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[Excerpted from an actual email exchange with an Irish student who is in my Bhakti Breakfast Club online harmonium class]
...I'm a huge Krishna Das fan and it was as a result of his work that I got involved in this in the first place.
One area that I struggle with though is timing. I have a decent sense of rhythm, however I feel that I'm timing challenged... I've no problem with the straightforward 4/4 chants where everything is on the beat, however I struggle keeping it together on the other stuff, especially slow ones.
I did some music lessons when I was a kid and understand the basics. It really feels that it's almost as if the "gene" to auto-time has not been granted to me. Or it's like the challenge of playing, singing, keeping a beat and taking care of timing is too much to ask of myself (at the moment). I would dearly appreciate any pointers you could give me on this...
...I want to commend you for doing such a great job communicating what you're struggling with musically. You obviously love kirtan a lot, and are calling on all the musical skills you've got to make it happen. And, some areas are strong, and others need some work. Which is fine, and how it is for all of us! Here's a few thoughts about rhythm.
When you get down to it, musical development falls into two categories: rhythm, and melody. ("harmony," usually meaning chords, is a subset of melody)
While playing a kirtan song, a lot of musical skills are being called on simultaneously. You're singing and playing harmonium - that's two instruments at once, pretty amazing right there! But you're probably also playing chords on harmonium, and singing melody with your voice - that's two totally different rhythms and different notes! You're calling on keyboard fingering, visual recognition of the black and white keys, pumping while monitoring your volume level, remembering the lyrics and singing with feeling, etc.
All to say, there's so many things being done at once, that if one of them is a challenge, it's hard to muster the conscious attention to really work on it.
SO! Working on rhythm involves a two-pronged-approach. On the one hand, you do want to work on rhythm in the context of a song. That's challenging, as mentioned above, but sometimes there's a certain phrase or note that throws you off, and really you need to work that specific spot repeatedly until you crack the code.
On the other hand though, the second prong is doing rhythm exercises independent from the rest of the music stuff. Strip away melody, chords, pumping, harmonium, singing. Just work on rhythm. When I do this with a student one-on-one, we start by tapping our knees with a solid rhythm. Then I make some variations on that rhythm which the student has to mimick. It gets gradually more challenging and/or fast, till they've got a real "tongue-twister" in a rhythmic sense, and that's a rhythm they can take home and practice till they get it into their body.
This is like going "under the hood" to work on rhythm directly, and there's lots of ways to do this.
1) Look in to "TaKeTiNa." This is a fantastic system for developing rhythm skills, based on body-motions. Stomp, clap, tap, snap... "cracking the code" with your body, where rhythm lives. (p.s. rhythm does live in your body, it's part of your human birthright! There's no "gene" for rhythm that you could be missing. It's just more latent than other music skills you've developed further. All you need is practice and patience and guidance!)
There might be a TaKeTiNa group in your area, I don't know if it's in Ireland! There are some great books and DVDs about it that you could search out on Amazon.com and perhaps also YouTube.com.
2) Get a metronome. (A small digital metronome costs $15 to $30, get one online or at any music store.) Practice clapping along with the beat. Set it to 60mm and clap along. Set it to 70, or 80, or 90.... or 180! and clap along, tap along, snap along... encode those beats into your body, into your muscles and bones. And, use it when practicing exercises or songs. If you're playing a kirtan song at home, set the metronome to something moderate, perhaps 60 or 80mm (depends on the song and your mood), and keep 20% of your attention on the metronome's "clicks" while singing the song. If you get off beat, bring your attention back to the metronome to get in synch again.
3) Practice with a friend who plays drum of some sort and who also wants to practice!
4) If you specifically need to work on 3/4 timing, put on Krishna Das' Hare Krishna Waltz (or any other song in 3/4) and say with the beat:
ONE - two - three - ONE - two - three ...
And when that's easy, then add a clap on "ONE," like:
CLAP - two - three - CLAP - two - three ...
And if that gets easy, then turn the music off and do it on your own, while imagining the music.
