Four Months On: Learning the Guitar

In April, I wrote about beginning to learn the guitar through daily lessons with my best friend. In the past four months, the longest gap between lessons has been three days. Earlier this week, he flew back home, and we relived that gap of three days without speaking to each other. That break gave me an opportunity to think about where the last four months have gone musically, and all the things we’ve covered since.

My best friend and I messaged each other on WhatsApp fortnightly across my five years of law school. We never really spoke much over the phone, but the pandemic changed all that, and we’ve been speaking every day. Aside from the amount I’ve learned from him, the thing I’m most grateful for is the conversation we have each day. In a very strange way, the world placed us both in similar circumstances for a short duration – both away from our parents, desirous but unable to travel back home, figuring out living alone in these times. Daily conversation provided insight into who we were as human beings, and after 12 years living away from each other, it appears as though not much has changed between us at all. We’re both pretty much still peas in a pod, insofar as we struggled for about a week, recognized the need to develop a routine, and then set about creating that out for ourselves. It’s been a lovely reaffirmation of something I knew about our friendship already.

Turning now to the guitar, or broadly, musically.

The last four months have been really transformative. I started with the guitar just knowing I wanted to be able to strum along to songs I like listening on the radio, went through a phase – and a realization, that I could leverage the classical music I have learned to learn classical guitar as well, and finally, have reached a point where I just want to enjoy the instrument and continue to learn daily. Through all of this, my best friend, and teacher, has been the most supportive guide I could have asked for. At no point did he think I was grasping at straws beyond my reach. There have been points I’ve been over-ambitious, I think, but we’ve figured out how much time it takes me to learn a new skill with the amount of practice I put in, and we’ve amended expectations accordingly.

He’s also been incredibly patient with mistakes I’ve made and expressions of my thoughts about the instrument. We’ve approached lessons with the idea that I should be enjoying/playing songs all the time to learn more, and as a result, I’ve always been working on learning songs alongside the technical side of things.

The trip he took back home gave me the opportunity to sit and learn songs that I could perform for him, and this afternoon, I played a full song – with some out-of-tune singing, for the first time for him. It wasn’t too shabby, I was pretty thrilled, and more than anything else, for me – it was a really nice opportunity to look back at what we’ve accomplished over the last couple of months together. The song I sang, Kabhi Kabhi Aditi, has this wonderful line that says, gaana toh aata nahi hai magar phir be hum gaate hain”, which is basically, “I don’t know how to sing, but I sing anyway”, and that’s pretty much how I felt throughout.

Over the last month, what I’ve enjoyed the most is that the focus in our teaching-learning has moved onto the theory side of things. We’re covering scales and more chords now, and talking about more music theory, which has coincided with my own preparation for higher music theory grades.

On the piano side of things, I’m reasonably comfortable with what I’ve done in the last couple of months. Slowly but surely, I’m working towards a repertoire that will help a music teacher identify where I’m at in my piano journey, so when I’m in a single place for a long amount of time, I’ll be able to pick up from that level. One day I will give those examinations as well. I’ve been working on sight-reading a lot, and listening to classical music along with the orchestral scores, just to better understand how much is going on in a piece. It’s been very, very rewarding.

I can’t wait to see where I go with music next, and a lot of it is down to how much joy my best friend has managed to bring to me by making it seem effortless, enjoyable, and not something to be stressed out about at all.

Autopilot: Breakfast Edition

While speaking to my mother earlier in the day, she told me how she was thrilled that I was able to enjoy the same breakfast every day. Well, virtually every day. As far back as I can remember in this lockdown, I’ve eaten the same food for breakfast each morning. Cereal.

Speaking to another friend in the evening, I was telling him how the past four months have been this massive experiment in my life, all pointed toward answering the question: if I was given all the time in the world, how would I use it?

We’ve often heard about these industry leaders who declutter their brains by delegating or removing unimportant decisions in their life. Prominent examples include Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – with their wardrobes. Net-net, the goal appears to be some form of freeing up brain space.

I’ve been thinking about that a fair amount – how much of my life can I set into autopilot? What decisions can I eliminate from my life to retain the same, or increase the amount of joy I receive, while being more efficient? My initial response was that I didn’t want to set anything in autopilot because I personally enjoy the process of decision-making a fair amount.

