You can’t play on broken strings

I’ve always wanted to learn a musical instrument. When in 9’th grade, I joined a music school and signed up for guitar lessons. My instructor, Julius, was a very cool man. He didn’t believe in conventional teaching. Being self taught himself, he introduced me to some simple beginners’ chords and tabs. Starting with easy 3 chord rhymes, I advanced to the next level songs and learnt to play their solos. He emphasized a lot on solo to make my way through the frets more easy. It wasn’t really the ‘phoebe-way‘ of guitar learning, but it was all about enjoying what we played. We would sit in a circle and he would start off with a simple chord progression and we would follow him, which would eventually lead to a song. The entire room would vibrate with the strumming and singing!

I would come home from school and catch a bus to the class on every alternate weekdays. My guitar was (is) a classic acoustic instrument, which Julius picked out for me himself. He always said I have to use my long fingers to my advantage and play till they hurt (bleeding fingers is a sign of progress). After the class, a couple of students would stay back and discuss concerts, artists and their heroes. I too would sometimes stay back and listen to them in awe. Each one of them would speak so passionately about music and I then realized how the smallest of the things inspired them to pick up a guitar.

I continued for 2 years and enjoyed every bit of it. I would come home late sometimes which wasn’t quite appealing to my folks. I travelled by bus then, with a guitar hung on my back making my way through the crowd. I would leave by 5 and return only by 9, sometimes really exhausted. This left me no time to do anything for school the next day and to an extent, also affected my lifestyle. All this obviously ticked off my mom a bit and I eventually had to give it up when I entered the 12th grade. I promised myself that I would resume immediately once my exams ended but that never happened as then came more entrance exams. JEE, AIEEE, CET, AIMPT, everything took a toll on me and the guitar stayed on the attic, comfortable in it’s casing. (This was the time when I had taken to photography as an alternate hobby and continued it to make up for the loss of another hobby).

My first year of engineering was what one can say “light”. Being a CBSE student and having undergone a hell load of stress and studying, the engineering internals didn’t seem that pressurizing in the first semester. How I got interested in a Carnatic classical instrument is a strange story. Rolling back to many years, like in every other Hindu brahmin family tradition, I too was made to learn singing at a young age. Singing wasn’t really my thing, I just completed the basic course for the heck of it and then quit happily. No more was I made to sing in family gatherings and in the functions at my locality.

The Veena is a fascinating instrument. One night, my mother was watching a Carnatic musical program on television and I happened to not argue and watch it with her. 2 men were sitting on the floor, playing the veena so effortlessly. It seemed so easy, but I knew it wasn’t. Firstly, they were playing continuously for more than a hour and their left hands moved from one end of the fretboard to the other, with the support resting on their laps. It was the first time I noticed that the fretboard tapered into a dragon’s head! How amusing! It was all very grand and unique. More over, Carnatic tunes never sounded more powerful to me before. I made a passing comment about how cool it would be if I could learn the Veena. My mother immediately agreed that I should! (Better learn a carnatic instrument and become a good Hindu woman instead of the late night guitar strumming hippie, yeah?)

I took my dad along to Guruji’s house, to talk about joining Veena classes. He spoke to me directly, “Why do you want to learn the Veena?”. I wasn’t expecting that at all. “I like the sound it makes and want to be able to play it myself”, I said sounding silly and regretting it later. He was a relatively young man, with the tilak running across his forehead, dressed in lungi and kurta. His mother was a renowned veena player and he was blessed with the same gift. Although he worked in the IT industry for many years, he never gave up on his passion for Veena during the time. Later, he quit his IT job completely for promoting the Carnatic music fraternity and pursuing his mother’s dreams. I liked the story and was impressed. My first class was interesting. There were rules. Rules that every student had to follow to learn from Guruji. No jeans and tops, only Indian salwar kameez or saaris. A bindi on the forehead was a must (sometimes I forgot in a hurry and had to quickly apply kumkum before beginning with the lessons). Pray to the veena for 2 minutes before keeping her on my lap. My legs pained for hours, my fingers hurt even more. The sounds thundered in the room with others when we played. The vibrations lingered in my head for many hours after the class.

