Composers & Improvisors: Invent Your Own Raga!

This is a rough approximation of the content of my lecture-demonstration on raga. This is how I introduce students in a university classroom to the underlying conceptual structure of raga-based melody:

With a simple recipe for making our own raga.

Here’s what we do:

Start with a tonic – fifth drone. Choose a second degree – either natural or flat. Choose a third degree – either natural or flat. Choose a fourth degree – either natural or sharp. Choose sixth and seventh degrees – either natural or flat.

For example, let’s say we choose: 1, b2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7, 8.

Play or sing this for a few minutes over the drone to experience the intervals.

Now, pick a number between 2 – 4. For example, 4.
Pick a number between 5 – 7. For example, 7.

Now we play/sing the original scale, but this time OMIT 4 & 7 on the way up, and include them on the way down. Thus:

1, b2, 3, 5, 6, 8 — 8, b7, 6, 5, #4, 3, b2, 1.

We play or sing this for a few minutes over the drone so we can learn the interval structure…the diminished triad ascending from the 2, the juicy diminished fourth that emerges on the way down between the b7 and the #4…all kinds of goodies are there to be found. Notice that certain phrases evoke ascent and others descent, giving improvisation a lot of motion.

Just going this far generate a ton of beautiful material. But there is one more refinement we can make on the process which will make our “raga” hang together even better.

Pick a group of three adjacent numbers. Any three; doesn’t matter. Let’s say we pick 5,6,7. Now…take those three notes, and make up a special tweak — just a little phrase, or a small shift in the sequence. For example, we’ll make the descent from the upper octave ALWAYS follow the rule 8, 6, b7, 5 — expressly forbidding a straight pathway.

Mess around with this for a while and we’ll start generating melodies automatically.

There is nothing special about this particular combination of intervals.

There are many ragas in the Hindustani system which are entirely built from an ordinary major scale.

In general, inside any raga, the more complex the intervals, the harder it is to *hear*; the more complex the rules of ascent/descent/tweaking, the harder it is to *think*.

Mess around. See what you can come up with.

Bright College Days

More thoughts & recollections from my life as a learner.


As a college student, I was lucky; I did my learning through a now-defunct organization called Campus-Free College. Another CFC graduate described it nicely:

Campus-Free College unfortunately no longer exists. It provided a fabulous opportunity for self-directed students (seeking bachelor and master degrees) to design their own curriculum in coordination with professors at colleges throughout the world and professionals in their chosen field of study. It was the ultimate school for entrepreneurs.

Another student recalls:

“Campus Free College” was the place where I applied to work on an undergraduate degree. The school was later renamed Beacon College. It was a place where you could negotiate and design your own college level program and then recruit your own teachers and advisors.


Perhaps the most famous graduate of CFC was Mitchell Kapor, the guy behind Lotus 1-2-3.

Every bit of learning I did at CFC (which later changed its name to Beacon College) was coordinated with two individuals: Larry L_____, who was assigned to be my “Program Advisor,” and was responsible for regular conferences with me about my learning goals and progress, and Joseph S____, who was assigned to be the “Monitor” for Larry and me, and was responsible for cross-checking with us about the larger context of what we proposed. Overseeing this three-part relationship was a body called the Academic Council, which approved the awarding of grades and offered feedback as required.
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Things I Learned In School, Pt. II

More thoughts on things I learned about teaching and learning…from teachers.

High School:

As a student in a public high school in Sudbury, Massachusetts, I had some friends who were officially my teachers; we talked about life, learning, politics, culture…and if they had to give me a C or a D in class, I really didn’t care. It was obviously a game we all had to play for the benefit of…who?

There was one history teacher, Mr. M_______, who taught a single course: a comprehensive year-long survey of Russian history. A classroom virtuoso, his teaching was part lecture, part dance, part abstract painting (his hyperkinetic scribbling on the chalkboard served as an outlet for an incessant need to move), part arts and crafts. He conceived Russian History not as a body-of-material-to-be-mastered, but as a medium through which students found out about the world and about themselves. At the time I took his course, which was open only to juniors and seniors, he was employing a very unusual grading method:

“In this class,” he said on the first day, “you are granted the symbol A. Depending on your contributions and participation, you will either receive a Large A, for ‘amazing,’ or a small a, for ‘awful.’ In either case you will have the symbol A. I do not want any of you doing work in the class because you crave a symbol. I want you doing the work because you genuinely want to do the work.”

It was a wonderful course. And what I took away from it was a general gestalt understanding of the sweep of Russian history…and a huge practical insight about what effective teaching could and should be. It didn’t matter that in the first semester I got an A and in the second an a. That, if anything, served to reinforce my growing awareness that the grades I got had nothing at all to do with what I learned.

Lesson: The System may require grades, but there are many ways to skin a cat.

From my freshman year in high school, I knew that I wanted to be on the school newspaper. I joined the staff and began writing and participating in the marathon layout sessions. It was my ambition to be the editor of the paper in my senior year; I felt this strongly enough that when my parents got one-year faculty appointments in Toronto for the duration of my junior year, I argued that I had to stay behind, or I would lose my place in the queue. I lived with my grandmother that year, and I kept my place (as “Associate Editor”); when my senior year began, I was the Editor, and I did a hell of a job, if I do say so myself. The paper had a Faculty Adviser, who stayed out of our way and signed forms as required. He was responsible for giving us all grades; everyone got an A. The grade was required by the system, but it was irrelevant to my motivation, which was purely that I wanted to edit the newspaper.

