Well today I want to talk about the deep topic of tabla riaz / sadhana (practice). Along with the importance of key basics that we need to keep on working on. For me personally, riaz is like a constant sharpening and gaining a deeper and higher zones of the teachings through long periods of repetitive playing with accuracy and mental clarity, so a more yogic approach to the art. For me selling or repairing tabla is fine but more important is making sure that the ethics of tabla are always given higher importance. As always these are my thoughts and what I have gathered from experience and through my Guru.
1) Focus on Tone and sound quality
Thought I’d talk about the importance of clarity and tone in playing tabla. It’s key for any tabla player to produce the highest quality of tone. Many tabla players are renown for their quality or strokes and clarity. Speed doesn’t matter to a certain extent, first it’s important to play any phrase slowly and with clarity. You should be able to hear every stroke you play with a crisp clarity regardless of the speed.
2) Keep it simple
The key to any great composition is usually simplicity. If you look at compositions by the great tabla players all played with such simplicity and clarity. There is no real need to go crazy with tihais and mad relas if they have no real meaning. All of our repertoire is all context dependent, so if you’re accompanying, then actually do that and do not dominate the situation. The more simple the style of playing therefore provides you space to include small intricate pieces to provide the contrast to uplift the composition.
3) Develop the respect for the art. Become one with the tabla
Indian Classical Music is a “Sadhna” (form of spiritual worship).
For centuries, classical music has been working its wonders and uplifting lives. The difference between a performer and a disciple of music is huge, as you will know. The performer is putting on a show, whereas the disciple may not have the bright lights and glitz n glamour but you will definitely feel their music more than the performer. Why is this? It’s simple, the disciple has developed the respect for the art, he is not concerned about the ‘showmanship’ but more focused on expressing himself with the grace of God.
So to become one with the tabla, a deep topic! Many maestros such as Ustad Habibuddin Khan Saheb, Ustad Nizamuddin Khan Saheb and many more could just play any combination at will. They were able to become in tune with the tabla and develop a relationship with it. Meaning, there is nothing separating you from the instrument when you are playing, like Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb who’s fingers melted into the sitar and you couldn’t distinguish which is which. This is the height and level of the Gurus where they can reach higher platforms through creating resonance and sheer penance to open up fields of energy that just transmits through them. Such is the power of sadhna.
The first step is to always treat your tabla with the highest respect, that means providing them with an appropriate bag/case, a protective cover, well looked after resting rings. I have mentioned tabla care in another post. Before you start to play, be sure you do Namaskaar to them as God resides within them. Also keep an Asana that you can sit on to play, you will have seen that I always sit on one. This is to keep the respect.
4) It’s not just about ‘You’
Playing tabla is not all about “You” and how many variations and cuts you can play to get the audience applauding. 9 times out of 10, we usually accompany other artists so you must always respect them and allow them their space to perform. The same goes for showing the same respect to fellow tabla players you may know. Remember you can learn from everyone, regardless of their age, experience or ability. We are always a student and a disciple of the art.
5) PRACTICE, PRACTICE & PRACTICE
There’s only so much I can keep on saying how importance it is to practice. Riaz (practice) is the most important part of playing tabla or any musical art. Artists say that you’re only as good as your last piece. The same goes for tabla, so if you practiced once last week and you come to class, you’re going to be worse than where you were and see no progression.
By practice I don’t mean, play 50 different compositions once. You need to play one beat, one composition or just one kayda over and over again until you can play this for longer durations of time at a several speeds, single, double, tisram etc. Learn the real emphasis and reasoning of why a bol was placed in that particular combination. Study the structure of the piece you’r working on. A phrase like Dhati DhaGhe Dhina Ghina can have infinite was of presenting, all depending on your own study and practice. If you’re playing a certain exercise over and over again, you’ll slowly increase your stamina from playing for 2minutes, slowly to 5mins and the next thing you know, you’ll be playing it with ease for longer stretches of time with clarity and correct tone.
It all boils down to practice. If you’re not practicing, you’re wasting your time and your Gurus.
