Thoughts on Sound

This is a favourite topic of mine – the sound of the performer. Having recently performed with some top notch western classical musicians, I couldn’t help but contrast their sound to the school teachers who teach music to kids. The sound is completely different.

What constitutes a “sound”? I’m not big on scientific theories of acoustic analysis, but it comes down to the texture, feel, emotion, accuracy and a whole lot of other things.  There is a distinct difference in the sound of a Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and other sarod players even though they may be playing exactly the same notes. Ditto with sitar and sarangi player.

Getting our sound right should be the first priority of any student. This involves attention to detail. Is the note pitch perfect? When you do a meend (portamento/glissando) from one note to the other, is it just right or rushed? Is the stroke volume ok? Is the string change clean or did you just brush past some other strings in the process? Did the tarab strings light up as you played the notes ? Was the landing on the sam correct?

While it is impossible to match the sounds of the all time greats, I feel we can go a long way with riyaaz. Musical content is secondary – you must sound good first. Anyone who has listened to any of the well known maestros without any knowledge of music can attest to that.

In the sarod, the overall sound of the musicians is improving. From the rough sound of the rabab to the refined sound of the sarod is a journey. It is encouraging to see musicians lift their game on this one, and not focus on the “clackety clack” pluck attack type of wooden sound that so typified the sarod playing of the early 20th century.

The pinnacle of consistent clean sound on the sarod is Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Every note is clean and delivered perfectly, even at full speed.  He has always been the benchmark of sound on this instrument, and its most capable technician, bar none.

What they don’t tell you in most overseas sarod schools: The agony and ecstasy of “Palta Practice”

Swept up by the magnificent sound of the instrument, inspired by maestros like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and feeling elevated by thinking about the deep and rich history of the sarod, we finally get an instrument, a guru and begin to take our first steps.

The first few days are spent in agony. The instrument sounds like someone’s scraping their nails against a blackboard and everything sounds terrible. (if you think you don’t sound terrible after your first attempt on the sarod, you must be the re-incarnation of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan). We bravely fight on, with encouragement from our guru and persevere. We learn to play Sa Re Ga Ma, focussing constantly by looking at the fretboard (although there’s not much to see there at all). In desperation, we might even put some marks on it to position our fingers accurately.  Then we are taught a raga (Yaman is a good choice) and away we go. Between maintaining the dara-diri regime, nail problems, pitch issues, sitting on the floor, plectrum technique – it’s a total disaster ! But we persevere….

The above describes the typical path of the adult overseas sarod student. Of all the students of sarod and sitar that I’ve met over the years, one crucial element of training seems to be missing – scale or “palta” practice. This is the secret sauce of all sarod training.

Palta practice, is simply, scale practice – it’s the mechanical repetition of the notes of the scale in various combinations. For example, Sa Re, Re Ga, Ga Ma and so on. Then in threes (Sa Re Ga, Re Ga Ma .. ) or fours (Sa Re Ga Ma, Re Ga Ma Pa, ….) upto the upper Sa and then back again. This needs to be done with the tabla – e.g Dadra for threes, Teentaal for fours etc, at varying speeds. Once comfortable at a certain speed, the speed needs to be increased. If you are playing da strokes, try dara strokes. Like exercising in a gym, the moment you’re comfortable, raise the bar by changing the level of difficulty.

It is also very boring.

However, the key issue is that without palta practice, you will never get the right fingering, stroke play and accuracy that is required for playing the sarod. Palta practice is like learning the basic vocabulary. If you don’t do any palta practice, you will not have the confident sound that is required on the sarod. You will continue to timidly approach notes, probably reducing the volume as you’re not quite sure where you should stop. In short, it’s highly unlikely that you will get onto the concert stage without the skills derived from Palta practice.

Why is Palta practice so effective? For starters, it gives you a good feel of where the notes are, and locks in the sound. Secondly, playing with the tabla gets your brain used to the taal cycle to the point where you don’t have to think about where the tabla is within the rhythm cycle – your brain subconsciously  knows this. Thirdly, it builds up confidence in your playing through improved accuracy.

Even the great Ustad Amjad Ali Khan practices paltas in his riyaaz sessions. This is perhaps the most accurate sarod player in the history of the instrument, whose crystal clear sound is unmatched by maestros past and present.

Try this exercise if you doubt the effectiveness of palta playing: Play your favourite gat in any raga without palta practice. Record it. Next, practice paltas for 30 minutes. Then play the gat again. Record it this time. Listen to the two recordings – and see the marked improvement in your accuracy even after 30 mins of palta practice. I’ve done this experiment with several people and it always has the same outcome.

I’m puzzled by why gurus do not prescribe rigorous palta practice to their overseas students. It could be that they realise that these “amateurs” are not upto the rigours of this exercise and may actually quit if told that 75% of their initial time should be spent on palta. Going on to raagas is inherently more appealing to the student, as they feel they are now really getting into the instrument. The problem is, almost all of them are hideously besura (the most common form can be seen on the sitar when they try to reach a note by pulling the string – and landing almost anywhere but the note. Then they compound the problem by repeating the pattern of pulling indiscriminately, thinking that they’re getting the “Indian” sound). At this point, the guru should intervene and ask them to stop pulling the string until they are sure of the note. In fact, if the student doesn’t realise that they are going besura, that’s an even bigger problem. This lack of accuracy will stay with them for the rest of their lives. (And on a humorous note, I like to think that incalculable damage is done to the health of the guru by this attack of the besura notes – you can see some gurus wince as the off key note hits them)

So while you may have great visions of the divine music that you are learning, it’s far less exciting than that. Sa Re Ga Ma, Re Ga Ma Pa — 100 times, 1000 times, slow, fast, double – is the “gym” training that we must do.

So before you rush headlong into a raag, give palta practice a good go. You’ll need it for the rest of your sarod playing days.

Accuracy of notes is the fundamental bedrock of all classical music. We cannot accept any compromise with that. When I frequented Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s house, that was the one takeaway I took – never, ever tolerate besura notes at any cost. (A later post on the whole note accuracy business). And the only way we are going to retain note accuracy is through palta practice.

 

 

Pt Bhimsen Joshi passes away : Jan 24

Another musical institution lost to Indian Classical Music. My exposure to Bhimsen Joshi began in the most non-classical setting. There was a television serial called Raag Darbari (based on Sri Lal Shukla’s novel of the same name). As the title montage would come on, there was a powerful voice singing in the same raag for about 10-15 seconds with the lyrics “Darbari ke saat suro me… saat rang hai, tere mere” (Translation: In the seven notes of Darbari, there are seven colours, yours and mine…). That was Pt Joshi. Years later, I heard him live at Siri Fort Auditorium at a concert called Morning Ragas. I could barely afford the tickets – he started at around 11 am with Raga Jaunpuri. I still remember the drut khayal – not the usual Payal Ki Jhankar, but Sat rang sune gayeji (don’t remember the full lyrics).

Interestingly, Srinivas Joshi, his son, was studying at IIT Delhi at the same time (I think he was doing his Masters – I was an undergraduate) and it was widely known that he was not the least interested in music and kept a very low profile. I was surprised to see that he had turned into a vocalist.

Pt Joshi – a great loss for the music world. RIP

Sarod Resources: The Ekalavya Project

I’ve been meaning to document as much useful “operational ” information about the sarod on my site for a while. This has come about mainly from questions asked by various people over time. The idea is to make all information public – I call it the Ekalavya project. I’ll share articles on the sarod from time to time – usually my own perspective only.