THE MAKING OF AN OUDIST
by John Bilezikjian
I first heard the oud on a 78 RPM record when I was five or six years old. It was like the first sight of the best beloved. I could literally feel its rich, full tones coursing through my blood. I was entranced. I never forgot that enchanting, compelling sound. A few years later, I asked my mother what it was. She told me that it was an oud, that my grandfather had one, and that it was in his room, upstairs. She brought it down to me. I had been playing the violin since I was five years old, and at first I tried to finger it as if it were a violin.
I was fortunate. I had a story book childhood. My parents gave me every support and encouragement imaginable. My father took me to see different oudists, as well as violinists, including the immortal Jascha Heifetz. I watched them carefully — the fingering, the technique, the ornamentation. The study and mastery of the oud became a passion. I was encouraged to explore every avenue of training and experience that I felt that I needed. Ultimately, I earned my B.A. in music from San Fernando Valley State.
I got my first job working with dancers when I was 19 years old. It was in Fresno, at the Arabian Nights, with Yanni and Helena. I was a minor, working in a club that served alcohol. That was a problem. At first I was somewhat shy of the dancers. I was affectionately called “the Kid” by my fellow musicians.
The oudist, working with dancers, functions as the ‘team leader.” The oudist must be aware of the styles, needs and personalities of the drummer and the dancer at all times. The oudist pretty much “coordinates” the performance, maintaining constant communication among all members of the “team,” and with the audience. Doing this while executing one melody or rhythmic line with the voice, and another with the instrument, is an extremely complicated task. Failure to do this will result in a production that will be unsatisfying to the audience, as well as to the performers.
When a potential oud student approaches me, I ask, “What is it that you want from the oud? What are your aspirations? What do you want, actually, to do with it?” I warn the student of the commitment. The strings are demanding, and the oud is one of the most demanding and difficult of all of the strings. One does not “take up” an instrument; one marries it, in a way. Accomplishing it will take years, maybe a lifetime. It involves lessons and daily practice, several hours every week. There is not the immediate satisfaction of producing a melody. There are endless, boring scales, modes, drills and rhythm exercises. Several years of training will be required before one will be ready to entertain even a very undemanding audience. One can spend a few thousand dollars on a good oud, and find that the commitment to the grinding drudgery of the basics is not there.
My best advice for aspiring performance artists is do not go full-time professional until you are seasoned and solid in your performance quality. I have seen potentially fine oudists ruined by premature stagework. Going professional too soon can harden one into bad or sloppy habits and an undeveloped style. This is particularly true of nightclub work because of its commercial quality. Occasional, carefully chosen performances for the development of audience communication are a different matter.
I advise trained oudists who are just beginning to go on stage to choose your drummer carefully. Choose someone who is sensitive to the music, and very aware of the primary instrument, who will support you and follow your lead. The percussion is the heart of the melody, and the drummer and the oudist need to develop a sort of “telepathy” for each other, constantly anticipating each other. If they do not work as a unit, the music will be disjointed.
I have seen oud players strum the instrument, pick at it, and pound it. I have heard them try to choke or beat the music out of it. The oud is a supremely delicate, sensitive, responsive instrument, one of the richest and most responsive of the strings. Caress it. Touch it like a lover. Coax the music from it. It will respond by yielding all of its range and subtlety. Develop a relationship with it, as if it were a sentient being. Make it part of you, indivisible from you. The instrument is not a separate object. The instrument and the musician are a unit, each responding to the other, creating together.