...OK! There's lots more I could say, but this is an email for Krishna's sake, so I should wrap it up. The main thing is that it's just a muscle you need to develop, and over time it'll get stronger, you can't help that from being the case. If you do any of the above, it'll just expedite that process, as would anything else that emphasizes rhythm, like dancing (rhythmic dancing, like African, jazz, tap, swing... less so with modern), or learning to play a drum. I'm tossing out lots of ideas here though, if you're busy and all you can muster is to keep up with your harmonium practice, and learn new songs in the Bhakti Breakfast Club, I sincerely believe your rhythm will develop naturally from year to year. Music's a gradual process, so look for the progress from year to year.
Alright Jan, I look forward to seeing you in class! Drop a note any time.
All the best, Daniel
I am lying in bed on a warm April afternoon, just emerging from a wonderful nap. Two hours ago, I put on some Hariprasad Chaurasia to meditate to... then, getting sleepy, decided to do some "napitation" in bed.
As I am waking up, I hear the music still playing, and am enjoying it's gentle caress. There is a high-pitched vocalist sliding from one pitch to another in beautifully emotional descending phrases. As my conscious mind returns, I reflect that the album actually has only flute for melody... with tabla and tamboura for accompaniment.
The vocalist turns out to be a wailing baby next door - I have the window open on this hot afternoon, as do the neighbors. I watch my mind gradually separate the baby's sounds from the polyphonous circumscription called "the music."
What sound exists within the song, and what sound outside the song? Only a thought determines. Put that thought to sleep, and the whole world is liable to be a song.
Here's a news brief you won't catch on CNN or Fox News: Global Harmonium Shortage hits the Kirtan Community Hard!
It's all too real, and not a temporary emptying of shelves caused by Black Friday either. You won't hear about it on the evening news, because kirtan music, and the instruments used in playing kirtan music, is a rather small niche, and a bit off the radar of the mainstream media. But for us in the chant community, it's a real problem that's been coming for a while now.
The story begins in Paris, where the Harmonium was invented in the nineteenth century. It became popular throughout Europe, and in America as well, and many different manufacturers created competing designs, patenting and crafting new ways to lay out the harmonium's bellows, reeds, stops, and other parts. This was a highly innovative time for keyboard instruments - in fact, the piano itself had just been invented a hundred years earlier. In the perspective of the evolution of Western Music, Harmoniums were just one of a flurry of instruments based on the piano's keyboard that had their fifteen minutes of fame. This includes the pianoforte, harmonichord, new types of clavichord and harpsichord, harmonium, accordion, and eventually electric organ, and synthesizer keyboards.
And so the harmonium had it's moment in Europe and America's fancy, and later petered out. All Western harmonium makers (and harmonium reed makers) stopped manufacutring the instrument by 1950, presumably shifting into producing other instruments.
And yet here were are, playing our harmoniums and singing kirtan, so, what happened? Well, in a "saved by the bell" moment, a stroke of luck had some Christian missionaries from Britain take a kindness to the harmonium as a portable church organ, as they sailed to India on ships that could not fit full pipe organs. When they arrived in India, the harmonium was a major hit! Christianity took hold in some spots, but the harmonium travelled like wildfire, as musicians from all of India's religions (including Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim) incorporated the harmonium into their spiritual musics. And so just as the harmonium was fading into the dusk in the Western world, it was being raised to the heavens in India, with many dozens of manufacturing shops tooling up to produce harmoniums - with the legs removed, of course, so that they could be stationed on the ground and played while sitting on the floor.
Then in the late 20th century, in a kind of ironic global ping-pong, Eastern Religions began to take hold in the West, and by today, many of us have taken up kirtan - singing God's names within sanskrit mantrans - as a heartfelt daily practice... which... relies on the harmonium! Try as we may to import our spirit from somewhere else, it's always right at home beneath our own hearth; and try as we may to enjoy the exotic Indian sound of the harmonium, it is really a European instrument in origin!
Which brings me to today's conundrum: As kirtan is growing like wildfire in America and Europe and elsewhere in the Western world, the only manufacturers of harmoniums are currently in India, and this is a problem! India is known for it's spirituality, it's artwork, it's culture and cuisine, it's dance and music... but not for it's manufacturing. Can you name an Indian model of car? And so, as the demand for harmoniums is globally increasing, the small Indian shops that produce harmoniums of mediocre quality by hand in cramped settings, and who struggle to get their shipments handled decently enough so that American importers don't just receive crates full of splinters and screws, are having a hard time keeping up with that demand. Shipments destined for western importers are arriving months late, to stores that have largely pre-sold the incoming instruments. Quality overall is declining as the small shops try to produce more instruments rapidly, but without the infrastructure to scale up properly.
