In the Gaudiya Vaishnav tradition of Lord Chaitanya, we primarily worship God through music. Sankirtan, where devotees dance joyfully while singing the holy names of Lord Krishna, is the primary component of all our programmes. The strong philosophy and deity worship in the temple are there to support the connection to the Lord through His Holy names. Ultimately, Krishna Consciousness is about reviving our relationship with Lord Krishna through the chanting of His names.
Before I moved to Australia, my participation in keertans was generally passive. I simply followed the singer and occasionally clapped along. I loved the dancing in keertans of course, but I never contributed to the creating of the songs. Anybody who knows me will tell you that I am one of the most musically 'challenged' people there could be. I am tone deaf and 'beat' deaf as well. I can sing along only the simplest tunes and playing musical instruments is not my cup of tea.
Ironically, I ended up marrying a musician - my spouse is an expert mridanga (keertan drum) player, knows and sings countless tunes and listens to music all day long. He plays the mridanga in every program we attend - it is his service. In one such program, the cymbals were put into my hands! (I am not sure why but I think the assumption was that since he plays the drum so well - surely I could play the cymbals which are much simpler. Also everybody else attending was pretty new and no one could play them.)
Oh Lord - how I struggled in the beginning! While I could manage the slow tunes, I just couldn't get the beat or pace for the faster ones. I must have spoilt numerous keertans by playing out of sync while my husband glared at me from across the room. There were occasions when I had to stop playing completely and mostly I just compromised by banging the cymbals in a fast, continuous beat like clapping.
In spite of all this no one seemed interested in taking the service away from me. I still seemed to be doing better than anyone else in that program. My husband started practice sessions at home, he played the mridanga and sang the fast tunes while I struggled to catch up.
Over the year though, I eventually started getting it. From not getting it - to somehow playing the instrument but unable to sing along - to singing and playing together quite smoothly - I eventually got there. The peak of my cymbal playing was when I played continuously for a 3 hour keertan in a friend's house. As I played and sang, I felt closer to the names than ever before. The absorption was intense - mostly because I was now an active participant, not a passive listener.
Keertan can be compared to deity dressing. The instrument players decorate the holy names of the Lord, just as the priest decorates the deity form of the Lord. While viewing the decorated forms of the Lord can be absorbing, actually dressing the deity brings us closer to the Lord in a wholly different way.
Similarly, my cymbal playing brought an all new dimension to the keertan for me. Perhaps, I should start learning the mridanga now :)