Our new segment for the blog this year is SPK Academy’s Featured Student. We will be choosing 4 – 6 students each year to feature as part of this segment.
These students will have shown exceptional dedication to their music and incredible improvement in their technical ability with the sitar during their time with us. They will also exemplify the qualities that our academy stands for and wish to foster as we continue to build our musical community.
Our first featured student of 2015 is Anna. Many of you that have participated in the Arizona and California shibirs will know Anna well. She is a very dedicated musician who quickly moved from a first-timer who could barely figure out which string produced which note to a confident sitarist playing in front of Ustadji in little over 2 years. Anna is a valued member of the academy's web team and is closely involved in event planning and coordination
It was a delight to sit down with her, via Skype and discuss how she discovered SPK Academy and her love of playing the sitar.
When and Why did you decide to start playing the sitar?
From the moment I started meditating, I fell in love with Indian classical music. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to learn something like; Indian classical dance, singing or maybe even learning one of the musical instruments. I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do so I didn’t pursue my desire much.
In 2012, I listened to a CD which had someone playing the sitar. I fell in love with it instantly, probably because it reminded me of the Bandura, a Ukrainian instrument, which sounds very similar. I remember asking someone what the instrument was and I was told that it was the sitar, an Indian instrument. I was hooked immediately. Shortly afterwards I had my first lesson.
Have you played any other instruments besides the sitar?
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, none.
How was your first lesson?
That’s a very good question! I had mixed feelings for various reasons. I remember when I got my sitar, I opened the case - I had no idea how to even hold it. I remember picking it up and breaking one string with the guitar pick, I was using. I immediately closed the case and decided to wait for the first lesson.
During the lesson, I broke two more strings. They snapped and flew in different directions around the room and I couldn’t even locate them right away. My instructor, Seema, was kind enough to send me three rolls of strings, which is probably a ten-year supply because I still have it. It is easy to guess how I felt after that first lesson.
What was the first Raag you learnt to play?
Raag Alhaya Bilawal
Do you have a favorite Raag you like to play?
I enjoy learning the different Raags. I don’t really know which Raag is my favorite. Each one has its own unique beauty.
How do you feel when you play?
I feel joyful when I play the Raags.
Do you practice every day?
I do practice every day and even when I travel or visit friends for a couple of days, I take my sitar with me. I feel that practicing on a regular basis is very important for not only improving your technical skills; like clarity, speed, smooth movement of fingers (without tension), etc., but also improving your memory.
Sometimes when I receive new material and find it particularly difficult or challenging, I switch to a completely different Raag, with totally different notes for a little while and then come back to the new material. I find I can pick it up faster. It seems to work for me.
For how long do you practice?
I usually practice up to 1.5 hours every day.
How do you balance your music with other obligations-family, school, work?
That is one of the most difficult questions. I try to do my best and my family appreciates it and supports me. They understand that the sitar is a large part of my life now and that I enjoy learning as well as I enjoy my family!
Do you attend Shibirs and/or Riyaazs?
I do and try not to miss one. I truly enjoy the shibirs and riyaaz sessions for various reasons. First of all, it is joyful to be among my fellow sitar students and learn new compositions from Ustadji, in person. Every lesson with Ustadji is inspiring.
It is also so amazing to witness how many people from different walks of life and different ages sit together and patiently learn new compositions, which are challenging and sometimes could be completely overwhelming in terms of complexity.
And to be able to play our recently learnt Raag for Ustadji, at the end of the shibir, is very rewarding.
How did it feel to play in front of Ustadji for the first time?
It was not easy, because you are playing in front of a World Class Master and 7th generation sitar artist and composer. I was very nervous.
How do you feel after receiving his advice?
I really value Ustadji’s advice and do my best to stick to it without any excuses. I remember my first shibir when I was in a group of students trying to pick up new Taan and at some moment Ustadji looked at me and said something I will always remember. “Pay attention to the gaps between the notes. They should be the same.”
What advice would you give to newer students? What would you tell them to watch out for?
Practice every day and try not to find any excuses to skip practice.
You are considered one of the most improved students at SPK academy. How does that make you feel knowing that you have accomplished so much in a short period of time?
It is surprising to me to hear this and frankly I don’t know what to say, except maybe one thing: the sitar has become a big part of me and I try to express myself creatively while playing the sitar.
I want to learn the different Raags, including the “bumpy” ones, which have different scales and are more complicated. I feel that learning all the different Raags will help me express all parts of my personality.
Sometimes, I hear Ustadji performing a particular Raag and I ask Seema to teach me. Her answer is often, “We shall learn it soon, Anna”. It makes me realize that learning the sitar is a journey and I have more growing and learning to do in order to express myself fully.