to us are Raga and Tala patterns.  This sounds easy, and manageable. What is “easily” taught, however, is limited by the limitations of the teachers and aspirants. The great musician is known for having explored a canvas of patterns far beyond what can be taught by one Guru or even multiple Gurus or at a University. The idea of patterning is not finite. Any cluster of entities which cannot be considered random is a pattern. And, in mathematics, randomness itself is considered only a measure of man’s ignorance. So, within what is considered random, many “patterns” may yet be discovered. And, of course, music also has use for obviously random “patterns”. So, the pattern recognition/creation issue is far more complicated than it seems. 

Patterning belongs to the territory of “ideation” – abstract thinking --  which maestros often develop  through a study of abstract subjects like aesthetics, philosophy, psychology, mathematics, metaphysics, and even occult sciences like astrology. The personalized mode of art transmission in Hindustani music adopted the model of mystical apprenticeship, and is known to have encompassed  such initiation. Should the pedagogy of institutional art transmission concern itself with this resource of extra-musical ideation? The proposition is worth considering. 

The communicative dimension
The communicative dimension of classical music relates to the ability of a musician to execute and deliver musical ideas to his/her listeners. This has two facets. The first is technical command over his instrument/ voice. The second is a command over the architecture of the genre in which he/she performs. Casting the Raga (a Formless Form) into Communicable Form requires the agency of an established genre, each with its distinctive interaction between melody, rhythm, and poetry (where relevant), and movements sequenced “logically” for cumulative absorption, retention and response. Prof. Ashok Ranade referred to this process as one of “Ritualisation”. 

This dimension of classical music is “mechanical” and structural, and possibly the easiest to teach – whether in the personalized model of art-transmission or in the University system. It can be imparted through riyaz routines, and even memorization.  

A command over the communicative dimension is, of course, crucial because a musician experiences two kinds of anxiety in performance – execution anxiety and ideation anxiety. A mastery over the communicative dimension relieves the musician of the execution anxiety during performance, and frees his musical energies for attending to the ideational content of the music. But, the communicative dimension – no matter how highly developed – has little musical value unless supported by the flowering of musicianship. This flowering relies predominantly on the remaining two dimensions – the expressive and meditative. 

The expressive dimension
The expressive dimension in music produces a manner of manifesting the character, quality of feelings, sentiments or intentions of the musician. Expression is primarily a manifestation of the musician’s sense of self-hood, and an awareness of himself as the generator of aesthetic value. It is this dimension which Prof. Ranade once described as “Individuation”. 

As a pedagogical issue, this is perhaps the toughest challenge. How do you generate/ inculcate/ activate the sense of self-hood in a musician? Guru-s in the personalized model perhaps did not see this as a significant issue at all. Enlightened present-day Guru-s have, however, often struggled with this issue for decades even with their most talented students. 

Eminent Guru-s, with whom I have discussed this issue have expressed two views: Some believe that such a flowering of the musical personality usually begins between the ages of 40 and 45. Others believe that a growing involvement in the Raga-ness results in the musician building a special relationship with Raga-s, and this relationship causes an “Individuation” to surface in its rendition. 

These two views could well be saying the same thing. Amercian composer, WA Mathieu, well versed in Hindustani music, articulates this memorably in his work “A musical life”. We often speak of a musical performance as a “piece”. What is it a “piece” of? It is, indeed, a piece of life itself. Feeling and expressing a Raga in an individualistic manner could well require the musician to have started understanding life -- a possibility that crystallizes only after 40. 

Does this dimension of musicianship deserve pedagogical attention? Is there a way of speeding up the evolution of a musician’s special relationship with the Raga-ness ahead of his/her emotional maturity as a person? Or is the whole dimension of expression to be left to the natural processes of personality development? 

With a musician’s involvement in Raga-ness being a factor, we are approaching the meditative/ contemplative dimension of Hindustani music. 

The meditative dimension
The meditative dimension of Hindustani music – the element of “Ideation” -- is fundamental because the Hindustani musician combines in himself the role of the composer and performer, both roles working simultaneously during performance. Performance is nothing but the rendering/ translating/ interpreting the Formless Form of the Raga in communicable form. Being formless, the Raga is pregnant with a virtually infinite number of aesthetically coherent melodic ideas. This is why we need to recognize three levels of access to the Raga form. 

1. Gurumukhi Swaroop: This is the Raga-form that a musician imbibes from his Guru/ Guru-s/ Teachers. 
2. Sarvamanya Swaroop: The consensual melodic personality of the Raga, as has been explored by all musicians whose music is available – an aggregate of all the melodic ideas hitherto explored -- and which listeners recognize as belonging to a Raga.
3. Virata Swaroop: This represents all the melodic possibilities of the Formless Form of the Raga – including those yet remaining unexplored. This notion of Raga-Swaroop is limited only by the boundaries between the specific Raga and other Raga-s. 

Our tradition expects that every musician will aim at penetrating/ transcending the Sarvamanya Swaroop and access the Virata Swaroop for newer insights into the melodic and emotional possibilities latent in the Raga. But, how can he penetrate the Sarvmanya sawroopa without having first mastered it? 

This is a serious pedagogical issue for institutionalized education which, I suspect, remains, largely neglected. Even in my interactions with serious young musicians, I have found the greatest lethargy on this count. A Raga belongs to nobody. Every musician participates in its evolution.The musical culture has not been able to come to terms with the reality that a serious study of the tradition is a rent every generation has to pay in order to occupy a place in the tradition. It is clearly absurd to assume or believe that anyone can be an original interpreter of a Raga without having taken the trouble of absorbing every facet of it that has already been explored.  

The key to excellence
This brings me to the argument I suggested in the earlier part of my observations . Hindustani music cannot produce either a great musician or a significant musicologist without a vast exposure to performed/ recorded music. No Guru, no University, no books can cultivate his musical/ critical abilities to a level of excellence without extensive and intensive listening. And, fortunately for today's aspirants, never before in history has a 100 years of music been available for study, thus permitting a panoramic as well as encyclopedic understanding of the tradition. 

In such exposure, the aspiring musician/ scholar has access to all the three dimensions of Hindustani music. The communicative. The expressive. The meditative. He will absorb the insights according to his innate endowments of musicality.  His insights will grow at a pace permitted by his intellect, memory, and his exposure to the world beyond music. His individuality will grow as he evolves his“Personal Musical Statement”with the help of all the inputs he has absorbed. There is a pedagogical perspective here. But, that is possibly less important than my basic argument. 

A life in classical music is a self-driven journey. There is a space in it for mentors, inspirations, and even guides. If one tries to quantify the size of this space, one may produce numbers that are culturally repugnant. But, the truth is that no Guru, and no University, can entirely claim the shaping of either an eminent musician or an eminent musicologist. 

If a great musician has spent a total of 10,000 hours receiving taleem from his Guru, he has almost certainly spent 20,000 hours of life listening to other musicians of stature. If a significant scholar of music has spent 5000 hours pursuing degrees in music, I am certain that he has spent 10,000 hours studying works unrelated to the syllabus. And, those who match a yardstick of excellence in either department can be expected to have had intensive exposure to other department as much as their own pursuit. 

Classical music is a philosophical art. Involvement with it arises from a thirst for unraveling a mysterious territory of human experience. It can be compared, in some ways, to the spiritual urge with which the more evolved souls are born. Those born to this calling will quench their thirst, with or without any guidance. 

(c) Deepak S. Raja .March, 2018