Tag: practice

Do it right or do it right now?

Still from Infoxication

Arguments in favor of quality and procrastination

Several years ago, I shared a bill with a musician who spent the entirety of his 45-minute set improvising with what can only be described as an arsenal of toneless extended techniques interspersed with episodes of heavy breathing. Setting aside my own proclivities for melody and my firm position on the ‘downtown’ side of any remaining stylistic divide, the show was objectively monotonous, self-indulgent, and under-baked—the equivalent of a musician jamming alone in his living room with his eyes closed, except in this case for a paying, open-eyed audience. One that grew increasingly restless.

The catchall advice that we are given as composers and musicians, and to which I can only assume this man had pegged his creative philosophy, is to just “do it right now.” Just get up. Just perform. Just write. Get it done. Throw it down on the page and move on to the next one. Don’t over think. Don’t look back. What matters is that it’s finished. And that you are “staying busy.” In many ways I agree with this advice and think a great deal can be learned by generating in sheer volume, getting up on any stage we can, producing continuously and seeing where the road winds. Improving by rote practice while throwing as many darts as possible and hoping that some hit the bull’s-eye. It’s a legitimate approach. Especially early on.

After a certain point, however, this advice starts feeling too much like a reductive sound-byte for my liking and I think it’s prudent to take a step back, focusing instead on “doing it right” rather than “doing it right now,” and avoiding the inevitable feeling of running in circles that arises when saying yes to every single opportunity that comes along. The evening with that improviser still lingers in my mind because, while I respect the chutzpah it takes to get up and perform a show off the cuff, it is so antithetical to everything that I have been working towards in recent years.

Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work.

“Doing it right” likely means different things to different people, but for me it has meant taking on fewer projects so that I can do them better, pursuing larger, long-term undertakings as both a composer/musician and producer, and being deliberate about how what I do choose to do fits in with how I hope to shape the arc of my career. “Doing it right” is trying to do everything to the absolute best of my abilities at all times, pushing everyone I am surrounded by to do the same, and being detail-oriented. The stage, literal or digital, is after all a privilege, and I think you owe your audience the respect of trying to make that show as good as it can possibly be. “Doing it right” is empowering.

In this quest for quality, however, the question of when exactly to pull the trigger and launch big, self-driven projects comes up often, and I think about the “do it right” vs. “right now” duality constantly in relation to my own work. Sitting on material or ideas until they are “perfect” is, after all, a dangerous game. Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work. Icarus should get close to the sun, yet never quite touch it. The hard part is in determining how close one should attempt to fly, while balancing both thoughts in one’s head and making smart decisions regarding when it’s time to say “go.”

Sadly I don’t have any revelatory answers to this problem. However for me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best,” the answer to which is not always “doing it right now.” Projects where other entities are setting the deadlines, there are commercial interests and complex timelines involved, or jobs are structured on a “for hire” basis are obviously a different conversation (honor those commitments “right now!”), but for my own self-driven creative projects, the obstacles that come up along the road to making “good art” always wind up orbiting this fundamental question. They arise on the creative side (ex. “this song needs a better guitar sound”), as well as the logistical one (“I only received partial funding for this project” or “the engineer I like is busy”), as well as a murky-waters conflation of the two (“how do I pay for the studio and the good engineer so I can get a better guitar sound”). Case-by-case solutions don’t always reveal themselves immediately, and, in trying to “serve the art best,” sometimes I think it’s a good thing to take one’s time, letting big projects marinate and giving them space to bloom into their optimally realized form.

For me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best.”

One such instance in my own career, which I include not as a universal flag-bearer for “doing art right” so much as an example of patience (and persistence) eventually proving a virtue, was an immersive multimedia performance project called Infoxication that I made with Roya Sachs, Ashley Jackson, and a team of about 40 people. Infoxication took us a few years to realize, went through more creative iterations than I care to count, switched presenters, and lost and regained its funding. It was almost a centerpiece of Google’s Pixel launch. Then it wasn’t. It was going to run for a while. Then not quite so long. We thought people might quit. (Fortunately, they didn’t.) And along the way, we had many conversations about scaling the project down to a small concert that could fall within our immediate reach.