However, given my difficult relationship with my mornings, I’ve figured out that the more I can bring myself to enjoy it – the more I can work on changing that relationship. One way I wanted to do that was to go back to where I was when I was in school – my morning breakfasts were a quick bowl of cereal before running off to the bus. I enjoyed that bowl of cereal a lot, because my mum would sit opposite me and ask me about what the day had in store. When I was studying, morning breakfasts were a bit of breathing time before the day’s onslaught.

The only reason I’ve gone into autopilot mode with cereal is to recreate that feeling. I’m reaping the rewards of it.

Wakin’ Up Is Hard To Do

The title of this piece is a reference to the classic Neil Sedaka song, Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do. There’s a Wakin’ Up Is Hard To Do as well.

This is a universal truth. It’s difficult to wake up each morning. I’ve met people who enjoy waking up, who are happy to be at the start of a fresh day, but I haven’t met somebody to whom waking up comes with ease. For me, waking up feels like rebellion. Every cell in my body wants to continue sleeping. All my brain cells tell me to sleep more too, but in an act of defiance against all of them, I push aside my comforter and wake up.

I was terrible at waking up at University. My roommate can attest to this. At my worst, I was a representation of Newton’s First and Third Laws of Motion. I remained at rest until acted on by an external force, specifically, my roommate. When said external force acted upon me, I simultaneously exerted an equal and opposite force on that body, namely, “I’m awake, will lie down for another 5 minutes.”

My history of being this human being goes way back to my school days. At that point, my mother was the external force I relied on. No alarm clock would ever work.

This pandemic, and the lockdown period, has seen a massive change in how I approach my sleep cycle – and sleep in general. First off, I’ve understood it’s value and impact on my life a lot more. My sleep cycle at University was non-existent, and being the kind of person I am, I thought that I’d be able to sustain that forever. It felt like sleep was just time spent not being awake, and not doing things, which is something I find difficult. A lot of reading later, I am convinced about how essential sleep is in my life, and how much having a regular sleep cycle can improve my days, and my quality of life. I’ve also noticed a significant impact on my mood.

Naturally, I’ve tried to sleep more.

The other thing I’ve been trying to do is become a morning person. Given how difficult waking up is, this has not been easy at all. It’s been a 3-month struggle, and it’s likely to be a struggle for quite some time, but I’m finally at a place where I regularly wake up before 6AM and stay away from my phone, actually get things done.

I always assumed I was a night owl, and I was most efficient at night. Now that I look back, I don’t think that’s fully true. I’m most efficient when I don’t have social media to distract me – which is late at night, when nobody uses social media, or early mornings – when it’s easier to stay away from social media.

What I find when I wake up in the morning is that the day feels longer. By extension, I’m beginning to feel like there’s more I can do each day, more time to seize, to relax when I want to, when I need to.

I’m not completely a convert though. There are moments, and days, when I’m up late at night, where I feel like Michael Scott, “I’m an early bird, and a night owl” – because I find it tough letting go of what now feels like it’s been a lifetime habit.

Maybe waking up will get easier soon. My new solution is to try waking up and smiling immediately. Subconsciously trick my brain into believing it enjoys this activity. I’ll let you know how that goes.

On Education

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to pick up my phone and call my high school Principal. My parents have been asking me to do this for years, but it felt appropriate on that day, given that I had closed off one part of my learning journey, and was taking my next steps. I’ve maintained a good relationship with most faculty who have taught me or interacted with me, so it didn’t feel awkward picking up the phone and calling her.

I’m so glad I did.

You see, about two years ago, my mother met my high school Principal on a flight to Dubai, and they spent a day together. Something I appreciate tremendously about my parents is that they’ve never forgotten that my teachers are human beings who have lives outside of teaching classes. My HKG teacher actually came home to visit the day I graduated from preschool and got me a cake and everything. While hearing these stories may seem out of place to others, for me, interacting with my teachers outside of school, while maintaining a respectful distance, has been the norm. I remember the day my parents spent with my Principal vividly. They called me up that evening and told me how fortunate I was to have been led and mentored by someone like Ma’am.

