Stories From The Field
Meet Ben Kunin, sarod artist and senior disciple of the illustrious music maestro, Ud. Ali Akbar Khan.
What drew you to the artistic way of life, and particularly to Hindustani music? Was there a specific turning point when you chose to devote your life to music, or was it a long back & forth?
I was always drawn to creative things. I started taking private lessons with the guitar when I was 11. Those beginning lessons quickly gave me enough to work with and I developed the necessary skills to practice quite a bit. I practiced every day and eventually it got personal. You had to make me stop, rather than force me to practice.
I was going to school and taking science and math, along with other things. During that time, I found that I felt more comfortable with people who were not as self-critical as I was — the people who turned their back on having to sit in a room looking at a book for 12 hours a day, the people upstairs in the art department. I realized that if they were less self-critical than me, then I could be less self-critical. I felt happier. I felt more at ease. I feel most at home with people who are using their imagination in a different way.
At one point, I was pretty close to attending nursing school but it didn’t resonate with me. I also took a law entrance exam and didn’t do too badly. I had earned a bachelor’s degree. But I was drawn to a more creative life and the other options seemed to go against my religion. So maybe I lucked out by not pursuing that.
Guitar is in a world of its own and people go all kinds of different directions with it. After I had completed university, I was pursuing my own kind of music style. I tried to lead a band, but it wasn’t working out. It was really difficult and at some point, I realized I just still needed to study. I found out about Dr. Ali Akbar Khan’s teaching in San Rafael, and that led me to Indian classical music. At that time, my decks were cleared and I was able to start from scratch with sarod. Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) happened to be available and, at the time, was pretty much taking in artistic refugees.
Could you talk about your regimen/lifestyle as a student and what kind of training you received, in Western and Indian Classical music at AACM. In other words, what did an average day look like for you?
When I first started getting into guitar, I started with three to four hours of practice, which grew to five to six to seven. I quickly realized that you don’t accomplish much until you’ve been playing for about three or four hours. At that point, something starts to happen and you start to make real progress after four, five, and six hours of being in it.
Once I started with the sarod, I actually avoided it a bit and didn’t practice for more than an hour or two because it’s really painful and is extremely harmful to the hip to sit in that position for too long. The other limit is your left hand nail. You wear it down so fast and it becomes too sensitive to play. Building up nail strength and callous is a long process. At the beginning, the nail issue means that beyond a couple hours of practicing, you just get worse instead of improving.
At AACM, we all started with a crash course in the music language. I worked on the vocal exercises and got familiar with Sargam (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa) as fast as possible. Besides that, Khan-sahib taught three days a week for four hours each night, which on one level wasn’t very much, but on another level was way too much. He was pouring out information and everyone was trying to keep up. It was a mad scramble for about 20 years where you would learn a lesson and try to get it. When I wasn’t in class or learning with Khan-sahib, I spent time devoted to my own practice. The idea was that you spent every minute away at least thinking about it, on some level. We’d have to learn about ten compositions a week. We all needed a great deal of practice learning how to strike the strings, but most of the time was spent learning the music. For the first 10-20 years, the focus was more on gaining repertoire than physical technique; of course, though, we had to learn the whole.
On top of the 12 hours a week with Khan-sahib, we also spent time with all other kinds of musical activities, be it the frequent visiting artists to the school or immersing ourselves in the Indian community at large. So if you’re comparing practice hours, in Western classical, you might need to spend two hours just learning your notation from written music. Is that practice? Or is that time spent learning? Maybe I’m spending two hours in class or playing with other people. It’s not all the same “practice”, but inevitably it’s all energy in the same direction.
How did your regimen/lifestyle change as you transitioned from being purely a student into a career artist?
I was career oriented from the beginning because I was already in my 30s and felt I started late on the sarod. It was an interesting situation though because at [the Ali Akbar] college you work every job. At the time, I was working in the store, acting as a sort of music salesman and as the frontline for new students and artists who all have to get something from the store.
I basically had to start performing almost immediately, even though I felt like I could hardly play. In those early days, I played restaurant gigs with tabla players, which taught me to think on my feet and really learn the music by having to generate it myself. I was able to make some money that way, too.
We would do at least one or two concerts or recitals per year, even at the beginning. Those were our opportunities to play background music. We’d each have little performances in class, and the senior students usually had some kind of performance lined up on the weekend as well.
You have spent years immersed in the field and your experiences span time and music genres. With that in mind, were there any unique challenges to establishing yourself in Western versus Hindustani music?
