Confessions of an Approximist

There is a sensation that is hard to describe. The clichéd words “deeply satisfying” may work for want of something better but it goes deeper than that. It’s what I, for one, feel when I hear The Doors – Riders of the Storm – for instance, after the words are over and in the extended version the music goes on for a very long time. The lyrics are impressive enough with their rich imagery and the wonder they create. And then the words end and the most amazing electric piano interlude continues. It penetrates each cell of your brain, the music seeps in and saturates. Sometimes getting a deep-tissue full body massage has the same effect, a feeling of satisfaction and contentment so pervasive that the masseur needs to issue a warning before you get yourself in a vertical plane again. Nothing is as deeply satisfying as perfection.

This was how I felt at the rehearsals last night, a sense of awe at the talent hidden within the people I pass by in the hallways or with whom I share a smile in the elevators. There is someone in the band who can play twenty-one instruments, the banjo being the only one he couldn’t master. Even during rehearsals he switches between the acoustic guitar, the bass guitar and the mandolin and he can sing too! There are eight musicians in the band: a drummer, three people on electric guitar, one on mandolin, a piano player and a girl on bass guitar who picked it up for the first time about six months ago. I am one of the three female back up vocalists. This is the first time I have ever been involved in such a thing and what an experience it is!

The music is fun, the people are great and the superficial aspect of the experience is as enjoyable as I had hoped it would be. However, as I sit there, observing and absorbing, I open myself to various insights and realizations about myself, about how I have been approaching this life of mine and my serious shortcomings. The other night I gave myself a new name, one that hasn’t made itself into any dictionaries yet – I think I am an approximist.

If I search my memory and relive old experiences I find that approximate has always been good enough for me. In school if the teacher asked that I “trace” out a map of Africa and bring it in the next day I felt no qualms about simply sketching it, I knew I could draw and sketch well and thought nothing about missing the nuances that the trace would have captured. I was so proud of my drawing and at the close approximation that I was stunned when my teacher deemed it unacceptable. The same trends continued throughout. I focused on the fundamentals and absorbed the big picture, details were not for me, I didn’t have enough patience for the inner workings of things. Perfectionists always bored me, most of the times I failed to see the point of the extra energy needed to render things absolutely perfect. I decided against becoming a doctor because even though life sciences fascinated me I knew a doctor was a person who could not afford to gloss over the details, something I would naturally tend to do.

But I am older now and not necessarily wiser, but trying to be, and every time I watch this attention to detail in action I find myself fascinated. Just as I have been confident in my ability to draw, sketch and paint, I have always been complacent in the realization that there isn’t a tune out there that I couldn’t pick up and sing exactly as the original was rendered. Of course I never sang to the accompaniment of an instrument and never had to pay any attention to the beats, the timing or being in sync with the musicians. I just sang and that was good enough for me and my audience of close friends and relatives. Then one day the CEO of a company I worked for a few years ago spoke to us at an annual event. He talked about being passionate about what we did – the speech wasn’t much different from your standard corporate pep talk – but as part of his presentation he played for us a recording of the making of the Beatles’ classic – Strawberry Fields. This was mesmerizing, perhaps I was the only one mesmerized, but it is quite unforgettable to me. One could hear John, Paul, George and Ringo tuning their instruments, finding the right notes, the right sounds, even the right lyrics over several iterations. They scrapped their efforts so many times before coming up with the perfect version that we hear today.

The music director and the musicians at our band were doing the same. With 11 of us in the room, the director was instructing minute revisions and combinations of harmonies, melodies, acapella segments with such frequency and such skill that we felt as if he was painting a portrait with just the right mix of colors, perspective and brushstrokes, an artist at his finest. How attuned his ears must be to the sound, to the effect our performance was likely to have on the audience! How did he know when to kill the music and go acapella and when to let the guitar or the base guitar happen and when the drums would make all the difference in the world? It was an eye-opener for me, especially since I don’t do anything with such care and such nurturing.

This was evident in my own performance. I was managing my backup vocals well enough until I was told to sing two lines from the song – Love Train by the OJs – solo: “The next stop that we make will be England/Tell all the folks in Russia and China too…”. I knew I had to do these lines solo and had been practicing in the car, in the shower, anywhere I could, all week. I thought I had the tune just right but I was to get my comeuppance at rehearsal that night. I was asked to repeat the lines ten or more times and I still couldn’t get it right. My debacle was the transition between the first and the second line. After the first line I was supposed to pause for about four beats and start the second line soon as a “clang” on the drum sounded. I was always either too quick or too slow in the transition. On another occasion I was asked to do a duet with a guy who was on guitar and standing behind me. I was required to come in at the same time as him after a lead vocalist finished harmonizing. But since he stood behind me, I could never manage coming in at the same instant, had I been attuned to listening the musical cues I wouldn’t have had this problem. Someone suggested I face him but the music director nixed that idea stating quite sternly that on stage band members should be able to coordinate without having to face each other.

What a blow to my arrogance, my complacence! Now I know that the last thing good music and singing is all about is having good vocal chords and the ability to carry a tune, timing, coordinating, being in sync go so much further and add so much finesse to that which one is creating. Choreography, concert, perfection are not to be glossed over if one is to be passionate about ones life, loves, interests…a message a certain professor conveyed to me at a musical evening in Bangalore earlier this year as well.

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