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I picked up the lessons faster than others due to my history with the strings. “In one year, you should be able to play a simple devarnama in our music school’s anual day”, he said. Unlike Julius, Guruji played by the rules and taught me every note and tune from the scripts and made me memorize names, numbers and progressions. I knew I was going good for a year and would play well past all the rules and other difficulties. I was suddenly pressurized into having to learn more in less time and prepare myself for the annual day. Expectations grew and playing the veena was no more an enjoyment. Every time I placed the Veena on my lap, I thought about what I had to memorize and forced myself to play. She still sounded wonderful and echoed in my room, but other thoughts overshadowed her sounds in my mind. Guruji preached Hinduism and our culture along with the music lessons. I sat there blatantly listening to his words, pretending to follow it, while in reality, I would go home and put on some Dream Theatre or Opeth on full volume to get over it. The joy of learning to play a grand musical instrument had turned into a burden of having to satisfy expectations and pass tests. Moreover, I was made to believe in things which I didn’t want to believe in. Knowing them is one thing, but forcing myself into agreeing to them is an entirely different thing. Guruji imposed a strict learning atmosphere that didn’t have space for any mistakes. Only his ideologies were correct in his class, and people had to agree upon them if they wanted to learn to play the Veena from him.

After my first year of engineering (and first year of Veena classes), I told him that I had taken up a small internship during my vacations and would help a company in social media marketing, etc. He blamed me for wasting my free time doing unnecessary things when instead, I could’ve easily learnt a lot more of music and perform in front of a large audience within months. I could practice for the whole day and improve very soon. Practice practice practice, perform perform perform! I didn’t have to guts to tell him openly that I had wanted to learn to play the Veena purely for MYSELF and didn’t really care about performing or showing others. I wanted to take it slow and actually ENJOY it. I started missing classes and over the course of time, I told him that the engineering load is getting on to me, with project work happening after class hours and internals coming up soon. I had to quit unexpectedly. I owed Guruji an explanation. I knew that he only meant good for me, but I was so scared of him.

The Veena still attracts me, and I sometimes feel I should probably get back to her again and learn by myself from scratch (the load of notes and books can easily help me get back on my own). I am not sure though, maybe listening is at one place and learning to play is in another place altogether. As far as the guitar goes, I took her out of the attic yesterday. One of these days, I plan to replace her broken strings with new ones and start learning by myself again. Maybe my time with stringed instruments isn’t done yet.


25 thoughts on “You can’t play on broken strings

  1. A few days ago my brother got back home and brought his electric guitar home. I was thinking of learning guitar. It seems so hard! By the way do fingers really bleed? As far as I remember, my brother learned to play guitar and his finger didn’t bleed. There were hard spots on the top of his fingers, though.

    And you’re right about not being able to have fun when enjoying under pressure. That is when our total education system (both in your country and mine) sucks. We are forced to learn and not to gather knowledge and enjoy every bit of doing it. Therefore learning always feels like a task we always want to avoid.

    Good luck with your guitar days. Hope you will post some videos someday. :)

    • Learning guitar is easy and fun, you should give it a try! Moreover, there are innumerable tutorials available on youtube and other websites for beginners.

      “..till fingers bleed” is just an expression! No, fingers don’t literally bleed. They just hurt a lot for a few months in the beginning.

      I don’t know about videos, but I’ll definitely get back to learning the guitar from the beginning all over again! Thank you :)

      • That’s what I’m concerned about. I don’t mind hurting my finger but the thing is I have to write a lot. As a journalist and freelance writer, I have to type a lot in computer and if my finger begins to hurt, you know it’s going to have a bad effect on my typing. :( That’s what I’m afraid of, actually.

