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.