I am one of those people who believe that it is not possible for life to exist without music. Music has integrated in such intricate ways with my life, that there is no longer a duality.
Right now, when I am writing this, I am listening to the album Sun by Thomas Bergersen. I listen to music from all genre – it just have to sound true. From Ilayaraja to Yanni, Shardad Rohani and Tinariwen, I love them all. I had attempted some amount of MIDI composing, and the results are available at my soundcloud page (There is nothing good there – you are warned in advance). I can play harmonium reasonably well. I am also learning to play some piano, understand some amount of western classical music, and to read notations.
So when I had to talk on how I got into music, I will have to say that I don’t exactly remember how. I can only recall some incidences in my life which I think had contributed significantly.
When I was around five years of age, one of my uncles told me that he was going to learn carnatic music(Vocals) from a teacher. He asked me to accompany him to the classes. I said OK. But when I actually went to the teacher, I was extremely nervous and my voice was all shaky. I would have been like MG Shreekumar trapped in front of Ilayaraja (if you know what I mean). The teacher had a hard time teaching a grown up and kid at the same time, because our voice ranges were obviously different and she had trouble setting a pitch. Sadly, this learning endeavor did not succeed. After a couple of classes, we stopped for some reason.
When I was around nine years of age, my school had started bringing a carnatic vocal teacher to take classes to the students. The classes were outside school hours, so we had to go early in the morning to learn. My father was a teacher in the same school. So he took responsibility for this and made sure that I attended all the classes. So I ended up attending regular classes from this teacher for almost a year. But I did not learn anything other than the extreme basics – I had to stop the classes because I changed school.
When I was in the same school, I had participated in so many singing competitions and had my share of success. I knew I was not a great singer, but I was OK when compared to the rest of the crowd. I remember my mentor telling me that there are other singers in the school who have better voice, and possess better range, but I had an innate sense of rhythm in me, that others were lacking. Because of these reasons, I represented my school in various levels. I did not go very far, but the participation in these events contributed significantly to the foundation I have, I guess.
I said I changed school when I was 11. That had marked an important milestone in my life. That’s when I joined the mighty Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya(JNV). For those of you who don’t know what a JNV is, it is a residential school managed by the central government. There is one in every district. There is an entrance test and admission process every candidate has to go through. The school is mixed, completely residential, and free. Everything-including, but not limited to the education, books, food, stationary items, uniforms, hostels, etc is provided to the students free of cost. The teachers are really talented and dedicated. The institute gives emphasis to co-curricular activities as well. We had a dedicated music teacher who would take us bi-weekly classes and teach us various national integration songs and prayer songs. In addition to that, we had teachers who would visit us on a weekly basis to teach musical instruments to the interested students for a nominal fee. There is a weekly music club where selected students were trained separately. There is a morning assembly everyday where the institute choir sing prayer songs and national integration songs accompanied by harmonium and drums.
In my first common music class, my music teacher asked a question to the whole class:
“Who can sing the national anthem in exactly 52 seconds?”
My friends, who had already figured out that I have won prizes for singing, pointed at me straight away. My teacher asked me whether I would like to take up the challenge. I accepted it. I sang the national anthem in 51.5 seconds. That brought me a direct ticket to the school music club. Everyone else from my class had to undergo an audition to get selected. At the end of the class, the music teacher announced that there are musical instrument classes going on. He said that there will be classes for keyboard, guitar, and violin. He asked interested students to come and join. I had no idea about any of these instruments. So I did not know which instrument to pick. But I remember seeing a professional orchestra back at my old school, and I remember the keyboard player controlling everyone else and acting as the leader. He seemed like an important person in the group. So I decided that I will start learning keyboard. Now when I look back, I feel that I made a good choice then.
When I went to the first keyboard class, I saw people of all levels learning the instrument. There were beginners like me (we were four students from my class), and then there were some real experts. I recognized one of them as the harmonium player from morning assemblies. They were looking at scary looking notations and were playing them like they were reading English. I was struck with awe at the mere complexity of the thing that I have decided to learn. And that was the first time I was seeing a keyboard so close. But my keyboard instructor was a really good teacher. He made all of us at ease. He started with real basics. His teaching style was based on the principle that “slow and steady wins the race”. All his students had to practice only one song the whole week. He won’t give his students new lessons unless he was absolutely sure that the student can play his previous lesson even in his sleep. Then he would personally write a new lesson in each student’s note with his own hand. He had such a beautiful handwriting – even when he was writing music. The music room in the school was always open – anyone could walk in at any time and practice any instrument. Nobody was worried about students damaging the instruments. The truth is, everyone had great respect for the instruments that nobody would ever damage them.
