Kirtan Course Review
Perugia, Italy, January 2013
After spending the past year attempting to sing all of the shabds in Gurubani Sangeet, I came to the kirtan course in Perugia, Italy in awe of the great compositions and the masters who composed and sang them and questioning my own capacity for really singing them as they were intended to be sung.
As I review my notes from the kirtan course I am in awe at Bhai Baldeep Singh and the astounding amount of information shared, the brilliant thoughts expressed, the number of shabds we heard and sang. I think sometimes gratitude for the gifts given gets lost in the inner turmoil. When the waters get stirred up, the muck from the bottom can cloud the vision.
There were several people at this course who were new to the experience, and several of the regular attenders were absent. The seasoned students took time during the first few days to orient the new students to the practice, introducing some basic concepts and practices. It was a good opportunity to reflect and review what has been accumulated during a decade and a half of learning.
We jumped right in the morning of day one, learning a new rāga bilāwal teekā in tintāl, composed by Bhai Baldeep Singh on the plane after leaving Canada. It was challenging to learn for both old and new students and we all learned it much better after singing 100 repetitions on the third night. Imprinting a composition in this way makes it yours to keep. In the evening of day one we began learning a new exercise, a rāga bhairvi gat in sultāl, which was composed by Bhai Baldeep Singh on the spot. As we practiced each new line, he was busy working out the next. In the end there were more than a dozen extensions, each a pattern of increasing complexity in melody and rhythm. These exercises also invited the vocal graces such as andholak, gamak and leyak which appear when the notes move in a certain way at a certain pace. We gained more skills as we practiced these exercises throughout the twelve days of the course.
Most evenings were spent singing shabds. Sometimes Bhai Baldeep would sing while the sangat joined in and followed along, other times he would teach a shabd to us line by line, phrase by phrase, word by word, note by note. Passing the songs this way from generation to generation, with attention to every detail, has safeguarded the tradition, retaining and remembering for hundreds of years. As we sang shabds we also learned the nuances of the rāgas, following along in the alāp and mangala charan.
On a personal level, the course answered some of the questions I had come with. I had hoped to get past some of the limitations of my own voice and reviewing the basics for the newcomers with Dr. Francesca Cassio and the more senior students was a return to the simple practices that started us on this path. In Montessori education we call it the spiral curriculum, like the conch shell, circling deeper into the material each time we cycle through, it’s important to go back and remember the beginning. Grounded, expansive, resonating, letting go, listening, softening, relaxing, raising the sound. Bhai Baldeep’s encouragement to sing with a full voice and drawing out the elements stretched what I thought were my limitations.
This course also put the past year in a nice perspective, and the practice of the past year put the course in a nice perspective. After the sometimes painstaking work of deciphering notations, trying to turn marks on a page into a song, it was satisfying to return to the original mudra, sitting with the teacher, being reminded to look there and listen, to stop reading and remember to write the song on my own heart. Sometimes we drive around and take a tour to get a sense of a place and sometimes we put our feet on the ground and walk down little streets, go inside and experience a place and its people with a friend who knows the neighborhood well. I am grateful for the sense of place the past year’s tour through Gurbani Sangeet provided, and I am grateful to have a friend who is willing to open the door and invite us inside.