And so, each day I receive emails from people wondering, "Where can I get a harmonium? I've heard a Bina 23b or a DMS 24a is the best thing to get, but I can't find any shops that have them in stock. What do I do?" I tell them they should ask the shops if they can pre order one, and be patient while they wait some months for it to arrive. And in the meantime, share some tips about harmoniums at my Kirtan Central page - www.kirtancentral.com/harmonium. But I'm starting to play with the notion that we should begin making them again here in the states.
This afternoon, I sat down on the floor, placed one foot eight inches in front of the other, and balanced on my knees and ankles a large, lop-sided container made of clay and leather, containing nothing but air.
It was time to practice mridanga. It had been a few weeks since my last practice session, as my time has been devoted to updating the Kirtan Central website, creating a new free series of Intro to Harmonium videos, and getting the word out about the new online harmonium class I'm holding "live by video" once a month.
So imagine my surprise when, though my attention was distracted by some recent emails, and though my heart was heavy with missing my sweet Karen who's away in Hong Kong for two and a half interminable weeks, my hands were naturally recollecting rhythms and variations on rhythms that I couldn't even recall the names of! Truthfully, my mind was fairly muddy, but my fingers were flying through the standard da-ge-ti-kha-na-ge-dhi-na mridanga rhythm, inserting variations and periodically breaking into rhythmic "ti-hai's" before my mind could remember the syllables those very ti-hai's were composed of.
What was happening? Perhaps I had accidentally pronounced the "Mridanga Pranam Mantra" (which my Mayapuri mridanga teachers exhorted me to say before each practice session) correct for once, and blessings had been bestowed.
Or perhaps... ah, yes, it's all coming back to me now... I had practiced. And here it was - the fruits of that practice - if a few weeks late.
It's an interesting time-delay that I've often experienced when practicing a musical instrument. I first noticed it as a kid, when my weekly music lessons on piano and later saxophone would be paused for the summers along with school. For a couple months I wouldn't take lessons, and summer being a time for camp and water balloon fights, I wouldn't practice either.
Inevitably, September would arrive, and I would return to my musical instruments. My embouchure muscles might have weakened a bit (the mouth muscles needed for playing saxophone), but each year a surprising realization would dawn on me - I had improved! Between the end of last year, and the beginning of this year, I had improved! Of course, between the end of last year and the beginning of this year, I had done very little in the way of active practicing. But as a neuroscientist might be better able to explain than a music teacher such as myself, the time away from active practicing had allowed all I'd learned to sink in deeper, to take hold and establish itself within me in a more natural, integrated way.
To be sure, I'm not unique in this effect - now as a music teacher I get to observe it with others. Often after some time off, though there may be some superficial "rustiness" in technique to shake off, there's also a more integrated relationship with the instrument than before.
And so I am reminded that the value of practice is not always immediately evident, for many of its rewards develop in a secret internal dark-room, to be revealed weeks, months or years later. As the Bhagavad Gita puts it,
"On this path no effort is wasted,
no gain is ever reversed;
even a little of this practice
will shelter you from great sorrow."
Over the last three months, videos have been arriving in my email inbox from all over the world - from an ashram in Greece, an ultra-modern apartment in Germany, a family home in Spain - with one thing in common: Everybody is singing Krishna Das' "Ma Durga"!
These kirtan lovers were responding to my call for exactly that - casually filmed videos of them singing along to Krishna Das in their headphones, that I could weave together into one giant "Virtual Kirtan Choir." It humbled me that so many folks were taking time out of their busy lives to sit down in front of their webcam for this. As I pored over the videos, two things became evident: first, these people LOVE this song! Whether's it's love of Krishna Das, love of kirtan, love of Durga, love of singing, love of God... what's obvious is the love, joy, and tenderness captured in each video clip. And second: how deeply we crave to be part of something larger than ourselves! There was so much excitement to be part of the "choir," and I believe that's one of the places kirtan is healing us. It's a chance to gather as a community, and to sing our hearts out together. This is an essential and time-honored part of human life!