Because of this slow approach, my class mates, who started the keyboard classes with me, stopped eventually because they felt that they were not learning anything and that their time would be better spent studying the ‘real’ subjects. However, I continued the classes for four years and stopped when I had completed up to the syllabus for Trinity grade 1 piano examination, when I reached 10th class. I stopped when I reached 10th class because that was the convention at the school. Everyone did that and so did I. I never thought that through. Now, when I look back, I feel that I should have continued studying for three more years until I had to leave the school in 12th.
So back to when I was in 6th class, when I started learning keyboard. During one of the keyboard classes, me and my friends were sitting at one corner of the class. We were the junior most people in the class. So that’s when our keyboard teacher walked to us and asked who plays the best from the four of us. Apparently, by that time, I had figured out how to play an old Malayalam song on the keyboard, and I had shown that to my friends. For that reason, when sir asked this question, they all pointed at me. I played the song in front of him. He chuckled and told me to stay back after the class. I was a little worried. Was I not supposed to play a Malayalam song in a western classical music class?
Later, I got to know that the school annual day was coming. The keyboard players and the guitar players had to give a performance together, organized by our keyboard teacher. He was looking for someone to play bass on the keyboard and he picked me for that spot. I was overwhelmed with joy. Not only because I will be performing in the school annual day, but also because this meant special practice, and a good reason to bunk the classes.
So I regularly came for the practice, along with everyone else. We practiced a lot, and for that reason, the program was a hit. Me and a couple of guitar players played the bass in unison. It was during the practice sessions that the school music teacher noted me. He also included me in the school music club orchestra, and that meant playing for them too. I did well, considering that I was 12, and was terrified seeing such a big crowd. But I managed to complete the whole thing without any mistakes.
After the annual day, I became the star of my class. People started giving me slightly more respect that what I used to get, so that was good. That meant less bullies.
By the end of the year, when I was still in sixth class, the guy who used to play harmonium during the school assembly started becoming unavailable because of his board exams. Suddenly, one day, when the music teacher came for assembly, there was no one to play the harmonium. The assembly was to start in 5 minutes and the teacher became worried. He looked around and found me standing in one corner in the assembly hall. He called me to the stage, showed me one chord, and asked me to keep playing that chord throughout the song. It was a chord I did not know. So I kept my hand on those three keys, and kept it just like that throughout the assembly, because I was afraid if I take my hands out I won’t be able to find those three keys again. The whole thing was a mess, but I survived. And that was the beginning of something great.
From that day onwards, I played for the morning assembly almost every day until I left the school after 12th class. From the terrified little boy who could not put together a single chord, I grew. I did various things and improvised on a daily basis. I became a permanent member of the school orchestra, and played for every single program it had ever had. I stepped back when I was in 12th. But other than that, I was part of it to levels that people started imagining my face when they thought of the school orchestra.
When I was in eight class, my school music teacher got a transfer to the JNV in his home district, and we had a new teacher coming in. The new teacher was a vocal specialist, and she was a gold medal winner in some national level music examination. Since she was a vocalist, her knowledge in musical instruments were slightly limited. So she started giving me more responsibilities. I started helping out players of other instruments, giving them notes, helping them tune their instruments, with my limited knowledge. These new responsibilities provided me with great learning opportunities. My ear skills improved a lot, and I learned a lot of classical music. She would even include me in her music composing sessions, and would take my input. I got the opportunity to orchestrate so many songs, and I think that was chicken soup for the teenage composer, that was me.
Then there was a big break, when I was preparing for my medical entrance examination. I did my preparations in an institute where the students are not allowed to keep any electronic devices with them. That meant no music for a whole year. I don’t know how I survived then. I was so focused on my studies that I hardly felt the absence of music in my life. Priorities change, I guess.
My efforts succeeded, and I got admission in a promising little medical college. Since this was a new college, there was no pre-existing music troop here for me to join. My efforts to come up with one failed miserably, and we ended up with a few musical instruments which I somehow convinced the college to purchase. These instruments are now rarely used, and the state of the institute did not help much in my expanding prospects.
Right now, I am busy with my studies. There is a universal struggle every medico has to go through – the struggle to get a seat for post-graduation in a field they like, in a good college. Amidst that struggle, there is very little time I can spend for music. I play piano for an hour every Sunday, thanks to the wonderfully helpful professor I met in the college. She is also a wonderful pianist, and she owns an electric piano. She lets me practice on it whenever I want. She is the only musical encouragement I have in the college. My piano skills have improved a lot under her guidance. I also do occasional composing, as I had already said. Other than that, I listen to a lot of music whenever I find spare time. I am trying to open up my musical palette to a wide range of colors. It takes a lot of effort to carry forward a passion and profession side by side without one affecting the other, and I think so far I am doing a good job with it.
That was one long blabbering! If you have come this far, then I consider that as an achievement from my part. Thanks a lot for reading! Please let me know what you think, in the comments section.