They say students of classical music practise for hours, and this must be true, because I had to. And I’d heard that classical singers begin at the age of six or seven (since the mythology is romantic, the age decreases, and the number of hours goes up); I felt inwardly at a disadvantage, like a person who’s moved to a new country, tries to learn a new language, then write a novel in it, while other novelists there have of course known the language since they were born.

My good fortune wasn’t my talent (if I had any), but my parents. Despite misgivings, they stood by my idiosyncratic impulses. Part of my mother’s doubts about me taking on Hindustani classical music was her knowledge of the effort involved, and her extreme concerns about my health.

I’d had a congenital heart condition detected when I was three years old. In 1979, I went to America for the first time, where I was seen by a cardiologist in San Diego, where my cousin lived. He, unlike the doctors in Bombay I’d been seeing regularly for fourteen years, said I didn’t need to be operated on till I was much older. My parents relaxed with this deferral of the inevitable. As Freud might have said, they admitted normal unhappinesses into their lives.

On my return from America, I began to give most of my time to classical music. Doctors had dismissed the idea that rigorous practice had any relevance to a heart condition.

My parents – maybe grateful for the certificate of life granted to the family – surrendered to my abstention from Junior College. Then I convinced my father that I’d drop out and start doing A and O levels from home with a view to going to England to “read” English.

I’d never known a man like him; like a malingerer’s best friend, he began to look for options that would make this possible. I started a correspondence course with Wolsey Hall, Oxford, to do A levels in English and – this was a concession to my father, who made no other request – Economics: if I failed as an artist, I would use my knowledge of Economics to get a job. I proceeded with my education – in this open-ended framework – without urgency. For hours, I aimed at fluency in sapat, and the vocal exercises Govindji had given me.

The word used for practice in North Indian classical music is “riyaaz”. It and the word “talim”, for “tutelage”, are from Urdu, and a reminder of the preponderant impact, from the sixteenth century, of the Muslim ustad or virtuoso on the classical tradition. The Sanskrit precursor of “riyaaz” would be “sadhana”, which refers to a long-term, perhaps lifelong, discipline whose end is not only a well-defined goal, but the pursuit of sadhana itself. In that sense, sadhana doesn’t make a clear distinction between labour and its fruit, between preparation and performance. Sadhana, unlike riyaaz, isn’t a music-specific word: it could be used of football, or living life itself.

Once you’ve entered the regime of riyaaz, you don’t exit it easily. You may one day stop performing, but, if you’re a classical musician, you don’t stop burnishing or honing.

Music is more akin to sport than to writing; inspiration counts for less than “tayyari”, the Urdu word for “preparedness”. There’s no spontaneity in the conventional sense: of bursting into songs as in Hindi films. The great singers who burst into song in cinema – like KL Saigal, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Kishore Kumar, Manna De, Talat Mahmood – had had, unlike the actors or characters they sang for, to do a lot of homework.

Riyaaz is the most secret part of yourself – the time you share with no one. You’re listening to yourself: you’re imperfect, as works-in-progress are. You’re self-absorbed, like a bird, and, like a bird, vulnerable to the danger of being discovered. Being interrupted is akin to a bird’s aloneness being shattered by movement.

I’ve experienced this myself, and saw it in a woman practising for a performance of The Pirates of Penzance at Wolfson College in Oxford. The performance was to take place in the open air. She was warming up under a tree outside a room I was staying in for a few days. I kept very still, but moved slightly to hear her better. She didn’t see me, but stopped abruptly and then, like a frightened animal, darted away and vanished.

Riyaaz, unlike performance, needn’t be creative. It is self-imposed. But it shares with aesthetic production a kind of selflessness of investment. You do it to survive as an artist, independent of the appreciation you may or may not get. I saw this in my mother: the matter of regular practice even when few cared for her music. She continued her vocal exercises, her honing of interpretation, into her eighties, as long as she was physically able. I found myself thrown into this relentlessness in my late teens and early twenties. In London, in 1986, I stopped riyaaz only four days before my finals.

Riyaaz comprises a continuity in the creative self. Unlike our professional and conscious personas, which have an integrity, an identifiability, our creative selves are broken and self-estranging.

You write a story or novel or poem; soon, you feel no attachment to it, and don’t even know if it’s any good. It’s become inaccessible – as if the person who wrote it is a stranger. Of course, you act as if you still own the work, though the air of ownership is a pretence. Riyaaz is an intervention in the artist’s feeling of discontinuity; it’s what you must do every day, or every other day.

I say “every other day” because it’s important to take regular breaks from practice. You can’t work your voice uninterruptedly any more than you can your imagination: both are prone to muscle fatigue. A jaded voice sounds similar to an underworked, unpractised one. Both find it difficult to execute the complexities that the voice in a perfect state of riyaaz can.

The perfect state of riyaaz is a transient condition that we keep negotiating to hold on to. Very soon we discover that the aims of practice can’t be attained through the will. You can’t do a perfect sapat, for instance, by rushing the notes; you can’t achieve the undulations of the gamak through force. Achieving these without force or determination involves technique, and sadhana.

Anyone partaking of the arts must partake of riyaaz. Art is an acquired taste: our first experience of it is foreign, our approach to it sceptical. Over time, we may begin to take pleasure in it. This process – of outgrowing resistance and beginning to savour – is a kind of riyaaz.

Amit Chaudhuri is a writer, a Hindustani classical vocalist, and a composer of crossover music. Listen to his music here. Read his column on classical music here.

Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music

Excerpted with permission from Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music, Amit Chaudhuri, Penguin Books India.