The daily quest for musical excellence

I once worked with a tabla player who was originally from India and came from a long line of Indian musicians. The tabla is a pair of hand drums of contrasting sizes and pitches used for popular and devotional music. This musician was “Tabla Royalty”!  He told me he was taught by one of the foremost tabla players in India from a very young age. We performed in a few concerts where two singers, I was one of them, sang plainchant accompanied by the tabla, sitar and traditional wind instruments. But what really impressed me about this tabla player was that his playing transcended merely pitches and beats on a drum. It became intrinsic to the piece, it became the fabric of the music.

During one of the rehearsals I was able to speak with him and ask him the secret to his incredible playing. He told me that he had completed a 40-day music fast called a “Chilla”.

From wikipedia:

In Hindustani classical music, chilla or chilla katna is a stage of training or ritual where the student is fully isolated from the outside world and lives for music only. Some musicians spend long periods of their training in varying degrees of isolation and describe these as their chilla; for others it’s a shorter, more extreme retreat, traditionally lasting 40 days. In either form, it is thought to have the power of transforming not only the student’s music, but his whole life. Chilla is widely used in the Punjab gharānā (school) of tabla playing.

Abdul Karim Khan, a singer of the Kirana gharana, described chilla as “lighting a fire under your life. You either cook or you burn. If you cook, everyone can enjoy your flavour – otherwise, you’ll be a mass of cinders, a heap of ash.”  (Guided Tour into a Fabulous World, The Music Magazine, 2001.)

He explained the process to me – the musician is completely isolated and alone. You only stop playing for meals and for sleep. So you basically play non-stop for 40 days!! He described to me how he went through many different stages – mentally, physically and emotionally. But the constant is your instrument and the music that you produce on that instrument. What happened, for him, over that 40 days was that he reinvented how he played, his posture and the sounds he produced. He refined and worked on every small detail. It’s common for players to just work on one phrase or a very small part of a technique for many hours with lots of repetitions! What are the results of such a fast? Practice often doesn’t equal perfect, it equals permanent. So if you are looking in purely scientific terms, those daily practices and multiple repetitions, and willingness to work on technique at such a deep level, meant that his technique became permanent. He could rely on his muscle memory at any time, in any situation. In addition to the obvious technical achievements, a deeper emotional connection can shine through. This was what I had noticed in his playing.

I was thinking about it in terms of singing. Obviously from the quote above by Abdul Karim Khan, singers in India complete the 40 day fast as well.  I’m really not sure if I could sing non- stop for 40 days!! It would be an amazing experiment I think! But there are aspects which could be incorporated into daily practice. Maybe singers could commit to 5 days of 2-3 hours of deliberate practice with goals written out for them. You could work on one aspect of technique until it is perfect – and see what a difference that makes to how you sing and how it affects your ability to communicate expressively. You could work on all sorts of things if you allow the time to experiment and explore your voice.

I believe you should practice each day – for me it’s not an option not to sing at least some scales or listen to some new music every day. By committing to daily practice, you absolutely have to improve. Sometimes you plateau for a while but then have a major breakthrough which can be really exciting. But the other aspect is when you are called to sing and to perform, you find there are so many things you have covered in that daily pursuit of excellence that you can draw on in a performance. Audiences notice when you have achieved a level of ease that only practice can bring. I believe that if your calling is music  – then it is something you desire to do daily. Music is such a wonderful part of my life and to be able to share it with an audience is so fulfilling!

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