Archive for ‘Music’

February 28, 2011

More about my mediocre oud skills

I’ve already lamented my lack of steady progress at learning how to play the oud so I won’t dwell on that. What I’m sharing today is the aha! moment I had while reading through some blogs this afternoon. Today’s inspiration came from Pete the Planner who was actually quoting someone else:

There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results. (Ken Blanchard)

It’s no mystery that the reason my oud skills are lagging is because I’m not committed. But here’s the real secret: I didn’t want to learn how to play it because I think the oud is the most beautiful instrument in the world (that spot is taken by the mbira and the kora) but because I want to use it as a means to claim a share of my culture.

I’m of Arabic descent and grew up in Europe without learning how to speak the language. As a result, whenever I travel to Lebanon, I always feel like an outsider and somewhat diminished because I can’t partake in elaborate discourse. My family and friends have to translate a lot of things for me and I find that both frustrating and humiliating. I’ve tried learning Arabic numerous times but do not feel any connection to the language to keep my interest sustained.

Last summer, while I was in the mountains in Ehden, I listened to a man play some beautiful oud and was so moved by it when I realized I could connect to my roots through music. The fact that nobody in my immediate entourage (except an uncle) plays the instrument, or any music for that matter, was an added benefit: with everyone to support me (my parents are my cheerleading squad) and no one to patronize me, I would be free to forge my own path and build my own relationship with my “Arabism”.

The clip above is of a song I’ve been working on since the fall and that I’m still not good at.

Having said all that, I resolve and commit to play at least 30 minutes of oud on a given day before I’ll allow myself to pick up my beloved mbira. That ought to keep me accountable and focused. And, who knows, maybe one day playing the oud will feel like its own reward.

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February 7, 2011

Predicting creativity

After discussing nuclear fission and solving the world’s problems, my husband and I started daydreaming about the upcoming release of the new Fleet Foxes album (out on May 3). Will it be better than their first LP? Or at least as good? What will the future bring?


(best song on their last album. I “hearted” 10 out of their 11 songs on my mp3 player.)

John, being a realist, dished out the following piece of advice to help manage our expectations:

Think of the worst song on their last album and imagine a CD comprised entirely of that.

According to him, the worst songs on an album are symptomatic of artists running out of creativity and needing to produce fillers to complete their projects. Many times, artists use up all their creativity in their first albums and fizzle out when they work on the sequel.
We’ve seen this happen to Band of Horses, Midlake, and too many others who we describe as now “hanging out in the Shearwater house.” So this could very well happen to our beloved Foxes (shudder).


(worst song in my humble opinion. The only one that didn’t get a heart.)

I wonder if this theory can be applied to other creative areas in life. I was trying to think of this concept in terms of books and chapters, but, according to John, songs are “self-contained environments” when chapters aren’t (can you tell how philosophical we get about music?).

While I appreciate John’s conservative and rational approach to creativity prediction, I like to hold on to the hope that sparks will fly no matter what. While music can be created scientifically using algorithms, a true piece of art also contains a soul. This soul may waver, explaining some inconsistency in the musician’s output, but it’s still there. It cannot be mathematically replicated or measured. Pressures of the music industry may cause great songs to be born prematurely, with little time to mature, but talent will find its way through the system.
If an artist’s music has punched me in the stomach, leaving me breathless and in an awe, I’ll stick around – weathering the blandness and waiting for the next revelation.

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December 31, 2010

On Mediocrity and Excellence

New Year’s Eve is a great time to reflect on existential matters. Such as the brand of champagne we’re going to drink tonight or the most efficient way to attend three parties in one evening.

It’s also a time to look back at what we’ve accomplished during the past year and weep. And try to become better.

What’s weighed heavily on me lately (besides the chocolate on my hips) is the inversely proportional relationship between the number of my interests and the time available to pursue them. Especially in the musical field. I’ve been learning and playing the mbira for two and a half years now and recently started learning how to play the oud. Am I happier as a result? If music is my passion, more music should result in more happy, right? No.

I’ve been consumed with guilt for the past four months because each time I pick up an instrument, I feel bad for not playing the other. It is such a frustrating feeling and the amount of progress I’ve made with each instrument since September is tell-tale sign that the multiplication of my activities inevitably leads to the fragmentation of my skills. It’s not rocket science: to become excellent at something, you have to give it your all.

When I took up the mbira back in 2008, I gave up horse riding. I miss horses a lot but still feel I made the right decision. To be a good rider, you have to keep your mind on riding mode even when you’re nowhere near a horse. Your posture, the way you walk, what you read, your exercise routine, and everything else you do daily is part of the training to become a better rider. All of that changes when you want to become a good musician. Horsemanship is about detail and precision. Mbira playing – to me – is about transcendence and abandon. I ride better when I’m “on” at all times, and play better when I get my mind out of the way.

When I embarked on the oud learning journey, I thought I’d be able to fit this new activity smoothly into my life because it was already consumed by music. I was so wrong. Music instruments are not interchangeable. They require different physical skills (mbira is percussive, oud is stringed), they are windows into different cultures (mbira is Zimbabwean, oud is Middle Eastern) and song patterns are different (mbira is polyrythmic and cyclical, oud follows a bunch of different scales and has more melodic variety). The differences are mind blowing and becoming familiar with them is mind consuming.

Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, developed this happiness formula:

To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

So my hopes for 2011 are:

  • to recognize I don’t have infinite amounts of time,
  • to accept I can’t become an expert at everything,
  • to continue playing both instruments,
  • to allow myself to favor one over the other,
  • to seek growth, regardless of its speed,
  • to enjoy the music, no matter what.

That seems doable.