It was the first time in five years I was speaking to her, but the warmth in her voice felt like it had never left. Once I introduced myself, I could see Ma’am smiling, and was instantly taken back to meetings we had with her when I was on Student Council, where most feedback she had to give us was always encouraging and offered with a patient smile. At one point she said, “I didn’t think I made an impact on you kids because I never taught you”. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

At my school, as with most schools, the Principal represented a bridge between the administrative day-to-day and the teaching day-to-day. Ma’am made an impact on us because she chose to do so. This was true of most Management staff at our school – their doors were only closed when they were in meetings, and if you had something you really wanted to take up with them, you were free to do so. The first time my mother interacted with her was in Grade 8 when she requested I be allowed to take 9 subjects for the board examinations instead of the usual 8. Ma’am agreed, with the caveat that the extra subject would be difficult to timetable, so the school would provide support as best as they could, but I would have to self-study a fair amount. Ma’am was a part of the decision-making board that awarded me School Captaincy, reposing faith in my ability to lead. She was a part of this dressing-down we got given as a French class when we failed to study for a vocabulary test in Grade 9, but a part of this motivational brigade that allowed 3 of us to study the subject further in Grades 11 and 12.

Someone like that leaves an impression on you instantly. She told me how she continued to teach even today, and all of the outreach and support she offered to younger schools without access. As someone interested in engaging with academics, I always wondered whether it was a life-long journey, whether that passion would carry you through forever. Ma’am’s own admission says it does.

After catching her up on what now seems like the trivial details in my life, our conversation moved onto other pastures. I was able to ask her about her philosophy toward education. Her reply came instantly, backed with the most heartwarming story of somebody she taught who returned home to his village in Nepal as an ayurvedic doctor – that teaching, and education, has to be child-centric. Given that I plan to work with the Law, I’ve always wondered how this is possible at higher education. How is it that you can make a mark on somebody who comes to learn from you pre-moulded? Her advice is something I’ll keep with me for a long time: learn their stories.

I look back at my own University years now, fresh from completing them, and all good faculty learned our stories. Each of us developed a rapport with the faculty that sought out information about us – and tried to encourage our individual potentials. I aspire to do that one day.

Similarly, though, she reminded me of how crucial it was that I engage in improving access. I instantly thought of one of my batchmates who has practised this for the past five years. As part of Community Outreach programs at school, I taught English and Math at a Government School, but only when provided the opportunity from school. Ever so often, I’d see posts on social media from this batchmate of mine about his experience teaching at a school close to our campus, and how rewarding that was. It was only in our final year that I was able to ask him a little bit about it – and learn a little bit more about how he put it into practice so early on in his life. His reply is in my memory: education is a goal that’s bigger than ourselves.

My roommate has told me something consistently since our first year. All of this education stuff, all of these degrees, they’re all things we’re getting for ourselves, but in a way, society is entrusting us with this knowledge in the hope that we can improve society in some way.

For the past two days I’ve been stirring my own thoughts about education – led by memories of this batchmate, my roommate, and my high school Principal. That’s what led to this post – I thought it was a worthy place to come back to if I ever had doubts about teaching and lost sight of the idealism I possess today. I know I want to join the academy – I want to read, research and learn continuously. I’d like to teach courses that leave students as enthralled by my favourite subjects as I am. My outlook to education, and to learning, at this point, is that, humans are born learners. It’s why we smile, for example, when we learn how to walk as babies, or pick up new skills when we’re children. It brings us joy. Somewhere in our lives, something makes us forget that. As a teacher, I’d like to try reminding people of that joy.

Most of my teachers did that for me. They crafted this atmosphere in which I loved learning. So much of what I want to do is derivative of how I was taught things – at school, at University.

But I want to engage with school students as well, if I teach at the University level. I’d like to work on improving access to education – which isn’t something I can do in theory if I’m just at Universities, there’s such a high barrier to access. I think I want to volunteer in schools more, and help in whatever way I can. Right now, I’m teaching a module on Constitutional Law and Civics to high schoolers at my alma mater, but that’s just a trial run. I’d like to expand that and teach it in my regional language, Kannada, to as many schools possible.

I only hope people don’t sleep in my class because they’re bored. If they’re tired, perhaps.

Colour Theory

Redesigning the blog and the newsletter with the help of a professional was a wonderful decision. For me, it’s added the splash of colour I’ve wanted for a while. Doing so was such a privilege, and such a fascinating experience. It was the first time I actually expressed the design that I wanted for something, and I’m thrilled with the way it’s turned out.