Yet something in our gut told us that our original idea deserved better, and we persevered. Eventually the project wound up at Spring Place in New York City, with generous financial support from their team as well as Google and New Music USA, and collaborators including PUBLIQuartet, Dušan Týnek, Heather Hansen, Inbal Segev, and Bentley Meeker. The end result was something we are all proud of: a sci-fi Sleep No More meets The Office performance ‘installation’ inspired by the information age, replete with dancers on Chromebooks dressed as office drones climbing on the walls, and devastatingly good performances. It. Was. Awesome. Sold out beyond capacity. And one of my favorite things I’ve done. Our team still reminisces about how special it was. Not bad for a little project that almost went into the garbage.

There have, of course, been countless instances along the way in which “doing it right now” was the right decision, wherein projects less belabored in their development quickly coalesced into something special. Another collaboration with Ashley springs to mind, in which I wrote a piece for her in a few weeks, she premiered it, played it again at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!, and I insisted she record it for an album right away despite her hesitation. In that instance, I simply knew she could pull it off and that we had the right recording circumstances to do it.

For me, the hard part is always in determining which projects are which, and when the stars are close enough in alignment that it’s best to just jump off the proverbial diving board (not to mention when to mix your metaphors). Personally, the answers I try to seek for myself when steering my own projects are very simple:

  • If the project has real potential and you will regret not taking time to elevate it, wait and “do it right”
  • If the project is close enough that it can be completed now without significant sacrifices in quality, and the imminent opportunity is something that you will regret passing up, “do it right now.”

Ultimately, however, there is no one-size-fits-all guideline, the argument over whether less or more is more and how best to strategize your way to a successful career isn’t one that can be resolved, and there are examples of great creators who adhere to both philosophies. It’s also something that shifts project by project as well as over time. And, as noted, it’s a conversation that only applies to those fortuitous circumstances in which we are calling all the shots.

Overall, I believe that quality, however and whenever it’s possible to attain, will always speak for itself, that there is value in taking one’s time, and that what some might flippantly dismiss as procrastination is often actually meaningful development—though obviously the line between the two requires thoughtful navigation. “Doing it right now” can be equally slippery, since a carpe diem attitude is essential to finishing any project, yet in itself can be an excuse and means of self-sabotage. Simply not trying that hard or not taking the time to do something well can make it easier to feel like you didn’t really fail. Immediate action and constant activity permit that figurative shoulder shrug: “Well, at least I tried.”

In the end, perhaps really, truly “trying” is all we should ever stake our bets on: attacking projects decisively, aiming high, holding ourselves and our collaborators to a lofty standard, and being sure of what we want to say. The “right” vs. “right now” pendulum will swing back and forth indefinitely, and it’s only through developing intuition, self-awareness, familiarity with the people you are working with, and sheer trial and error that anyone can reliably decide when is the “right time” to take action. Maybe all we can say definitively is that “now is the time to do it right.”

Hindustani Music: Let It Go

zoom recorder
During Hindustani vocal lessons, my audio recorder is always close at hand. At the start of each lesson I usually turn it on and nudge it across the floor towards my teacher, strategically positioning it to pick up more of her mellifluous rendition of each phrase she sings, and less of my tentative attempt to recreate it. Each week, I pore over these recordings as I practice. With fingers poised over the keyboard shortcut for the five-second audio rewind, I repeat each little patch of notes over and over, listening for the tiniest nuances of each phrase my teacher has sung.

