The Mirror in the Music

A tale of music learned meditatively

Try singing a note. Any note that’s comfortable to you. Just sing it continuously for a few seconds and keep it stable. Now sing it again but this time record it. Play the recording and listen to how you’re singing. Is the note perfectly stable? Or does it waver up and down? Is there a raspy sound to it? Is it breathy? Does the volume vary? Is it jerky? Does the sound stop for a tenth of a second every now and then? Is it even the note you thought you were singing?

It’s hard to sing a note stably and accurately. It takes time, patience and practice. But it can be done. Listen to any Indian classical master to know what stability sounds like. Or if you’re into western music, there’s Barbara Streisand, and of course Pavarotti.

The difficulty inherent in stabilising a note is present with other instruments as well, some more than others. It’s somewhat easier to pull off in a fretted instrument like a guitar, but when you bend the strings, the same problems arise. You have to maintain the exact tension needed to get the note just right. Once you get it right, you’ve to keep it there and not waver.

Let me jump to something else that I think has a very similar process of stabilisation:

Meditation.

There are probably more methods of meditation out there than the number of meditators, but the commonalities they share are concentration and awareness.

The technique I’m most familiar with is Vipassana meditation, which is a Buddhist style. The technique is very simple: Be aware of the breath. That’s all there is to it, but in practice it feels like moving mountains.

Essentially, with a straight spine, you observe your breath — see how it moves, what it does, how it cycles. You just observe it, like a bystander, not controlling it in any way. It’s almost as if you’re observing someone else breathe while being able to feel the sensations of the breath.

I think this is very similar to when you have to maintain a note through time without wavering one bit. There is a note in your head that you want to sing. You try but it turns out to be a mess when you vocalise it. The problem, I feel, does not lie in the execution but in the conception of the note itself.

If the note is not constant in your mind, then what is your reference for executing it stably? If we closely observe our thoughts when we’re singing, a lot of us would notice that there is a barrage of different thoughts that keeps coming into the mind. Our focus is not entirely on the note, and just like our note wavers, so does our mind.

When we begin to meditate, we go through this same process. We’re trying to just focus on one thing but all these other thoughts keep buzzing around. Forcing them out does not lead to progress. It only makes them come back more powerfully. The better way is acceptance. Accept that they’ve come, realise that they’re thoughts and turn your focus back on the breath.

This is what I did to improve the stability of the notes I sing. I focus on a constant note in my head — the note I’m about to sing. My tanpura is there to help me think the note. All I need to do is sing precisely what I’m thinking. I know this sounds very obvious, and it is. The difficult part is to keep that note in my head as the only thing I’m focusing on. That’s a real challenge.

The better I get at this, the more stably I’m able to sing. If I draw parallels to meditation, then the note in my head is the breath, trying to focus exclusively on it is concentration and the note I sing is my awareness. Singing the note outwardly is how I observe the note in my mind. It makes it somewhat easier to focus on the note I’m focusing on.

What struck me about this arrangement is that earlier, I thought of the note I’d sing as the final goal and the note in my head as my guide. Now, the note I sing outwardly has become the guide that helps me focus on the note in my head. This reversal in focus has been a big turning point in my musical journey.

What I sing is just a way to keep the music inside me stable. If, at any point while singing, I compare the stability of the sung note with the imagined one, I always find the vocalised one to be more stable.

The more I practice, the finer and more subtle my perception of the sung note becomes. This, in turn, makes it easier for me to stabilise the note in my mind. My awareness of what is happening outside helps me with my inward awareness.

I’ve experienced the same thing in Vipassana but I didn’t notice its likeness to music until quite recently.

In Vipassana, the awareness of my breath, something that I associate with externality, becomes finer with time and helps me with keeping my mind focused.

It’s a bit of work to explain what finer or subtle means in this context but let me try with analogy. In my article on minimalism (An iota of Creativity), I talked about how you can see a honeycomb from far away and think of it as a large structure filled with honey, or you can observe it more closely and you’ll be able to see the hexagonal cells that are the building blocks of the entire network. The more closely we are able to observe something, the more its subtleties become clear to us. The more granular our observation becomes when we breathe, the better we’re able to perceive it at a fundamental level.

When my awareness of breath becomes finer, I’m able to observe myself and my mind more closely. The 100 thoughts that were flooding my mind reduce to just 3 or 4.

When I sing, I’m able to keep the mental note for longer without distraction, and this is aided by my awareness of the note I’m singing. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario that just works somehow.

Some practice with this way of stabilising notes has let me feel the pitch of the note instead of actively thinking about it. Technically, I am still thinking about it but it is more effortless, which is why it seems like I’m just feeling it, like an emotion. And I think I sense the beginnings of the note in my mind and the note I sing becoming one, but it’s too early to tell that for sure. All I know is that this process is becoming more effortless with practice.

This is something I find applies to all aspects of music, not just pitch. Rhythm, for instance, can be improved in much the same way.

Just like musicians stabilise pitch, they also stabilise tempo. The tempo is the speed at which the music is playing. If it goes up and down erratically, it’s hard to understand the rhythm of the music. It creates a disconnect with the groove of the beat.

Rhythm is a way to divide time into chunks. The tempo remains the same if the size of the chunks is the same. Of course, each chunk can be divided further but the tempo is regular if those divisions are regular as well.

To keep the size of the chunks stable, we need to know the exact instant in time when the next beat comes. The more exact you can be, the better you can maintain tempo.

To keep tempo well, I feel the pulse of the beat and I use the outward manifestation of the rhythm to help me internalise it better. It’s very similar to what I did with notes.

With a meditative approach to rhythm, you begin to experience time in a significantly different way. Each moment becomes slower. The passage of time seems clearer. It’s like being able to see that the screen you’re looking at right now is made of millions of atoms — not just knowing this but actually being able to see it.

I even use this approach to help me match tones better, another important facet of music.

The result of all of this, is not only that my musical ability and listening skills have improved, but, for lack of better words, the music in me seems to be more lucid.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that we’re not machines, and let the music retain some unpredictability that makes it seem human. If you’re so precise that every thing lines up like a drum machine, you might as well replace yourself with MIDI. The human touch of emphasis and feeling is what makes music, music. Music without soul is dead music, as some musicians I know, would say. Speaking of musicians -

When you see someone sitting and meditating, all you can perceive is a person sitting. That’s all there is to it, frankly. Only the meditator can live through his experience. He can tell you how he felt and how you can experience the same thing, and you’d actually have to sit through it to know for yourself.

Music, on the other hand, is something that you can hear, even if it’s someone else who plays it. If music is meditation to the musician, she can draw the audience into her experience as well. She can show them all that she sees by giving them the front row seats on her meditation. She does all this through her sound, the external expression of her inner self. She is the mirror turned on herself. The more she has discovered through music, the more the audience can experience. Her greater effort leads to everyone’s greater benefit (think Smt. MS Subbulakshmi, or Pt. Ramakant Gundecha & Pt. Umakant Gundecha)

The musician’s realisation can be the audience’s realisation. In this sense, I think of the musician as a liberator, one who liberates herself and the audience with the sound of her music. The audience needs to do just one thing — listen.

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Around Sound turns my personal experiences with music, both as a musician and as a listener, into stories.

Improve your sense of rhythm (How I improved my sense of rhythm: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) as you read about my journey through the world of rhythm. How’s that for combining a lesson and a story into one? :D

Get a better grasp on notes with my 3-part How I learned to speak with notes series: Melody, Harmony and Connection

You might even find these interesting:
How I use music to remember phone numbers, A Recipe for Music and The Voice of a Story

You can have a look at all my articles here: Anirudh Venkatesh