While producing the video, I was reminded that it is but a simulation of this essential human tradition of gathering together in song. The video is symbolic, connecting us across the globe by our common love of kirtan music. But the most important form of this connection happens in a live kirtan, with a live circle of friends, as the vibrations of our voices blend to create a Real Kirtan Choir!
So, without further ado, here is the Virtual Kirtan Choir's first video (we'll do another next year :) ~
If you enjoy the video, please share it and spread the love!
"How did you first get into kirtan?" she asks me. We had finished the last session of our three-day harmonium intensive a few hours ago, and were chatting now in Kripalu's hallway.
My mind flipped back through an imaginary photo album of kirtan highlights - the sweet bhav of Jai Uttal retreats, the epic woodstockiness of Bhakti Fests, the drinking deeply of Radha-Krishna nectar on pilgrimages to Mayapur...
It wasn't the first time I'd been asked this question, and I could remember my usual response: that in my first trip to India, when I was 21, I saw a kirtan in West Bengal. And, totally didn't get it. A year later, a friend would loan me a booklet of CDs, including Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, and it would all suddenly fall into place, how music and spiritual practice could be one path.
But on this day, another memory was nagging at me, whistling in my ear, singing a song of coming-full-circle, like a kirtan sung in rounds that begins where it ends, or like the bright red sugar maple leaf outside in the new england autumn breeze, falling to the ground to begin its life cycle anew.
"Well, actually, I first got exposed to kirtan... here at Kripalu!" It was amazing to remember. I was flashing back to the warm, dimly lit room where I'd first heard kirtan - first heard a harmonium, being played by a man with dreadlocked hair who had "recently returned from India" - a new concept to the then-19-year-old me who had just dropped out of engineering school. I remembered struggling to keep up with the strange sanskrit words, but feeling a kind of magical energy permeating the room while we all sang. Together. Sacred. Music.
And now it had come full circle, that first seed having blossomed into the yearning to devote my life to the practice and sharing of kirtan, to the promise of a music that can awaken the soul's memory of - and love of - God.
And so there we were, in Kripalu's hallway, having woven 24 budding harmonium students together into a veritable harmonium orchestra, and having recalled how it all began.
Like kirtan? Great! And surprise - now you're a singer! Better learn how to take care of your voice:
1) Drink water!
- Your vocal folds need hydration in order to be lubricated by a thin layer of healthy mucus, and nothing provides that better than water. Warm water is especially good, as cold causes the vocal muscles to constrict and become tighter - and as singers, we want warm, relaxed, moist vocal muscles. Drinking fluids in general is helpful, but watch out for drinks that actually dehydrate you, like those with alcohol and caffeine. Also watch out for mucus-producing drinks, like orange juice and milk. Too much mucus may lead to throat-clearing or coughing, both of which are very harsh on the vocal cords.
2) Warm up first!
- Have you ever gone to a kirtan, and sang really enthusiastically - until your voice gave out, or at least was really hoarse afterwards? It doesn't have to be that way! An evening of kirtan is a wonderful thing, but the tough part is the abrupt transition from your day's activities, into suddenly singing "Radhe Radhe!" full-on. If you do any sports, you know how important it is to warm up the appropriate muscles first… well, why not treat your vocal muscles to a few minutes of warm-ups before singing? Vocal warm-ups can take many forms (there's a long-tone warm-up in my Learn to Play Harmonium kit). But even without a formal exercise, you can still warm up by singing gently, quietly, and not too high for 5-15 minutes before a kirtan. Try humming, Omming, or chanting gently in the car on the way to the kirtan.
3) No smoking!
- This one may be obvious, but if there's anybody out there who is still smoking, Stop. It's the worst thing you can do to your voice. Bad for the heart, bad for the lungs, bad for the vocal tract.
4) Don't strain your voice!
- This one is really about developing an awareness of your "edge." If you're singing "Hare Krishna Hare Krishna!" very loudly, and then suddenly you discover your voice is hoarse and feeble, well, you went over that "edge." As you develop awareness of the feelings in your vocal muscles, you'll recognize when they're telling you "this is a bit much, if you go louder I'll crap out." And then you can choose whether or not to go louder - it might feel good for a sec, but you'll pay for it later. This also includes generally avoiding situations that cause strain to your voice - a loud bar or restaurant where you have to nearly shout to be heard may leave your voice slightly hoarse afterwards.
