Sound Production on the Sarod: Some Perspectives

I recently had the opportunity to discuss sound production as a subject with senior indian classical instrumentalists.

Discussion on sound production in the context of Indian Classical music has been very limited – Indian classical music discussion seems to be limited to unstructured discussions with very little “shop talk” among the musical fraternity on any operational issue that they face.
For an active musician, sound production is probably a huge topic by itself. However, an objective discussion is not possible on this topic, given that the product itself cannot be well defined. And to me, that’s perfectly ok, as the whole topic of music is by its very nature, a human experience. So much of what follows recognizes the subjective nature of the topic – the idea is to stimulate thinking, and share ideas, rather than come up with a definitive model.
Our key topics for discussion were:
1. How important is sound production?
2. What makes for good sound production?
3. What are some operational considerations  re: sound production especially for a practicing musician?
The outcomes and consensus items are discussed below.
Sound production remains one of the most critical tools to enhance the entire experience for both listener and artist. The sound is essentially what the performer  is “selling” to the audience.
Sound production consists of :
1. The primary source : say the instrument or the voice
2. Secondary devices: amplification, recording or sound distribution devices.
Leaving the second category alone for the moment,  let’s consider the primary source: the voice or instrument.
My particular point of interest is the instrument (sarod), so let’s further restrict our discussion to this one instrument.
As our discussions with the maestros progressed, several key points were recognised:
1. Sound production is very individual – two people can pick up the same sarod, and produce very different sounds, playing the same notes. I have first hand experience of this, with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.
2. Attention to detail in the technique plays a huge role in sound production. Especially on instruments like the sarod, with infiinite nuances of sound possible due to the construction of the instrument as well as the playing style, attention to detail is fundamental to improving one’s sound. As instruments have become more refined compared to older variations, the fingering and stroke technique is vital in producing the desired sound effect.
3. There is no “right” sound by itself, however, clarity, tunefulness, volume and space play a vital role. The exact combination of these  is left to the performer. Silence, or space is also very much a part of the sound.
4. In turn, the technique needs to be modified to achieve one’s desired sound. If you wish to emulate Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s sound, clean picking and smooth string changes without  noticeable loss of volume is a pre-requisite. This can be achieved to a degree with good scale practice, but the final ingredient remains elusive (this is why his disciples sound similar, but not exactly the same as him – the X factor !)
5. The musicians I spoke to summarised all these factors into one word : the musician’s “touch”. The touch is the total package of the sound production technique.  Each person needs to  develop their own touch. This takes years of study, reflection and practice to develop. Musicians often spend decades developing their final, unique touch, which is their hallmark.
The starting point of a good “touch” is tonal accuracy. This is incredibly hard to do. Even the greatest maestros have some tonal imperfections (however, senior maestros have an error rate of six sigma or less !).
Which then takes me to the next point- how do you maintain tonal accuracy if you are deliberately focussing on it? In a 3 hour concert, you cannot focus on every microtone at all times- your creativity and spontaneity will be impacted by this. The answer, as discussed by the maestros is that there is a point of technical mastery in which the instrument becomes an extension of the person. Basic technical accuracy then becomes a given. Yes, the finer points do merit special consideration, but the artist is almost running on rails as far as tonal accuracy is concerned. In that situation, the only risk is if the artist is attempting something which is highly complex or intricate. Say a “murki” (a type of embellishment) which is hard to execute. The maestros felt that with practice, these can be overcome to produce a consistent level of performance.
The key takeout for me was to focus on the attention to detail in each and every microtone and to make better use of space in my practice to further develop my desired sound and to constantly record and review my own sound to keep improving it continuously.

An inspiring book for all performance artists

I recently read Steve Martin’s autobiography : Born Standing Up

Part philosophical treatise, part how-to guide, it’s a deep dive into how a performance is created-an intersection of art and science, intense honesty and brutal self examination. He delivers an elegant and sophisticated analysis of his journey from Disneyland to sold out shows and hit movies with not a single gripe against anyone, solely focusing on improving his art using audience reaction as his guide. Whether you play classical music or hard rock or dance Bollywood and are serious about your art form, this book delivers invaluable insights.

Key points for me were:

1. A performance requires special planning and treatment, especially if you have a paying audience

2. It takes time to develop your own style –  you will inevitably start out with someone else’s material, but with hard work and honesty, you can develop your own

3. This is a long hard slog

4. Complaining about how the world is sabotaging you is probably not a good strategy – no -one owes  you a living.

5. Intense and brutal self examination is important, as is the advice of mentors and seniors.

 

New Sarod !

I just returned from India as the proud owner of a new sarod….

Sounds great so far….

Here’s me practicing my eternally favourite raga Darbari Kanada on my new sarod…., playing both a slow alaap as well as a fast paced composition in 16 beats to check out the sound….

Raga Bihag: An uplifting melody

bihag

A most pleasing and enjoyable raga, Bihag is at once a very popular and common raga. On the sarod, practically everyone has played this at some time or the other. Associated ragas include: Maru Bihag, Nat Bihag, Hem Bihag and Pat Bihag (I heard the last one once, and have no idea of the repertoire…. will find out if I get the time)….

Bihag, also spelt Behag etc… is a straightforward raga

Aarohan: N(lower) S G M P N S(upper)

Avrohan: S (upper) N P, G M G

Bihag employs both the Major (Shudda) M and Teevra (Sharp) M…

The phrase GMG is a signature of Bihag …..

It evokes feelings of happiness, joy and celebration. According to some musicians (notably Ud Vilayat Khan), this is a raga for weddings.

Here’s a quick compostion in Vilambit Teentaal

Followed by a few compositions in Drut Teentaal (16 beats)

I really should move these to their own page-…

Bihag Jhaptaal composition is still in the works…

 

Raga Improvisation & Expansion

Varanasi.jpg

(Picture above: my hometown of Varanasi, India, famous for Indian classical music, especially tabla)

Ever wondered what musicians play after the main composition and how it’s structured?

Especially in the slow (vilambit) part of the composition, there are a number of devices and pathways available to the artist.

As a short example, I start with a very standard composition in slow 16 beat cycle in Raga Marwa-(notations provided below)…


The main composition is repeated a few times:

(italics: lower octave) Bold: Upper Octave, lowercase:komal, UPPER CASE: Shuddha

Starts from 12th beat.DD N rr G m D-, D m G r SS, N r N D

It is essential to maintain a very prominent Dha in the lower octave, to bring out Marwa’s mood.

Thereafter, the following expansion pathways are demonstrated:

-Vistaar (expanding upon the notes, with our without metre)

-Aamad: Rhythmic variations

-Bol – Taans with Bols

– Peshkar (rhythmic phrases)

Only a few short samples are provided, and the main composition is played over and over again – but these are just few pathways which can be explored in playing the raga…