Fiddle away the moments that make up a dull day

Hello everyone. Just in case you thought I was wasting my time on Twitter, starting pointless Tumblr memes, whiling away precious hours recording corny music and writing columns for newspapers instead of blogging, well, you’d be right!

I am not given to Web 2.0 prognostications like “Blogging is dead” because that would be like saying that music died when the gramophone was invented. Online self-expression keeps taking different shapes and a blog is but one instrument in the Social media orchestra. Damn, I should copyright that sentence.

So now that I’ve used advanced verbal douchebaggery to slyly justify my own absence on this blog for 5 months, I am informing you that I am back. The country is awash with the white Gandhian caps of rebellion and the Zeitgeist of the times is urging me to add my cogent wit to the flaming conflagaration of opinion already setting the Indian interwebz on fire. So I am going to politely decline and start writing, instead, about a long time obsession of mine, learning to play instruments.

I started learning the violin when I was 7. No, I was not a child prodigy. Legend has it that a colleague of my mother’s played the instrument at an office picnic and a blinding flash of light from the heavens did not light me up and a thunderous voice from the firmament did not tell me “Son, this is your instrument, your calling”. My mother simply noticed that I was paying a few seconds more attention than I normally did to pretty much anything else at that age, so she quickly enrolled me into a music school boot camp gulag run by this chap’s sister and before I could say “Shankarabharanam”, I found myself with a half-sized violin, facing the Tambrahm equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, the Music Teacher Maami From The Depths of Hell.

The unfortunate thing about most classical music education in India is that it does not answer the unwilling student’s biggest question “What’s in it for me?” What’s worse, it’s the super-talented junior savants, the ones who can play the Bhairavi varnam at quadruple speed while the rest of us are still making industrial noises with our bows, that get all the attention and ironically, they are the ones who don’t need teachers. It’s almost as if the only function of most Indian music schools is to clearly communicate to its vast majority of students that they suck. Thankfully for me, my mother decided that she didn’t have a problem with my teacher having a dim view of my skills.

Another problem is the instrument itself. The violin, despite its beautiful shape and inarguably sensuous sound, has, what I call, an unacceptable MTTSP (Mean Time to Sonic Palatability) – the average time it takes a student to play something that sounds tolerable to his own ears.

  • Piano: 0 days. As this man demonstrates, unless an entry-level Casio model is involved, anyone can produce pleasant sounds on the piano.
  • Didgeridoo: 10 minutes. My good friend Harish built himself one using a PVC pipe and a Google search and if you can expel air at high pressure, you can join an Aborigine tea party in the Outback.
  • Flute: 2 days. Buy yourself one from a Balloon wala and you could be playing Pardesi Pardesi Jaana Nahin (which is what 95% of flute sellers play by the way) in no time.
  • Guitar: 1 week. With the help of Youtube videos, it takes less than a week to learn D, A and G chords and play close to 60% of all popular music. The guitar also has the unique ability to make its players sound more talented than they really are. Not surprising therefore that it is the world’s most popular instrument
  • Violin: 6 years. 

The Violin is a troll instrument. It might as well have been designed by 4chan.

Yes, even the instrument’s making involves trolling poor Mongolian horses.

Once you train your right hand to finally stop making the sort of sounds that disturb the local dog populace, you start thinking “Ah finally I will now play some songs”, the teacher smiles (like that Troll face) and says “Not so soon. We need to work on your left hand” and for the next few months, teaches you a principle that Werner Heisenberg might have internalized as a kid while learning to play the violin.

You can either bow properly or find the right finger position for a note, never both.

Millimeters can make the difference between a proper note and sounds that elicit  growling disapproval from the teacher. The worst part – you wouldn’t even know if you are making the mistake or if the instrument is wrongly tuned. Of course, as an adult, one realizes that it’s its fret-less design that makes it such an expressive instrument but as a kid learning to play it, one couldn’t care less.

The thing is, most kids want to learn an instrument to satisfy a fundamentally human urge to master something, to achieve a sense of cosmic purpose and go on an adventure to discover the beauty of music. Well, that, and to impress the short-haired pretty Mallu girl in class. So let’s evaluate the violin on these 3 parameters, shall we?

Sense of Mastery and all that: The violin takes years to master. Pretty short-haired Mallu girl would’ve got married to the eldest son of the proprietor of Chemmannur Jewellers by the time one can play Raravenu Gopala without abaswaram. Verdict: Fail

Cosmic Purpose and Adventure: Imagine Carl Sagan narrating “Pale Blue Dot” set to the background music of Sarali Varise and Alangaram. Or Darth Vader arriving at the Death Star to the strains of Vara Veena.  Not working no? It takes years of training before you learn the first tune that sounds remotely interesting. Guitarists play the chords to Hotel California in a few months. Here’s a reason many people give up on Indian classical music. They don’t teach you interesting things till you get your basics right. That sounds like a good idea per se, but it does little to motivate any student. No one wants to be playing Varnams and Geethams for years. Why couldn’t they teach students who can play geethams, simple film songs? Like this for instance

I am reminded of an incident that happened when I was in my second year of training (I was about 8 then). My parents had bought a cassette tape of this superhit movie called Sakalakalavallavan (Jack of all trades) starring #Grand (occasionally known as Kamal Hassan) and one song in particular caught my fancy. Ilamai Itho Itho. It was the first song whose notes I worked out and I taught myself to play it on the violin. I did, however, make the cardinal mistake of demonstrating this achievement to my violin teacher whose face turned into something resembling Mt Etna on the morning of August 24, 79 AD and she proceeded to lecture me on why I must not dishonor a western instrument that was introduced to Carnatic music about a hundred years ago by playing Ilayaraja’s western music on it.

But as I’m finding out now, Western classical music has a much better pedagogical culture. There’s always some immediate performance goal to look forward to all the time. One learns to play simple, popular songs that everyone knows right from the outset. While the eventual goal is to play Mozart and Beethoven, playing Yankee Doodle went to town as part of the learning process isn’t frowned upon. Carnatic teaching, on the other hand, is ridiculously insular and frowns upon any kind of popular music.

Pulchritude Entrapment: Ok. Let’s even assume the short-haired pretty Mallu girl has a thing for Mohanam and she swoons every time Vara Veena is played. You are all set with your violin to serenade her, and that’s when you realize that you look like this

Do you see this working? No. You cannot be seated on the floor, legs spread in odd directions and expect to be romantic.

While guitarists and flautists cavort around trees indulging in terpsichorean antics, the Carnatic violinist is stuck, grounded and seated in the most ungainly and unromantic position playing the most blade sounding songs. Western violinists laugh at us all the time. It’s almost as if a cohort of Tambrahm maamaas decided in the past that they only way they could keep young boys away from pretty Mallu pulchritude is to teach them to play the violin Carnatic style. And then they all had filter coffees and laughed like this

So that’s the story of my violin. In retrospect, I have the greatest respect for every teacher of mine. For all the childhood frustration they caused me, they did leave me with the ability to make reasonably pleasant sounds on the violin. I have 3 now.

I have 2 goals in the next six months. One is to learn to play the violin standing up so I can dance around a pretty short-haired Mallu chick while playing Nalinakaanthi instead of being stuck like this

And the second goal is to learn to play the only instrument that sounds better than the violin. It’s an instrument that looks like a violin that has spent some time at McDonalds and Pizza Hut. The Cello. But that’s a separate post.