My training began in Western music, as a pianist, where practicing meant observing each detail in the score of a pre-existent composition, and drilling it incessantly until I was able to render it without error or hesitation. So when I began to study Hindustani music, I treated the recording of each lesson the way I would have treated the score of a Beethoven sonata, meticulously learning and memorizing each phrase, with all its subtle twists and turns, exactly as it was sung by my teacher.
It took me years to realize that most Hindustani musicians do not practice this way. As I know now, Hindustani practice is closer to an act of meditation than Western practice is. It begins just as a meditation session might—vocalizing on the tonic note of a drone[1], establishing a firm connection with the central pitch from which all subsequent material flows. The practice of Western music requires an actively focused mind that allows a musician to dip into a piece of music at any point and immediately contextualize the material, or repeat tiny passages out of context to increase accuracy or speed. However, Hindustani practice requires a different, looser kind of focus. As the mind sinks deep into an exploratory flow, each phrase blooms organically from the previous one, bringing the essence of the raag[2] slowly into focus. The recording of a lesson, then, is simply a suggestion of how and where each phrase can be opened up—the material that comes into that suggested space must be generated spontaneously.

A great deal of emphasis is placed on spontaneity in Hindustani music. The word khayal which is the term for the dominant style of Hindustani vocal music (since the 18th century), has been translated in English as a “thought,” “opinion,” or “notion”—in Hindi, the term always carries the additional implication that such a thought has come spontaneously to mind. During a khayal performance, phrases are created in the moment, and the singer fashions the structure of the work in real time, in front of the audience. The shelf life of any given phrase is only as long as it takes to become sound and leave the singer’s lips. The singer never revisits it exactly[3], nor is it put into any concrete notation for others to recreate. Once it has been uttered, it is gone.
In Western art music, if composers work through many iterations of a passage of music, it is often for the purpose of finding the “best” one—the one that will be preserved through notation and will be reproducible by generations of musicians to come. I have always felt that part of my job as a composer is to capture the most ephemeral moments so that they are available to be experienced again and again. I find it so difficult to let a beautiful phrase pass undocumented. I remember being at an incredible performance of the renowned singer Begum Parveen Sultana in Delhi when, about halfway through the concert, the audience began applauding after every phrase she sang. Every single phrase. She deserved all of it and more—every note was absolutely stunning. And even as I relished each moment, half of my mind was panicking, thinking, “I should be recording this right now. Why didn’t I bring a recorder? This is too amazing not to be preserved.”
zoom recorder
I felt the same sense of panic at a recent lesson. My teacher[4] was singing a variety of possible variations of one phrase, and I was repeating them, one at a time. We went back and forth at least ten times, after which I paused my trusty recorder and we chatted for a moment. When we returned to singing variations on that phrase, it took me about a minute to realize the recorder wasn’t on—I could already feel those undocumented variations slipping from my mind.

As I reached for the recorder, she stopped me. “Don’t fixate on recording every single thing. If you record these variations, they will stay inside the recorder—they will never find their way into you.” I was taken aback for a moment. Of course they would find their way into me, because I would spend the next week meticulously learning and memorizing every single one of them.
It took me weeks to realize what she meant, though. Hindustani music is about developing flexibility, a malleable working relationship with a raag. It’s true, few singers reach the level of Parveen Sultana, where every phrase that comes to mind demands an ovation. But by letting go of this rigid learning approach, I was also opening my mind to a state where it could create without inhibition, which is something I have struggled to achieve in my life as a Western musician. Without the constriction of a ruler to constantly measure myself against, the directions I could take in my explorations were endless. As my teacher so beautifully phrased it, “Music is a vast ocean—every day we stand at the shore and dip our toes into the water.”[5] Perhaps a few of the directions could tap beautiful areas I would never have traversed. And then, letting even these new, beautiful phrases go in order to stay in the creative flow would allow me to explore even more deeply. Practice does, of course, have an important element of refinement, but it is only through a balance with this boundless exploration, that the creative spirit of the art is truly engaged.
The glorification of letting go is much more common in all areas of Indian tradition than in the West. Many Indian holidays end with fire or water: hundreds gather to watch huge effigies of Ravana go up in flames; throngs of people carry statues of Durga through the streets to immerse her in the river. The release of the celebrated objects is embedded deeply into the celebration itself.

