After studying the sitar for about four years, 26-year-old Rhiannon Ledwell is still mastering the instrument.
During the week, she studies North Indian classical music at a private school in San Rafael. But on the weekends, she heads up to the Mission District to busk at the 16th Street BART Station, improvising over the looped recording of a tanpura, a droning, atmospheric Indian instrument that sets a background tone for a song.
Like another musician I’ve profiled, Ledwell finds that passers-by tip more avidly for fast, upbeat songs. When I met her on a recent weekend, she had made $60 after almost three hours of playing — tips were unusually good that day, she said.
It’s little money for someone who is paying down a fine arts education, but Ledwell doesn’t let it get to her.
“I’ve been struggling with debt for so long now that I don’t care” she said, adding philosophically, “It doesn’t really exist.” And sometimes she supplements that income by playing at weddings or yoga classes, on referral from one of her teachers.
The sitar’s soothing, bending tones attract soulful and eccentric characters on an almost daily basis, she said. One man, who told her he had been a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, recited poetry to her about “releasing the ego.” Someone else told her that he planned to hold meditation sessions at home for his friends and he wanted to hire Ledwell to play for them. Elated, she said yes.
Many people have never seen a sitar before, and they ask Ledwell what kind of guitar it is. She smiles, and steps gingerly into a practiced rundown about the instrument and Indian classical music.
Ledwell’s sitar has seven playable strings, but 13 others are recessed into its neck and audibly resonate as she plays. She tunes them differently to suit a song’s raga – its musical foundation. The raga’s closest equivalent in Western music is the scale, which specifies the tones a musician can play. But the various ragas go one step farther, allowing only certain tones for ascending in pitch, and a different set when descending. Certain ragas are associated with specific emotions, times of the day, and sometimes Hindu gods.
Ledwell has had an instrument in her hands since day one: A flute in elementary school, then a saxophone in high school. When she began attending Colby College in 2007, she dreamed of being a jazz musician. But she ultimately realized that she lacked the drive to make it in that genre.
Then one semester, a sitar player from India visited Colby to train students, and Ledwell was instantly hooked. “It just felt right,” she said, “I thought, ‘I have to learn this instrument.’” In 2011, she dropped out of school entirely and departed alone for India, diving headfirst into its music and culture.
She spent six months studying with one of the country’s top sitar soloists, Pandit Shubhendra Roa. “It was the best decision I ever made,” she said.
She continued training in the United States under Grammy-nominated Aashish Khan Debsharma at the California Institute of the Arts. When she graduated in May, she embraced a bohemian lifestyle. For months she camped in the mountains or lived out of her weathered ’96 Toyota Camry, parked somewhere in the Marin Headlands or atop Mount Tamalpais. Finally, she found a home in San Rafael, near the school where she now studies.
Her landlord, the mother of an old college friend, lets her live there free of charge. She knows that won’t be true forever, and at some point she’ll probably have to get a regular, boring job. Or, she might just go live and work on a farm, she said.
But something about her current lifestyle soothes her recurring itch to stuff her belongings into a backpack and burn the maps. “I want to be right here, and do what I’m already doing,” she said.
At least for the moment, Ledwell has found a kind of peace on a curbside in the Mission District.