We’re encouraged to learn throughout our lives. From mimicking our elders to studying in school, expanding our horizons to reflecting on our experiences, an ongoing, evolving process of education is intrinsic to our existence.
Well-informed and formal instructors certainly serve their role in teaching us how to better understand complicated concepts or walk us through steps. Nevertheless, there are numerous subjects or skills we are capable of learning alone.
We at BTR have accepted this challenge and taken to teaching ourselves.
Zach: The Sitar
Photo by Zach Schepis.
If you’re looking to learn the sitar in India, it doesn’t matter if you’re a formal student or a wayfaring stranger, you must submit yourself to the tutelage of an ustad. An ustad, simply put, is a renowned musician. They’re often revered as masters and many have even become the stuff of legends. For instance, it is told that the great Tansen once summoned torrential rainfall upon the land through his playing alone.
In college, I stumbled into my journalism professor’s office after school one day to find him dancing across the room to the graceful lull of a mohan veena recording. Although initially embarrassed, he sat down and told me all about the history of the music. In India, he told me, many students are not even allowed to touch their instruments for a full year, until they’ve learned to speak every note first.
I decided to go against classical wisdom and teach myself. While the task appeared daunting (the instrument has more than 20 strings and employs micro-tonal scales), I understood my unformed mind could render new sounds. There was no feasible way for me to buy a ticket to India, so my journey became strictly auditory. I feasted on every sitar recording I could get my hands on. I also noticed Western influences beginning to surface in my playing; blues and jazz changes imbibed themselves into the Eastern tableau.
Some purists or traditionally-minded folk might see my method as sacrilege. I say to hell with them. My respect for the classical music is boundless–I just enjoy creating something new and inspired, untouched by guidance. Sometimes the most interesting paths are also the most intuitive, and they’re often quite honest. Besides, like any rewarding meditation, who knows how you might end up surprising yourself?
The first time was the worst time. Forty-five minutes spent trying to figure out how to cook a 20-minute pre-packaged Mexican rice dish resulted in a mess of still-hard grains and dehydrated black beans that managed to evade hydration. They ended up floating in a pool of brown water that sat in the frying pan. Dark smoke and a scummy layer of gunk on the pan’s surface also ensued.
It got better through time and various trial-and-error experiments. Beginning with frying eggs and boiling pasta in my first college kitchen when I was a junior, I taught myself to cook. When local Czech food proved not vegetarian-friendly during that senior semester of study abroad, I became quite familiar with the dormitory’s hot plate, figuring out ways to stir fry tofu and broccoli into spicy red chili pastes. By now, I’ve mastered my own versions of home cooked faux-sausage pasta and tempeh fried rice.
Learning to cook by myself without a formal instructor has awarded me the creativity in devising my very own dishes. While I’m certainly far from being a master chef, I could at least say I have developed a uniquely personal approach to cuisine. Perhaps initial failure with the pre-packaged meal was symbolic.
Compared to most of my immediate family members, it seemed the artistic gene skipped over me. Both my brother and sister are exceptionally skillful visual artists. Drawing, painting, and photography have always come naturally to them. Their simple doodles far surpass any art I’ve spent hours working on. As a child, I wished I could make a piece of art as beautiful as the ones they had.
So, while locked away in my bedroom, I would practice with watercolor paints. My first and second and third attempts proved more challenging than I could have ever anticipated. At times I became frustrated and crumpled all my half-finished projects over the garbage. But in time and with a bit of perseverance, I became a better artist. I am nowhere near a mastery level, but when I need something calming to do, I often open my sketchpad and begin to paint. The fact that I was able to overcome the distress and comparison to my siblings makes teaching myself the basic techniques of painting feel that much more victorious.
I’ve always enjoyed a beautiful print or fabric. As a little girl, I would dance in my mother’s closet lusting after the velvets and colorful patterns she fashioned. I eventually found a sewing machine that she rarely used in her closet. I began heading to second-hand shops to purchase cheap pieces of clothes to practice my sewing on. I later found an instructional manual within the pockets of her closet and read through each page to know how to assemble the old machine. Soon enough, I was making my own outfits out of rearranged pieces I discovered throughout the city’s thrift stores.
My mother would often laugh at my poorly sewn products that I would model for her. However, I never thought once that I wouldn’t eventually come to master the craft or that I needed a formal teacher. I think when you are genuinely interested in something that it triggers a drive to learn, one that helps break through the obstacles that may barricade the journey to the goal. Every time I would mess up and sew terribly tight pants, I’d simply cut out the thread to re-sew.
Feature photo courtesy of Francisco Osorio.