Ancient as we are, we no longer do anything most musicians would recognize as practice.
We don’t force ourselves through finger exercises or repeated scales, don’t even play every day, our 78 and 63 year old bodies wouldn’t take it, they’d break.
Of necessity living to stay strong and young has become our practice. Stretching, dancing, hiking, pulling weeds, doing the laundry, lying around, going to bed early, cooking nutritious food, rationing screen time, minimizing driving, all now count as much as any formal exercise.
Without them no way could we at our ages be playing the most magic music of our lives.
Unspecialized In Wonderland
Our music practice got off to a wildly unspecialized start, right from the beginning we played and very soon started making a million different types of instruments.
Fabulously wealthy in a ridiculously cheap expat life, our first seasons together we went mad in the local music stores.
From a tiny shop opening directly onto chaotic Varanasi traffic we bought a wondrous old fashioned harmonium, not a key shifting Rube Goldberg monster for rich modern Indians, but basic, solid, tight, with long velvety breath, a song sweet as a choir. There in noise so loud we had to shout, Harmyman calmly tuned his metal reeds, plunking them right up close by his ear, skillfully filing them to the right pitch. Each time he needed glue he made just exactly enough, on a small flat stone mixing water with a pinch of mysterious rubbery gunk. One by one he made his springs, winding hard steel wire around 3 pegs precisely stuck into a chunk of wood.
Our set of tabla came from Mumtaz, a big strong guy whose drums were much better than we deserved. One day we watched him blend iron powder and an oily liquid, with a finger paint a circle of the thick black paste in the center of a tight stretched head. Every so often he’d tap, listen carefully, smooth on more until he liked the sound.
Bansuris and recorders were from Krishna, a cool stylish dude often to be found sipping chai in some shady doorway down by the main bathing ghat. Patiently he’d pull flutes from his huge shoulder bag, let us clueless foreigners try them all. Twenty rupees, 50 cents, almost nothing, still they were the real thing, crafted with pride by him and his son in his home crowded with long canes of drying bamboo.
By our third year we’d also picked up an Indian “Givson” guitar and a big double headed pakhawaj.
Seeing Harmyman, Mumtaz, Krishna make fine instruments with such simple tools, it looked like something we could do.
With no teacher, no dedicated workspace, we dove in. Feeling our way, we burned bamboo down by the river, hammered high carbon steel into shape behind a chai shop, filed stuff out on our little balcony keeping one eye sharp for monkeys.
Our flutes came first, soon we’d made so many shokis we were giving them away, some so long our fingers barely covered their holes, some short enough to fit special pockets Mitsuko sewed into our shoulder bags. We always had one with us.
Three seasons later we were cranking out kalimbas, each with a different size, shape, construction, arrangement of keys. Some we tuned just to sound good, some we tried to make chromatic, some we played with our thumbs, one with 24 keys we put down flat and played with all the fingers of both hands.
Almost as an afterthought, from bamboo too long too fat for a flute we carved a couple of didgeridoos, got dizzy learning to circular breathe.
Music was the center of our life, ten times every day we reached for an instrument, often only for a few minutes, seldom for as much as an hour, still it added up.
But except for a few vocal exercises none of this was repetitive practice. Mitsuko stopped taking lessons when her teacher refused to go deep.
Religiously not music student serious, we played to touch the gods, to stop thought, to get lost, to worship.
Playing was our practice.
In Varanasi, the holiest most magic of Indian cities, doing music any other way would have been limited western mind.
Once back in the West, our fall from grace was swift.
No longer foreigners with infinite funds and free time, life was more complicated. We had to learn our way around Windows 2000, figure out the net, build furniture, plant gardens, reconnect with old friends.
We needed to support ourselves, needed an identity, needed to be able to tell people what we did, none of which had been necessary in Assi.
Not knowing what else to do, far from sure it was a smart move, we got “serious” about our music.
Convinced magic had gone missing from official music, we sensed an opening.
Everyone obviously was bored with what was out there, we’d give them something which was truly different.
Our approach to this impossible sounding goal (only in hindsight does it look this straight forward) was practical and down to earth. We simply built ourselves an ensemble of instruments that couldn’t play any existing music, which by virtue of their limitations and strengths could only make music that was new.
And it worked, what we played with this new ensemble was indeed automatically different.
Unfortunately it was also too rough, too uneven, too unfinished to sell. It was still a ways to music that would help us pay the rent.
The obvious solution, more practice, couldn’t easily be done with our instruments. Their sound was too unpredictable, too wild, we couldn’t repeatedly repeat practice patterns until we’d learned to “do them right”.
Unlike Boehm flutes, our shokis hadn’t been engineered to put out only the “right” notes, they wouldn’t play things the same way twice, were miserable doing scales.
Dotara and Bass Bowus were worse, they flat refused to be good.
While Boardus and Boxus Quartus, though as keyboards looked made for practice, didn’t have enough built in uniformity. Forty-eight irregularly tuned keys each with its own personal sound, one couldn’t put a name to any of them. Every interval was different, nothing was a C or a F#, they just were what they were. No system could help us remember a pattern. Scales? Exercises? Tunes? Forget it. All we could do was go for pretty, for elegant, for musical.