- The bigger picture for this one is to reduce stress in your life in general. Stress causes tension in various parts of your body. And while there are specific "vocal muscles," your voice actually resonates throughout your entire body - in your chest, belly, face, throat, pelvis… everywhere that's relaxed enough to be receptive to the vibrations of your voice. No "quick fix" for stress, I know, but it's an awareness you'll develop as a singer - you'll hear your voice all tight and constricted, and realize that you were all stressed out at work earlier in the day. Another time you'll hear your voice with a rich, full sound, and reflect that the exercise and bath seemed to have really relaxed you.
5) See a professional!
- If your car is making some sound you don't understand, you take it to a professional. If a tooth is feeling achy, you go to a professional. And if your voice is regularly getting hoarse, please visit a professional! Google "vocal coach" in your area, to get an hour-long session with a vocal pro who can give you warm-up exercises, and identify issues with your vocal technique that may be causing strain. And google "ENT" in your area to find an ear-note-throat doctor to identify if your hoarse-ness is caused by another condition, such as an allergy, infection, or acid reflux. If you feel you may have acid reflux (even if you don't experience heart burn), visit these links: Vocal Health Advice & Chinese Medical Perspective on Acid Reflux. More of us have it than admit it, and I'll be posting more on that topic in the future.
A fledgling interest in deity worship is developing in me!
I've previously been mostly into connecting with the divine through music, most especially kirtan of course, and through meditation and prayer.
Last year in Mayapur, though, I got to witness first-hand the many many many methods of cultivating love of God that Vaishnav Bhakti culture possesses: The beautiful and varies arati services throughout the day; the chanting of round upon round of Hare Krishna mantra on japa beads in a discreet cloth pouch; the lively heart-felt discourses on key Bhakti texts such as Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatum; the preparing, offering, and relishing of prasadam (meals offered to the deities, then shared by devoties); the mellow bhajans, ecstatic kirtans and street-roving harinam; the affectionate care and worship of the cows (those companions of the cow-herd Govinda); and so on... A real Bhakti culture, with more elements than I could wrap my head around during last year's 5-week visit. During that trip, I did catch the Hare Krishna japa bug though... and during this trip, I seem to be falling for the deities!
A few years ago, I thought deity statues were just art... Cultural, interesting, but not spiritually potent like meditation or chanting. But last year in Mayapur, the Panchatattva deities (five large golden-hued statues of the saint Chaitanya and his closest buds) in the main temple forced me to question this view... for, tangible spiritual light was shining from them intensely.
I would do double-takes upon entering the temple and seeing them anew - perhaps it was the lighting on their stage, I thought, or the shiny bright clothes they were dressed in... But try as I might to explain away their potent luminosity, eventually they won me over and I would often meditate in front of them, basking in their heart-opening glow. And during the temple kirtans, we would all face these deities, musicians included, and sing and jump and dance, offering all that was within us to the loving deities.
I couldn't understand it, as the mystical is ever a mystery to the mind, but upon return to California, I came up with a theory to explain the luminous consciousness that esconsed those metal statues. Perhaps, I conjectured, as the people in the temple engaged the catharsis of kirtans and rituals, the purified energies released - the shakti from their practices - lingered where they had been focussing at the time.
In this way, I understood the light of the deities to be caused by the spirit-raising efforts of the people focusing on them... not somehow emerging from within the statues, or anything crazy mystical like that.
But now I'm back in front of those Mayapuri deities (Panchatattva as well as Nitai & Nimai, Radha Krishna and the Gopis, Nrisingadev, etc.) and am again being baffled by their light.
Well, last week I picked up a copy of "The Condensed Chaitanya Charitamrita," the life story of the 15th century saint Chaitanya who inaugurated the Hare Krishna kirtan movement. It's pages, condensed from the full version's seventeen volumes, are filled to overflowing with delicious story vignettes, fascinating debates about bhakti and how to obtain the true goal of life (love of God), and intoxicating glimpses of Chaitanya's ecstatic moods - the dancing, singing, crying, shaking, laughing and fainting caused by his overwhelming love of God...
