How to Play Tabla: 10 Tips

Sorry it has been a while since I last wrote about Music. Thought it would be a good idea to run through a few key tips that will elevate your practice and enhance your Tabla playing technique.

1) Focus on Sound and Tone 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. Benares tabla players are renowned for their quality or strokes and clarity. Speed doesn’t matter to a certain extent, first it’s important to play any piece slowly and with clarity. You should be able to hear every stroke you play with a crisp clarity

2) Keep it Easy

The key to any great composition is usually simplicity. If you look at compositions by the great tabla players such as Pt. Kishan Maharaj, Pt. Sampta Prasad and many more. They perform with such simplicity and clarity. 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 Instrument

Indian Classical Music is a “Sadhna” (form of spiritual worship).

For centuries, classical music has worked its wonders and uplifting lives. The difference between a performer and an artist is huge, as you will know. The performer is putting on a show, whereas the artist may not have the bright lights and glitz n glamour but you will definitely feel his music more than the performer. Why is this? It’s simple, the artist 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.

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. Before you start to play, be sure you do Namaskar 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.

5) PRACTICE, PRACTICE and 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 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 until you can play this for at least an hour. If you’re playing Ti-Te over and over again using single fingers, you’ll slowly increase your stamina form playing for 2 minutes, slowly to 5 minutes and the next thing you know, you’ll be playing it with ease for longer stretches of time.

It all boils down to practice. If you’re not practicing, you’re wasting your time.

6) Focus your mind

As I mentioned before, 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. 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 recommend that you sit without any distractions, any noise, in a room with your eyes closed. Your mind will waiver 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 Tari Khan perform tabla with influences from around the world. 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 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

You can know all the variations, taals, compositions and have a degree in Music, but if you don’t the most important yet basic tool of “Timing” 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, 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 RULES. 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.

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