Similarly, the concept of canon as we know it in the West does not exist as such in Hindustani music. I was surprised to learn, as I studied with different teachers, that most compositions (the small portions of fixed music that guide the rest of the spontaneous elaboration) were created either by my teachers or their teachers. There are very few compositions that every Hindustani musician will know, that have been handed down exactly through the ages. Hindustani notation is, at best, a shorthand that will help someone who already knows a composition to recall it. But it can hardly capture the full breadth of the music and therefore cannot be relied upon as a learning tool. And it is just as well: the limited scope of notation is an accurate reflection of its importance in the tradition.
However, the fact that there is no reliable form of written preservation means that the onus is on each performer to reestablish the tradition in every performance. For this reason, the Hindustani tradition has not evolved as rapidly as the Western tradition has. For instance, the khayal style of singing came to prominence around the time of Bach and has, to the best of our knowledge, been executed using the same basic structural principles ever since. In that time, Western music has gone through so many changes, so many eras and movements. Because Western music is so meticulously notated, we don’t need new composers to preserve the tradition as much as innovate upon it. In fact, the establishment of stature in the Western canon is contingent upon innovation. However, if Hindustani musicians were to alter the basic structure of their tradition this drastically, it would immediately lose its grounding and context.

It is the constant reaffirmation of this tradition on the larger, structural level that allows complete freedom on the local level. The structure is designed to invite the audience in, to teach the ear as the performance unfolds, and to do so organically, through the unique direction and character of the performer.

It is still the most difficult thing for me, as a Western-trained musician, to practice letting go. It takes patience and determination to detach from the first beautiful notes I create or hear, to focus on the entire ocean instead of the water that is touching my feet. But to the extent that I have been able to let go, both the music I create and my musical experience itself have become that much richer.


1. The drone is created either by an instrument called the tanpura, which the singer strums as s/he sings, or in the modern day, is created by a shruti box, or even an incredible iPhone app called iTablaPro that is widely used, even among professional musicians.

2. It is difficult to define the term ‘raag’ in Western musical terminology, but I have recently taken to calling it a “scale with personality”. It is somewhere between a scale and a collection of characteristic melodic motives which are used to generate a wealth of improvised material.

3. With one notable exception—often the first portion of a composition is repeated exactly to anchor the music after an improvised phrase. However, this is a short phrase of a few notes, that serves as a beacon in a sea of improvisation.

4. In last week’s post, “Recitals of Gratitude,” I spoke about my late teacher Lakshmi Shankar. Currently I study with Saili Oak Kalyanpur, which is who is quoted here.

5. Oak attributes this beautiful saying to her teacher, Ashwini Bhide Deshpande. It should be noted, though, that Hindustani musical literature is full of beautiful, poetic sayings like this, which Hindustani musicians quote often. Some of my favorite musical quotations come from the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

Delay Is Denial

While it is a fact that most of the discussion on NewMusicBox is about composed music, the subject of improvised music isn’t new to its readers and one that shouldn’t be avoided or ignored. A well-rounded musician should be able to improvise as well as compose and/or perform music; it’s a matter of being able to speak as well as listen! So, in short order, I’d like to offer my observations on the subject by first coming to an understanding of what improvisation is and isn’t.

There is a philosophy of looking at the performance of ornamentation as a kind of improvisation. But I don’t believe that choosing between historical examples of mordents and appoggiaturi can really be called an act of improvisation. (But I do think that the practice of performing a passage as written once and repeating it with free ornamentation can meet the requirement for being, or at least including, improvisation.) So, while Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretations of J. S. Bach’s Suites for Solo Violoncello are noticeably different from those of Pablo Casals, neither can be called improvisations.

The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1986) says that “[i]n Western art music, which is heavily dependent on notation for transmission, improvisation includes phenomena such as the addition of extemporized ornaments as well as special improvised genres.” So, to me, an ornament, to be improvised, cannot be taken from a list of historically accurate referents. (A truly improvised mordent would be one that is performed “incorrectly”; the closer one comes to playing them right, the farther away from improvisation it becomes.) I think that Harvard hits the nail on the head in the opening sentence of its definition of improvisation: “The creation of music in the course of performance.” This offers a difference between “performing” music and “creating” it as well as a context for improvising.