One story relayed by Chaitanya to a gathering of devotees explains how a particular deity statue had become famous for his love of kheera (spiced cucumber yogurt). The story relates a number of times when a man named Madhavendra Puri had dreams of Gopala (the young Krishna) which impelled him to perform some service to a statue form of the deity. In the first of such dreams, Gopala tells Madhavendra Puri of a bush in the forest under which he is currently buried, having been hidden by a Vaishnav priest when the Muslims conquered the area. Assembling the villagers with tools to clear a path through the dense forest the next day, Madhavendra eventually arrives at the bush - digs, unearths the statue Gopinatha, and has it installed in a temple where it can still be seen today. Wild!
Other such dreams are more playful, with the deity letting on that he's hidden a pot of kheer behind his curtain for a specific purpose - and upon awakening, indeed the pot is there...
Anyway, all this has me chewing on the relationship between God, a personality of God such as Krishna or Gopala, and a physical deity form of that personality... Although my mind wants to put "spirit" and "matter" (and thereby, God and statues) in separate categories, perhaps reality is not so segmented.
This morning, pondering this led me to remember a dream that I had a few weeks ago, before coming to India. It was a vivid, colorful dream featuring a small blue boy. The boy was magical, joyful, unlimitedly powerful, carefree and loving... and was putting on a kind of show for a bunch of us in a huge barn with stained-glass windows. There were fireworks, and the blue boy leapt and flew through the air, and music played... At the end of the dream, the blue boy - and the whole magical world he'd been in - shrank into a handful of blue popsical sticks bound together with some yarn, in a stick figure shape.
Looking back, I ponder - could that have been Gopala? And was his cryptic final display as a small stick figure a demonstration of the relationship between the magical joyful loving Gopala, and a small deity form... as non-different?
...Which prodded a further memory: Just days before the night of that dream, I had had an unexpected darshan (flimpse) of a small Gopala statue at a new friend's house north of San Francisco. When it's cabinet/shrine was opened, I was suprised by its spiritual luminosity, which at the time I imagined was generated by the worship practice of its keepers, my new friends... and had more to do with them than Krishna... but now... well, I am excited to visit that little Gopala again when I'm back in California! And I'm wondering - should I get a little Gopala statue? Should I wait for one to fall into my lap, or announce itself in a dream? And what does he eat?
Suddenly, the lights go out. It is pitch black, 5AM, and I am doing yoga on a sheet on the cold concrete floor. It's quiet still - the birds aren't chirping yet - and outside in the distance I hear a man's unrestrained voice singing a heartfelt Hare Krishna melody while he pumps water into a bucket for a brisk early-morning bath. The lights go on and off a few more times. Nobody drops a beat or even mentions it - this is India, and power-outages are just part of the daily rhythm.
So too, here in Mayapur, is chanting the holy names. The 4AM clanging of kartal cymbals through the halls of my guest house, which prompted me to squeeze two neon orange earplugs (which I'd set next to my pillow for the occasion) in and roll back to sleep, had in fact roused most of the pilgrims here, to gather in the main temple for a 4:30AM service (arati).
Each service throughout the day is unique, with different bhajans (hymns) and inevitably a climatic Hare Krishna kirtan. My favorite, and the one I'll be going to daily, is the 6-8pm service. This is the 'big kirtan' - congregational chanting led by a rotating team of Bengali mridanga, kartala and gong players and a lead singer. A crew of dancers move left and right in joyful unison in the front of the hall, singing Hare Krishna with arms raised in offering to the radiant deities on stage. The drumming, dancing, and singing gradually builds over the course of the service, until it explodes into wild, passionate, focused abandon... cymbals clanging, drums thumping, dancing bodies packed together leaping up and down, arms raised in offering to, and beseeching of, the divine.
It was during this evening service last year, that I reflected to myself that many of the highest times of my life would be in this hall. Tonight will be my first time back in nearly eleven months, and I am very excited.
And now- off to Pankaj's music shop, to get a mridanga to practice on while I'm here. Rickshaw!!!
Copyright 2010-2012 Daniel Tucker