When I was younger and we relocated houses in Dubai, I was given the chance to select the colour I wanted the walls of my room painted. We had split up the house to give each member of the family the opportunity to select what a room should feel like. My mother picked out the colours for the hall and the corridors, cream-yellow and red. My father picked out an olive green for a single wall in the master bedroom, and I picked out a sky blue for my own room. I spent hours looking at all of these colour palettes available at ACE Hardware, and when the paint consultants visited the house as well, and I struggled to pick between specific shades of blue. Ultimately it was my mother who suggested that I pick a sky blue, given that I had dark blue furniture. I remember her saying it would provide excellent contrast. I agreed, without completely understanding what contrast meant. All I knew was that I liked the colour blue.

My sense of colour was very off when I was young. There are tales in the family of how I dressed up like a multicoloured rainbow, with some shorts that didn’t go with the shirt I was wearing, and different coloured socks that didn’t pair with the shoes I wore. I don’t think I did it deliberately, but I’ve always been the kind of person who wears the clothes that are the most comfortable rather than worrying about whether they combined well together – something that irked my mom for several years. I think she began to gain some faith in me when I went off to University and didn’t look terrible there – mostly just lounging around with different kinds of jeans on T-shirts, but ensuring no clashes of colour.

Picking a colour for my room in Bangalore was easy – it was sky blue once more, this time because of the contrast offered by my dark blue felt board, chair, and beanbag. We had decided, as a family, to have one wall per room with textured paint, just to highlight the wall and bring it to life – so to speak. I picked this spatula like effect, and wanted a dark blue background with a light blue accent, but the painters overruled us and convinced us that two light blue shades would go better. They didn’t. Of the multiple things in my room I may change someday, opting for a different paint scheme for that wall would be the first.

Given this checkered history, the opportunity to express my ideas of colour to somebody who would be able to transform it into something aesthetically pleasing was something I relished. Over the past couple of months I had thought about what I desired, and it was delightful to be able to communicate that to someone else. Through the process I understood how difficult graphic design and digital art actually is, but also the multiple opportunities for editing it offers. Mokshada, whom I worked with, made these incredible iterations of every design idea she had, and made the most minor tweaks to ensure it looked exactly like what I wanted. I loved how I could see the detailing come to life – it gave me a lot of joy.

More crucially though, through the process, I discovered my own biases. I realized I have a heavy bias toward bold pastel colours and watercolours. I have a huge bias toward anything that stands out on white – which I found very strange, given my recent affection toward using Dark Mode on pretty much every application I use on my laptop. I also realized that I’m not a fan of too much colour. Just a splash. It almost felt as though these biases were literal reflections of my own personality. There are some moments where I feel like I can be shades of whatever I choose to be, but for the most part, I prefer the monochrome. I also understood how incredible Pinterest and Coolors are, for inspiration. There are so many tools out there – and I know that one day, I’d like to be able to design everything my heart desires. It’s a very satisfying feeling.

The last thing I remembered while doing all this was something I discussed with my mom when I was in Grade 9. I had just started attending Model UN conferences and wearing formal clothing outside of school. One of the things that stood out to me when I was younger was how boring the boys’ wardrobes were. I told my mom then, that I really wanted to have an expressive, colourful formal wardrobe. The irony of going to law school and becoming a lawyer is not lost on me. Hopefully academia is more accepting of colours.

This is why I’m glad ties and lapel pins exist. And funky socks.

Anyway, the redesign is now done – and I am so pleased with it all. Long may this blog continue documenting parts of my life.

Racquetman

Over the past week, I’ve rediscovered and acted on my desire to play tennis again, thanks in large part to finding a hitting partner who was willing to play as well.

The first time I learned how to count score in tennis was the Wimbledon 2005 Final. I was in Pune then, and Federer played Roddick that year. All of us watched that match as a family, and it was my chikappa who taught me how to keep score. Eventually, it became a game, where after the point was done, I would yell out what the score should be and we’d confirm if I was right by using the television graphics. A large portion of this was quite confusing to me, because the multiplication tables I learned for 15 had 15-30-45, while scores went 15-30-40.

I only properly began to follow the sport once we moved to India though. The 2008 Wimbledon tournament was the first sporting event I saw after our move here. Given the community I reside in is filled with tennis fans, it was easy to grasp why the sport was so beautiful and fun to watch. I understood how points were constructed, and Uncles routinely provided commentary on matches that had recently transpired when we met up.