The sounds of our instruments simply weren’t suited to the conventional practice which teaches musicians to consistently play only correct official notes.
But we weren’t hung up on that type of sound, were more intrigued by screeches, whispers, furry hums, stutters, buzzes. We felt the introduction of tidy standardized notes helped drive the magic out of music, the last thing we wanted was to domesticate our instruments.
We weren’t big into system, weren’t worried about being in tune, weren’t interested in regularly counted rhythms. We wanted to paint not draw schematics, wanted to dance not do calisthenics. Content to be intuitive flesh and blood, we were glad each time we put out our instruments we didn’t know what would happen.
If our untamable instruments, our lack of repeatable perfectible tunes, made performance impossible, that was fine with us.
Music finished enough to sell, now that was different, that we very much wanted. So since we couldn’t get there by practicing, we did it by teaching ourselves to record, then did the necessary polishing while we edited.
As anyone who’s tried to record knows, this is easier said than done.
Our raw recorded sound was appalling, worse than we’d expected. Stuff that had been a delight to play often came across as boring, lame, repetitive, crude. Musically acceptable sections were full of noises, cars, sticky sliding fingers, gasping breaths, rustling clothing, growling stomachs, jets, birds, wind, our refrigerator.
To learn to do what needed to be done took 10 years and 3 CDs, not until we’d finished Work In Progress were we satisfied.
By then recording and labor intensive editing had together become the third leg of our music practice, had become every bit as important as building and playing instruments.
For us they absolutely count as doing music.
We discovered that carving a 6 minute piece from an hour of raw file we’re actually creating the music, searching for the structure, the start, the finish, the development. We’re doing what a sculptor does when he releases a statue from a block of marble, we’re not just sound engineers any more than Michelangelo was just a skilled workman with a hot chisel.
Very much the same argument applies to building our own instruments.
When Van Gogh and Rembrandt mixed their pigments, they weren’t just chemical technicians, they were painters. When we built Boardus Quartus we weren’t just carpenters and metal workers, we were musicians.
Even the geeky parts of sound editing also turned out to be doing music.
Struggling to find the best angle for a microphone, listening repatedly to a 2 second clip trying this and that to deal with a stubborn noise, delicately nudging a marker in search of precisely the right spot to make a cut, agonizing over the correct level for a particular part of a particular track, the right curve for a fade.
These things all changed the way we heard our music, forced us to listen more carefully, tought us to more dispassionately evaluate what we’d done, to be less self indulgent, less forgiving, made us more skilled musicians.
Musicians who by that time had been working earnestly and hard for a long time.
Up through completion of Work In Progress, including building and playing our instruments, recording and editing our sound, writing about it all to better understand what we’d done, we’d devoted more than 20 years and 20,000 hours to our strange holistic musical practice.
Grooves In The Brain
To be as serious as we’ve been about music without doing any conventional repetitive practice is downright weird. It’s also another big reason our music is still alive and growing.
Because playing the same things the same way over and over again inevitably bakes in tastes and habits, it’s inherently conservative not musically neutral.
For musicians in search of newness, what a diabolical monstrous trap! The harder they practice, the more often they repeat their exercises, the less chance they have of ever playing something truly different, the deeper the grooves grow in their brains.
Nasty things those grooves, though we don’t practice, for us too they’re public enemy number one.
Especially when we play every day, patterns we like start coming back, get in the way of newness. When it’s real bad the joy evaporates, our play turns to work.
At that point we’ve learned to back off, to put aside our instruments, to spend some time catching up on the rest of our life. Cleaning the house, gardening, hiking, reading, writing, doing anything but music, all give the grooves a chance to heal, our palette a chance to clear, and when we start playing again we’re ready to advance.
It’s the same if for months or years we lose our music, when it returns it’s always bigger, we’ve grown, what we play is more sophisticated, elegant, easy, magical.
After recording Huhnandhuhn, what with building Bass Bowus, bailing out of Mendocino, finding and settling into Taos, for a year we rarely touched our instruments. Yet Sweet Heresy was a huge advance.
Not much later we went broke, again had to abandon our music. For 3 years every bit of our time and energy went to translating Japanese business documents into English. Still when the smoke cleared, when we recorded Work in Progress, once more we’d leapt ahead.
More recently for 8 years we thought the well had gone dry, that we were finally done with music.
But what we’re playing now is light years ahead of anything we’ve played before.
Long periods away from our instruments do seem essential for our continued musical growth.
Coming To Understand
Like the prisoner in Kafka’s Penal Colony, we’re finally decoding the pattern etched deep into us by our peculiar unspecialized way of life.
We’ve realized our playing, our instruments, our recording/editing technique, naturally suit each other and our music, that they grew in parallel, are siblings in the same family.
We’ve noticed how we do music is cousin brother to how we build furniture, stay strong, write, cook, garden.
That the instruments we’ve actually been learning to play, really been practicing, are ourselves.