Next week I’ll hit the half-way mark for my Fulbright experience in India. It has been life-changing in so many ways.
When I showed up I knew I wanted to go much deeper into Dhrupad singing, but I didn’t know exactly how deep. I knew I wanted to improve my voice and get to a point where I could sing a bit with my various creative projects. I also wanted to just learn more about the pitch side of Hindustani music to broaden my vocabulary as a composer, improviser, and teacher, but I didn’t have any serious ambition to perform as a Dhrupad singer. I didn’t think it was possible given my age and my background as a percussionist. I was wrong.
My guru, Ramakant Gundecha, thought otherwise. He told me earlier this year that he thought by the time I left I’d be ready to start performing. Of course, I trust him 100% as a teacher—he knows what he’s doing—but I figured maybe he was being a bit over-ambitious, perhaps eager to show off one of his foreign students.
However, after nearly four and a half months of intense, focused practice and instruction, my singing has indeed improved by leaps and bounds. My pitch is much more precise, my voice is more stable and even in all registers, and my basic sound has opened up considerably and is more consistent than ever. I still have a long ways to go, but the second half of my experience here will be even more productive than the first half, so I believe Ramakantji is right: I will be ready to perform and I very much want to do so.
I can’t imagine my life without Dhrupad now. Singing Dhrupad every day has made me realize how very mechanical my life as a Western percussionist is. I’m not being critical of Western music or the percussive arts—after all, I do love them—but most of my time in that area is spent striking keyboard instruments that are based on the world’s most mechanical (and harsh sounding) tuning system (Equal Temperament). And on keyboard instruments there is no way to slide between, say, a C and a C#. But as I know very well now, there is a UNIVERSE of music in those microtones. And if I’m not playing keyboard instruments, I’m banging on drums and cymbals, which are noise-making instruments in the literal, scientific sense. And all of that is with sticks that are outside of my body. Singing long tones in just intonation for hours at a time has sensitized me to a whole world of pitch nuance and phrasing that isn’t possible with my regular instruments. Practicing Dhrupad is a calming and centering activity, and one that has opened my heart and my mind in myriad ways.
This will have a profound impact on the future direction of my career. Of course, I could just practice Dhrupad and not worry about performing it, but I want to share this music with people and having performances lined up definitely helps motivate me on a daily basis to practice better.
I’ve already made some changes to open up more time for singing. I resigned from full-time percussion playing with Alarm Will Sound (though I’ll continue working with them in other capacities) and I’ve stopped commissioning solo marimba pieces from other composers. I still intend to tour as a solo marimbist and I am involved with several chamber groups as a percussionist, but singing will become a big part of my work over the next decade and that will by necessity require less time on my percussion instruments. This is all a bit risky, especially since it will make me less marketable (presenters have a hard time understanding polymaths . . . ) and I’ve already built a lot of momentum in my other areas. But I’m not going to worry about all that too much. I’m just going to focus on the music. It will all work out in the end. It has to; I must sing Dhrupad!