Lesson: You can get a good grade for doing a good job, and it still doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

A Few Lessons In Learning From Forty Years Ago

Elementary School:

Even when I was a kid, it was apparent to me that the grades I got in school didn’t really say much about what I was learning. It was also apparent that the grades kids got were irrelevant to who they were as people. My mother told me that when I got my first report card, she admired my grades and asked about how I stood in comparison with the other kids — whereupon I responded, more or less, “Why should I care about them?”

Lesson: Sometimes people use grades to compare your work to a standard metric; sometimes people use grades to compare your work to that of your peers.

Junior High School (aka Middle School): Two lessons from a bad teacher; one lesson from a good teacher.

6th grade English class. Free reading. I take out my copy of Martin Gardner’s “Annotated Alice” (loaded with footnotes explaining the math problems Dodgson/Carrol was referencing, the political humor embedded in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and the chess game that continues throughout the entire “Looking Glass,” among other things). Mrs. P___ comes around, asks, “What are you reading?” I hold up my book. She looks astonished, and says, “That’s for little kids!”

Lesson: Just because they’re teachers doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

8th grade English class; it’s Mrs. P___ again. I loathe her. My grades are slipping, because I cannot bring myself to do any work for that woman. My mother very wisely hears my complaints, and then says, “If Mrs. P___ is so stupid, why should you let her make you stupid, too?” I start doing all the classwork very assiduously, and begin getting good grades again. Every A on every paper is the result of me angrily refusing to let my teacher make me stupid; every completed assignment is a secret “f**k you, Mrs. P___.”

Lesson: Good grades don’t mean what other people may think they mean.

8th grade Music. An elective class, it’s billed as “Music Listening.” The teacher is the new, young, long-haired & bearded Mr. M___. The first day of class, he tells us that we’ll be listening to different kinds of classical music and learning what makes it tick. The students protest that they don’t want to listen to classical music (I don’t say anything; I’m sitting in the back row). Mr. M___ asks, “What do you want to listen to?” The answer comes back, “We want to listen to rock!” Mr. M___ says, “Okay.”

That moment is etched in my memory. It was the first time I ever saw a teacher voluntarily and enthusiastically transform an entire curriculum plan on the spur of the moment, in response to the needs of the students.

It turned out that Mr. M___ knew the history and development of rock and popular music backwards and forwards: over the semester we did an exhaustive cultural and historical survey of American music, with recordings of blues, rockabilly and all the precursors of the rock music we were hearing every day….and, of course, the rock music we were hearing every day.

It was that class that introduced me to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, changing my life forever (I vividly remember sitting in class listening to “Who Are The Brain Police?” and being utterly amazed that music like this was possible. “Freak Out” was one of the first three LPs I bought with the money I earned doing chores. I still have it, by the way.). I have no idea what grade I got at the end, because it really didn’t matter in the least. It was an incredible class, and it made me absolutely certain that whatever I did in my life, I wanted to do it in music. And the most important part of it was that it was obviously designed on the spur of the moment, in response to the stated needs of the students.

Lesson: Good teachers listen to their students. Good teachers are prepared for change, and welcome it. Good teachers know their subject(s). If a learning experience is genuine, the grade received is largely irrelevant.

Practice Tips and Techniques, No. 1

About ten years ago my student Brian O’Neill and I had a long discussion about practice techniques. He transcribed it and sent it along to me, and it languished on my hard drive. Recently, I remembered the material and dug it out. It needs editing, so it’s going to take a while to get it all tidy, but there’s some worthwhile stuff in that document. The first part of the conversation was about practicing the drone — the most basic type of self-tuning a singer can do.

WS: When I started out I did not have any particular deep sense of discipline in practice. Eventually I began by starting every day with a drone session. I would just sing the tonic, the Sa. And I would focus on that, and I would…

BTO: Tune up?

WS: Yeah. You try & get your temporomandibular joint a little bit loose; you do a little bit of overtoning; some tongue stretches; try and make sure the soft palate is down and you’re getting sinus resonance. What I tell my students is to begin with a little session (it might be 10 minutes) of Sa, every morning. And when you do that, you examine different variations.

For example, subtle intonational shifts. Get on Sa and move the note the smallest possible amount flat, then return it to the center, then move it sharp and return it. What you’re really doing is, you’re decreasing the intonational standard deviation of the pitch.

So that’s one approach to the Sa.

Another approach is breath control. You get a watch with a sweep second hand, sing Sa [one breath’s worth], and time yourself. “Hmmm, that was 11 seconds. OK, I’m going to go for 12.” And then you ask yourself, “Where does most of the air go out? Oh, most of the air goes out in the very first half a second. OK, let me try and regulate that. Good!, I got 5 more seconds on that.” So those are all good ways of occupying yourself on the drone. So 10 minutes turns out to be nowhere near enough time, and you just pick one or another of those exercises to do with the tonic.

There’s a lot more to come, including very specific methods for organizing your practice to get the most effective study in the time you have available. Stay tuned!

Finally, a word on a related subject.

If you’re studying or teaching music, you’re engaged in the long, slow, work of taking parts of our past and preparing them to travel into the future.

Therefore, you owe it to yourself and to the music you cherish — to educate yourself about climate change.

No stable climate – no music. It’s as simple as that.