6) Focus your mind
As I mentioned previously, that music is a form of devotion and spiritual practice. In order for you to play clean tabla, your mind needs to be clean and completely thoughtless. The more you think, the more complicated your mind becomes and the output isn’t the greatest. You will notice a huge difference when you perform under stress compared to when you’re happy or in the right frame of mind.
In this time of multi-tasking, people say “I don’t have time”. There’s always time if one just takes time out for themselves and to de-clutter their minds.
The best thing do is practice Meditation and real Yoga, not the athletic exercises we see these days but focus on real Yogic teachings of Hatha-Yoga or any other path with past realised masters. Regardless of race, we all believe in the same spiritual power. You will see that the old teachers in the past first taught the students yoga, meditation to focus their minds. You must have seen the same discipline in any martial arts, such as Kung Fu. Your roots need to be strong for the tree to survive. I highly advise that you sit without any distractions, any noise, in a room with your eyes closed. Your mind will waver and not focus as the nature of the mind is to hop from place to place. You will slowly but surely increase the time that you can sit in meditation form a couple of minutes to an hour.
You will notice a huge difference in your state of mind in not only when you play tabla but you will be able to focus on any activity you perform.
7) Listen to as much music as you can
I can’t stress the importance of listening to other artists of all disciplines. You will have seen artists like Ustad Zakir Hussain perform tabla with a wide range of musicians and still maintaining all of the humbleness of a true musician. This is only possible when you learn to “See with your ears”. So this doesn’t mean that you blindly just listen to music, actually listen to what they are playing, how is it structured, what instruments are playing, what taal is playing, what is the person playing on the tabla or any instrument you can recognise. The more ‘sound vocabulary’ you possess, the wider your repertoire as an artist will become. So listen to all types of music as inspiration can come from anywhere.
8) Learn to tune your tabla and develop Shruti
I won’t go into too much detail but each chakra within your body is activated by classical music. Each note from our 7 main notes Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa all represent a chakra within your body. Once you’re in tune with those, your body will be in perfect balance.
This is why a person with tuned ears will be able to hear an instrument out of tune in an instant. This only comes with listening closely over and over again and practice. So if there is a tanpura playing at C#, you should be able to recognise what chord is playing. A singer will request that you tune to C or any chord, you will need to know how to tune to that chord or whether your tabla can reach that scale or not.
9) All about timing – do not depend on the Lehra app!
These days, the most common form of knowing you’re in time is through a range of apps that people swear by. Yes it’s important to play with a lehara but this is not everything. Have you tried to simplify this further by just playing with a ticking of a metronome? Gives you an idea of space, time and actually helps you to open your mind to other structures within the time-cycles. This then lets you move on to just playing with a tanpura in the background.
Sitting with the same tempo is key. If you start playing at 45bpm without any apps or metronome and then half an hour later you’re at 85bpm, then you need to work on developing sayyam (control of the senses) to want to speed up constantly. You’ll notice that at times when a tabla player finishes their quick solo when accompanying an artist, the tempo shifts up a bit and then the artists has to bring the tempo back down. Taal Saadhana is a very deep topic and the Ustads all have developed this with the grace of their Gurus and their own riaz.
You can know all the variations, taals, compositions and have a phd in Music, but if you can’t play in time, then you’re going to struggle. Everything in music is based around timing and especially for tabla players who are known as the Time Keepers. If we go out of time, then the whole performance goes to pot. The same goes for knowing how to bring yourself back into Time, this all comes with experience and… PRACTICE!
10) Tabla is a way of life
You’re not learning compositions, rhythms etc etc, you’re learning how to discipline the mind and push yourself to the highest point and constantly be developing as a human. Make yourself a medium through which God provides his energy for you to perform and play tabla every time. We’re God’s mere instruments at the end of the day.
Enjoy what you play and the main thing to realise, that there are no concrete things set in stone. There are standards yes, but rules is too much of a harsh term. Be creative, be an individual but never lose respect for the art or more so, be yourself. So just play as a free spirit and express yourself through your music whilst maintaining the right mode.