I can’t place a finger on when, or how, I picked up the sport. Before moving to India, we bought a set of tennis racquets because the community we moved to had tennis courts, and we wanted to be able to join into any games that happened. This was definitely my parents’ idea. The community here was so small, that initially there were only 4 of us who were the same age. 2 of us, who ended up becoming classmates a few years later, used to go around to the tennis courts and mess around at half court with these colourful tennis balls I had at the time. We had no idea how to play “technically”, but we got to run around and hit a ball across from each other, which was extremely enjoyable. What stood out beyond that for us was the satisfaction of being able to craft our own rules – the one I clearly remember is that we refused to follow the Singles Court dimensions, and included the Doubles lines for where all we could hit the ball.

It was probably in the middle of Grade 8 that my parents purchased a tennis racquet for me and decided to put me for tennis coaching. The program ran within my community, and was run by a very close friend of my parents, so it was fairly easy to get going. From the beginning of 2011, then, my weekends were filled with an hour or two of tennis each morning, and then an hour or two of basketball. It was a fantastic 3 and a half year stretch of playing the game with a Coach. The Uncle who ran the program was one of the first people I actually played with in the community – my parents told him how much I loved field hockey, and we had met up twice and played at the end of his lane, passing the ball to each other and dribbling around, which was rather fun.

I hated waking up early on the weekends, so my mother was faced with the task of helping me beat my inertia. I was fine once I got out of bed, but that struggle was real. I think coaching started at 7:30AM or something, which was an absurdly early time for me on a Saturday morning, especially given how after piano classes on Fridays, I’d only go to bed around 10:30PM, or 11PM – which was very late back in the day. I look back at that time now and wonder how Uncle had the motivation to wake up early in the morning to coach kids for tennis. I think what I’m struck by the most is how much he must’ve enjoyed it, and enjoyed being active, to wake up so early on his weekends.

Naturally, coaching brought with it some seriousness. When I started off, I used to lose to younger kids who had been playing for longer – something I disliked. Eventually, those small things started becoming goals: I need to be able to actually rally with this person, forget playing with them competitively. I found inspiration from this boy who was in Grade 4 at the time (he’s now graduated from high school), who played (and still plays) with his dad really frequently – almost every other evening, I would say. He was ridiculously consistent with his stroke-making, and it took very, very long to either fatigue him, by which point, you were too fatigued to think straight.

Tennis also taught me how to be really patient. There was this one kid who excelled at hitting deep, high, top-spin shots, so the ball would clear the net at an absurd height, bounce, and then spin even higher – taking away, for a player of my skill level, any opportunity to control the ball on return. I’d try to hit the ball with a lot of speed to eliminate any chance they had to return it similarly, but mess up because of a lack of control. The other way I learned patience was in picking up tennis balls after the exercises. There were usually just 2 or 3 of us in our age group playing, so there was a lot of balls to collect to get the chance to play again. That was a slow, painful process. Being lazy to bend down and pick them up didn’t make it any easier.

My fitness level, which is not very great at all, always betrayed me. I never worked consciously on improving my stamina, hoping it would happen along the way, but, as I know now, that doesn’t happen. I remember losing inter-house matches at school in Grade 10 despite having gone for coaching for 2 years and feeling terrible about it, but trying to laugh it off. It was only a year after that, where I managed to play some other tournament hosted by the coaching group I attended, and do reasonably okay at that, in the presence of my parents, that I felt like I had made progress with the sport.

It’s around then that I gave it up. Academics and my other extracurricular passions became a convenient excuse at school. At University, life was a convenient excuse – I enjoyed other things a little more than I thought I’d enjoy tennis. I came home several times, and throughout my life at that point, I had always played a team sport and an individual racquet sport, but at University, I didn’t do either properly. I never carried racquets back, so I had no external motivation either. One evening in third year I played with a friend of mine, but naturally, with the break, I was abysmal.

Naturally, picking it up again this week has felt really good. I’m getting to spend time with a friend of mine, and getting some exercise in while I’m at it. We’re both navigating the art of recovering something embedded deep in our muscle memory (this is especially true of the serve, because phrases like the trophy position, pronation, and the continental grip are stuck in our brains), and messing up terribly on some occasions. We’re having fun though, and that’s worth every bit of the time we spend on court. To paraphrase Elton John, “Oh no no, I’m a racquet man