Probably one of the hardest things to accept about improvisation is that learning how to improvise is done by improvising. One doesn’t learn how to do it, only how to do it better. So the first step is simply to decide to start improvising. Singers can do it as soon as they wake up, instrumentalists have a little more preparation to do: pick up, or sit down at, their instrument. One just starts.

With this in mind, the next step is to decide what it is one will be improvising. This sounds almost antithetical to the idea of improvisation. Certainly, if improvisation is the extemporaneous creation of music in performance, how can one decide what one will create beforehand? But improvisation, for the most part, occurs inside a framework of genre, form, harmonic/melodic content, and context that make it vital to preconceive not necessarily what one will play, but necessarily what one will not play. To illustrate this, imagine a trumpet player who only plays jazz and doesn’t know what any of the elements of Indian music are (e.g. raga, tala, or shruti), yet is improvising in a group playing traditional Indian music, say Raag Bhairav. No matter how closely our trumpet player listens to the rest of the musicians for guidance during the performance, his or her improvisation will not be in sync with the intent of the music. (Unless, of course, the intent of the performance is to juxtapose the trumpeter’s lack of ability to perform the music that the rest of the group has mastered.) Conversely, a sitar player thoroughly versed in the Hindustani classical music tradition, but with no knowledge of the blues form will not be able to improvise a convincing solo on Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave.” These two examples illustrate, in the broadest terms, what one should not do in musical improvisation.
A large part of what to improvise on in the jazz genre is tunes from the Great American Songbook. So the most important—albeit tedious—thing to do is to listen to a lot of jazz artists perform specific tunes, as much and as often as possible, with the goal of being able to at least identify any of what was heard on subsequent listening, if not recreate it. One has to be prepared to agree that this is something that one would have to do for as long as one wants to improvise jazz. This never-ending step informs the rubric of what one will do in musical improvisation. It doesn’t matter what genre of music one applies this step to, and it doesn’t matter how many different genres of music it’s applied to; one can compartmentalize according to genre. What does matter, though, is that one does this step a lot.

Next comes an even more tedious, but rewarding, step: practice. One must practice improvisation. But practicing improvisation is not the same as improvising. One practices major and minor scales, but rarely does a performance consist of major and minor scales (and improvisation is done “in the course of performance”). So one practices repertoire, the tunes from the Great American Songbook one has been listening to others perform, while trying out ideas that come to mind. Maybe change some of the notes, or fill in the spaces between phrases. But, this must be practiced critically. If a phrase or fill is done incorrectly, stop and do it again correctly. And then do it again until it isn’t done incorrectly at least ten times in a row. While this can be frustrating at first, it gets better with practice. I think the hardest part of this is making the time to do it; but, once it’s done, it’s done. And it’s like riding a bike, you never really forget. You just get out of practice. So, practice! There are many ways to practice and one should use as many of them as possible: One can practice alone, to an imagined accompaniment. (Accompanists can practice to an imagined soloist. One can practice with a metronome, using its click as different beats. One can play or sing along with what one is practicing. One can practice with a recording or with ambient music, such as the radio or TV. Finally, one can practice with others. The last offers a great way to get critical feedback about one’s progress.
Practice for 8/5 - 8/9
Then there is the taking of lessons. While listening to someone else’s performance is studying and can be a lesson in itself, setting up a session with someone where teacher-student role-playing is agreed upon can save a lot of time and offer valuable insight into what one is doing. The role-play can go on for as long as one wishes. There are several individuals who, even though I might have only taken one lesson from them, I will always consider as my teachers. But there are also some whom I don’t consider as such so much, even though I might have taken several lessons from them and the information they imparted to me was invaluable. Generally, though, I find myself revisiting the lessons I have taken in the past and still gain new insights from them. I still go to lectures and workshops whenever possible and still take a private lesson when the mood strikes. Of course, one can improvise a lesson when the situation is right, but I’d have to teach you how to do that!

Then comes the scary part: creating music in performance. Some teachers will want to control that. But my belief is that when it’s time to do it, do it. Otherwise, you could find yourself in the same situation as this:

The first time is nerve-wracking, but it gets better every time.