Learn about Neil Nayyar's incredible musical journey and his remarkable talent for playing more than 100 musical instruments.
Neil, how did your musical journey begin? Did you come from a musical family?
I guess you could say I started in the womb. When my mom was pregnant, my dad read that listening to Mozart helps form the heart, soul, and mind. So, he decided to test that theory and bought a small speaker to set on my mom’s stomach while I was in the womb. My parents gave me my first drum set at two years old, but I wasn’t interested in it. However, at the age of five, my parents tried again when they took me to a free drum class. They told me that after one lesson I was playing better than someone taking lessons for two years. So, they signed me up for drum lessons, and that is where my journey began.
No one in my family, near or far, plays any music instrument. That is very surprising for me and others. They might be good listeners of music.
How did you manage to learn and master more than 100 musical instruments? Which was the first one you learned to play?
After starting drum lessons, I was excited to try other instruments at local music stores, and my parents were eager to help me explore my natural talent. My parents and I noticed that I could easily pick up on new instruments and begin to look at more lessons for me. After reaching my first goal of learning 12 instruments in 2016, I saw someone who held the record for playing the most instruments. He was only 23 and played 27 of them. I decided that if he could do it, so could I. So I began learning to play as many as I could, and by the end of 2017, I could play 44 instruments. I can now play over 107 instruments and practice for 6-8 hours daily. I am happiest when I’m playing music, and it is what helps me connect with people. My favorite part of learning new instruments is understanding the culture that comes with them.
Playing so many different instruments requires a significant investment of time and dedication. How do you manage to balance your practice and learning with other aspects of life?
That is a good question. Wherever I give my interview or perform, usually people ask me this question and yes, it is correct, I sacrifice many things in my life to contribute my time to music and instruments. It requires lots of practice which of course comes with a cost of time. I do meditation and Martial arts to maintain my focus and concentration. I like to mention I am in online schooling which also helps me to schedule my own time so I have flexibility to fit music in my routine.
With such a vast instrument collection, do you have any favorites? Are there any that you find particularly challenging to play?
For me, it is very hard to say this specific Instrument is my favorite. Each instrument has its own sound and its own culture. I enjoy playing all kinds of music, ranging from Chinese, Classical, Indian, Arabic, Pop, Russian, Rock, Latin, pop, rock, Jazz, and so on and all those instruments are part of that music. Later on, I might focus on a few instruments. Currently, I go with the flow. For example, if I get a call to perform at the Chinese Event, I pick Chinese instruments to play Chinese Music. Similarly, I do with other Arabic, Indian and other cultures. It really helps me to learn more about music, their culture and connect with people.
There were many Instruments which were challenging when I started to play. For example, Theremin and Sitar. Theremin which is from Russia requires lots of focus, stability and patience. If I move a little bit, the instrument changes its pitch and will go out of tune. The Indian Sitar which is another serious Instrument which requires a lot of hours for practice to make perfect sound. The strings are much thicker than the guitar and they need calluses on fingers to make the right sound and play music fast. In the beginning, I remember my fingers used to hurt a lot when I was practicing in the beginning and the Sitar requires you to sit on the floor and play it in a traditional way. That was another challenging factor for me, as in the west we are not accustomed to.
As a musician, what inspires you to continue exploring and mastering new instruments? Are there any specific genres or styles of music that you are particularly drawn to?
Listening to different sounds and listening to music from different artists and cultures around the world is my biggest inspiration to explore more instruments. Thanks to the Internet/Technology, which really helped me to see and hear ocean of Music all over the Globe. The Only issue is to get the instruments across the world. Sometimes it becomes very hard, especially when it comes to getting good quality instruments.
Could you share with us any memorable experiences or achievements from your musical career so far?
Sure, my very recent achievement is my selection in Grammy Camp. The Grammy Camp which was held at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I got nominated for Josie Music Awards (Nashville) in the category of “Best Musician of the Year”. I am also releasing my first Debut Album “Breaking Barriers” very soon and it will go for Grammy Submission this year (2023). I will be releasing my first Book “Passion to Exploration of 107 Sound Machines” along with my debut Album.
Being a multi-instrumentalist, have you ever composed your original music? Could you tell us about your composition process?
Yes, all the time. I love to improvise and create original music. Mostly, my composition process often starts with inspiration. This could be a feeling, a story, an event, or even just a musical idea. I would have a clear concept in my mind which can help me guide the direction of my composition. Being a multi-instrumentalist, I need to have a wide range of options for instrumentation. Deciding which instruments to use and how they interact with each other which can significantly shape the sound and mood of the piece. First I would start with a catchy melody or I might explore harmonic progressions. Then, I would find a rhythm and groove of a piece which can greatly influence its energy and feel of understanding how different instruments can contribute to the overall rhythm. From there I would organize the music into a cohesive structure using common forms including verse-chorus, A-B-A, and variations thereof. So that’s my creative process of my composition process.
How do you go about selecting which instruments to incorporate into your compositions? Is it a conscious decision, or does it happen organically?
The type of composition and its genre are key factors in deciding the instruments to employ. The instrumentation of various genres differs, and the selection of instruments should be in keeping with the composition's style and atmosphere. I can select the instruments that, in a given area of the composition, most effectively portray the feelings I wish to communicate. The blend of instruments adds to the piece's overall texture while some instruments can bring warmth, brightness, depth, or other tonal qualities. I occasionally make instrument choices depending on how well they work together to support and complement one another in different sections of the music. On occasion, I might be limited by practical factors like the instruments' limitations or the availability of musicians.
As a renowned musician, you must have performed in various venues and events. Is there a particular concert or performance that stands out as a favorite for you?
That’s true, I love to perform wherever I get an opportunity. I have many memorable events. Few of them are Sacramento Kings, The Jennifer Hudson Show, KTLA 5 (Los Angeles), Harlem Globetrotters, ABC10, Fox40, CBS 13, Good day Sacramento, Capitol Public Radio, Sacramento River Cats, and International Kids Festival in Sacramento. These are my most favorite ones and my journey continues for more to come.
Looking ahead, are there any specific goals you have set for yourself in your musical career? Are there any instruments you still dream of learning and mastering?
The goals I am looking forward to achieving in my musical career are getting my music degree, performing at very big events and composing music for big films. The instrument I dream of having and which I really love to learn is the Bandura. The Bandura is a plucked string instrument from Ukraine and has 31 or 68 strings. At the moment it is not available due to the war happening between Russia and Ukraine but I hope to get that instrument soon after the war ends.
Lastly, what message do you have for aspiring musicians who may be inspired by your story and want to explore diverse instruments and genres?
Sure, It would be a great honor for me even if one person gets inspired and starts playing an Instrument after reading my story. Music is an experience which you can only experience fully after playing it and listening to it. My message is if I can, you can. All is possible, it needs your focus, patience and time commitment for a while. Playing one instrument might not be that hard and playing many and learning different genres takes years due to complexities of languages, different cultures and variety of Instruments. The best message for you is to begin where you are and you will reach somewhere. Have fun with your music. If you feel you are ready to learn more instruments, then go to music stores where you can explore them so that you can hear the sounds and find which one you like. I will always suggest buying quality instruments, they are a bit expensive but they sound better and last longer.
Thank you, Neil, for taking the time to share your insights and experiences with us. We wish you continued success in your musical journey.