        • Hey Sajib. Just following up on this thread. It is fun to play the guitar? Does not hurt a lot. Just a little for a week. Ive been playing the guitar for a couple of years now and it just feels divine!

          Btw.. Guitars with nylon strings are availble… And
          they dont hurt a bit. Little pricey though. But i would recommend trying the normal acoustic as a learner. Because its a little painful… You get the ‘feel’ of the strings abd soon you can can play the guitar without looking at them.

          You need not worry. Wont hurt while youre writing or typing

          Its a fanstastic instrument and i do hope you get to olay it soon…:-)perhaps woo yor girl with a heartfel rendition of ‘you look wonderful tonight’ :-)

          • Thanks for “you look wonderful tonight” recommendation. :) The thing is, I won’t be allowed to buy an acoustic so if I have to learn, I have to go with my brother’s givson electric. I do feel as if the strings are tighter and starts hurting my finger too soon. Let’s just hope I can get over with it.

            • Hey Sajib!

              More than the electric guitar strings, the neck on the guitar is generally a little narrower than the acoustic… so getting your fingers in the right place is going to be a bit of a challenge.

              But once you get past the ‘my fingers hurt’ stage… its a lovely world out there with potentially a million songs that you can learn :)

              All the best and I’m rooting for you man!

              • Thanks! You’re right, actually. My brother says the strings of an electric guitar are thinner than that of acoustic. So I’m having a hard time. :(

  2. Spiler: Fingers hurt even while playing piano :D Pain in fingers is directly proportional to your passion towards the instrument.

    I wish you will soon replace the broken strings on that guitar. I don’t feel bad for you. I feel bad for the guitar.

  3. I just thought that it might be interesting to share my view on “Why you might want to learn an instrument” : I guess its all about what aspect of the instrument you really enjoy.. i never did an official lesson in guitar..i really like picking up my guitar and strumming when i m feeling down…my technique is rather rudimentary since m not taking / looking at online lessons..but then i make sure that i try and pick up some of the basic techniques like finger picking/tabbing (which m still not cmfortable with) and developing an ear for the chord progressions etc , so tht i can play anything i want without looking at a single notebook,by the ear..hopefully ll get there someday….

  4. The veena is a magical instrument! Just love the sound of it. One of the most enchanting sounds…

    The post also reminds me of my violin(s) :( Should get back to it…

    As for imposing traditions and such, I am sort of used to it and know how to rebel…mainly because I am aware of a little about these things and hence can reason out…

  5. I always wanted to play the piano but never found time for it. It’s always there at the back of my mind and one day I will learn. :)
    You are really fortunate that you got the opportunity. But yes, the fun factor should always be there. If you cannot enjoy it, then there is no point.

    • Well, then I guess you should make a spontaneous decision one day and start learning!
      Playing the veena was fun actually. But unfortunately, many other things took away the fun factor from it later on.

  6. The gratification that comes out of pleasing yourself can never be seconded by learning for the sake of anything else. I guess you have to traverse the field of expectation, lock yourself in a shell, and come out an enlightened soul. Music has all that is required to make that happen.
    PS : Please PM me about Julius’ contact. Seems like a man dedicated to music than the crowd that flocks to it.

    • Hey, Julius used to teach in sadhana music school – the one in Ramkrishna Ashram and another in Jayanagar. I don’t know if he’s still a part of it. You’ll have to enquire directly from the school :)

  7. Is it that my English has gotten worse? Has your writing style changed? Knowing how depressing my own blog has become, I must say it is the former. I loved your love affair with strings.

    I am all for doing what you love for your own sake before anyone else’s. I don’t see why everything you do has to be linked to a reward or recognition. Art, in any form, is healing and enjoyable.

    Go ahead. Let your fingers bleed. Do post one of your composition if you feel like. It will be great to go back to listening to people jamming for the love of music. One of the many reasons I sorely miss college.

  8. Guitar…Veena. What would be next? Violin perhaps? :)
    I do support learning by ourselves! Thats how I started playing key board and learnt some songs (no chords though!)

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