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Sounds of Schoenberg: The Indian sitar

Ethnomusicology lecturer Rahul Neuman was introduced to the Indian sitar, an 18- to 21-string instrument, at a young age by his family of professional sitarists and ethnomusicologists. (Kira VandenBrande/Daily Bruin)

By Sasha Cheechov

Jan. 15, 2016 12:00 a.m.

Each week, Daily Bruin A&E will explore the instruments of the World Musical Instrument Collection and their performers that all contribute to the musical landscape of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

This week, we highlight the Indian sitar, a stringed, gourd-shaped instrument.

Rahul Neuman’s parents, aunt, grandparents and brother performed, studied and loved the Indian sitar. But for much of his childhood, Neuman didn’t.

Neuman’s parents saw potential in their 10-year-old child, forcing him to trade playing his “air sitar” – a game of pretend in which he mimicked his older brother practicing the instrument – for a real sitar.

For Neuman, now an ethnomusicology lecturer, the fun disappeared, and he soon stopped playing.

“My greatest challenge was to get by doing as little practice as possible,” he said. “Sometimes I would just run my fingertips along the main string to forge a callus and have a ‘practice sign’ on my fingertips. I was just horrible.”

During his undergraduate years at the University of Washington, however, Neuman discovered a new love for Indian classical music and the instrument when 2004 Grammy Award nominee Ustad Shujaat Khan visited his university. Khan would later become Neuman’s guru.

He began to practice the sitar again, encouraged by Khan’s tales about pioneering musicians of generations past and the rich history of the sitar itself.

Neuman attributes his enthusiasm for teaching a new generation of musicians to the change of heart he experienced toward playing the instrument.

To Neuman, learning and understanding the sitar is a skill that takes time and discipline to master. Neuman said the sitar’s gourd-shaped body necessitates an uncomfortable, twisted sitting position, and the approximately 20 strings make finger formations more complicated than those of other stringed instruments.

Neuman said his students take pride in building calluses on their fingers, a mark of applying constant pressure against the high-tensile strings.

“They stick with (the sitar) and learn to enjoy the pain that comes with it,” Neuman said. “They wear (their calluses) with a badge of honor.”

Neuman said one of his biggest challenges as an instructor is bridging the cultural gap between Indian music and American students and audiences.

He said his work proves to be worthwhile, however, when he notices tangible reactions like a smile in response to a new sound, or the overjoyed expression in his students’ eyes after they play riffs correctly.

“Indian classical music is beautiful but requires patience, restraint and time to gain appreciation for it,” Neuman said. “Once you start understanding it, it’s beautiful.”

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Sasha Cheechov
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