In Western Classical guitar, the difficulty is the number of people who are pursuing either American folk rock or jazz or classical, which are all pretty cutthroat, and you have to shoot straight out of the gate from a young age. There are only a few extremely talented players, while the rest of us are working hard simply because we love it.
The way AACM worked was that, essentially, you walked in the door and you’d get a lesson with Khan-sahib that evening. You’d meet him, and he’d meet you. You would certainly be humbled once you got a taste for the Hindustani musical experience. On that first day, someone basically hands you a sarod and says, “you got to do this”. Pretty soon there’s a gig and then you eventually might get to sit next to Ramesh Mishra on stage. Back then, you got pretty far pretty quickly simply because you studied with Ali Akbar Khan-sahib.
In most fields, professionals receive stable incomes and benefits like health insurance and retirement savings. Of course, this is not true in the arts, and many artists live without regular salary. How did you go about preserving the integrity of your artistic practice while sorting out those real-life logistics? (ie. finding performances, teaching, finding insurance, savings, etc.)
I guess my idea was to save money and do other odd jobs, too, because performances were not consistent. You can never be too proud to turn down performance opportunities because one might lead to another. But I’ve also had a lot of different jobs over the years. I worked in the AACM bookstore and then later in management positions for the entire 20 or so years of my education. After that, I went straight to Chhandam Chitresh Das Dance Company (CCDDC) because they needed another accompanist. I certainly wasn’t playing 100, 200, 300 big shows a year like other busy artists. But that opportunity provided 30-50 shows, and then I hoped for more from related contacts. Before the pandemic, I was usually performing once every week.
I was pursuing a life path that I really loved, which meant that I made less costly mistakes. I didn’t do anything particularly extravagant. Over the years, I’ve just been a little frugal and remembering, every once in a while, that it never hurts to put an extra $50 into the 401k. All I really needed was a place to hang my sarod and work on my music. As long as I can keep a roof over my head and food and the basics, I’m ok. Saving for the future is always an unknown. I see it more as, your health is your wealth. I think the newer generation, though, is in a lot of trouble. I can’t imagine what kind of debt they’re accruing and carrying.
Support for the field of Indian classical music/dance has changed a lot over the generations: initially a patronage system, now with donations and ticket-based performances, teaching, now even approaching technology. Can you speak a little about your experience within the current state of financial support systems for Indian classical arts?
Before the pandemic, the model of the Ali Akbar College was to wield Khan-sahib’s stature to bring the best artists from India to come and perform, in addition to providing a venue for their students. There is that layer of performance-based support. The college was unique in that it was a self-supporting nonprofit organization: they had a store and a performing founder who gave benefit concerts. Through those two sources they managed to earn a lot of income, aside from some donations.
Ali Akbar Khan himself was a very old-fashioned person who saved his money, and didn’t like to spend a lot and was even able to support his family in India until he was 87. He was a survivor type. He always wanted to be in the black. He either didn’t spend money or he used it wisely; that’s how he stayed in business for over 40 years. He was very natural about it and acquired students who knew how to support him. He knew how to use his status as a master and musical genius to get support. Money was coming in from tuition, the on-campus store, and he would play at least six fundraising concerts per year. Grant writing only started to be important around 2000. When I was managing the college, we got a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, which was a big deal. We even got a California Arts Council grant to create a development director position.
If your purest dream could be realized, what does fair compensation for the arts look like to you? What does financial support and perhaps even financial freedom look like?
The best way to actually make a career of your music starts with finding those hours during the day to practice. You need that time to pursue your art so that you can harness the creative energy. If you’re working fulltime at another job, you really can’t. Most people cannot come home after work and then practice a musical instrument.
There’s a joke amongst musicians: you only showed up for one hour, why do you expect us to pay you several hundred dollars? As the artist, you have to have the attitude that your time and your preparations are worthwhile. You hear about a lot of great musicians in India playing out on the street. If there’s a gig opportunity so that you don’t have to play on the street, I think that indicates you’re surviving in the arts. Anybody can make a CD on GarageBand, he doesn’t even have to play an instrument to make a million dollars by saying some obscene lyrics. That doesn’t seem fair compared to the labor we put into our instruments. In America, capitalism makes it such that you really either sink or swim.
What do you believe is our collective responsibility in order to improve the field for future generations?
I would say that if you’re called to teach, teach. If you’re called to share music, share it. Even if you’re called to just appreciate it, appreciate it. Find a way to encourage people to check out what this world of music and art has to offer.
For myself, I don’t have too many grandiose ambitions as far as the future is concerned. I do believe, however, that anybody who gets involved in an organization like this is learning the right way to do it. I always encourage people to learn this kind of art.
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