Friday, January 27, 2012


Pandit Suresh Talwalkar on the importance of technique:
(full screen it so you can read the subtitles, unless you speak Marathi)

I find this video to be incredibly inspiring, not only because he hammers home the importance of technique, but also because he seamlessly slides into talking about style...individual style. In my humble experience, we tabla players spend so much time working on technique, learning material and imitating/emulating our teachers and heros that we often don't develop our own voice. (welcome to the wild generalizations edition of 52 Kaidas!)

Hands up tabla players if you've ever thought: "I have to play this exactly like I was taught".

To a point, that's true. The preservation of such a rich and complicated musical tradition does depend on the information being passed accurately from teacher to student. It takes time...a long time....forever, understand the intricacies of technique, tala, form, the myriad of different repertoire etc. But! Tabla is an oral tradition, and like the old broken telephone game, subtle variations are introduced with each passing. Over time, those subtle variations magnify, and a transformation begins to take place. Evolution.

I have certain repertoire (the Dhadhagegenage Farukhabad Chalan-Kaida) that is a good example of this. The version I have was taught to me by Ritesh Das, who had learned it from Pandit Shankar Ghosh. When I was researching that blog post, I found out that Gnan Prakash Ghosh is credited with that particular version. So, 'my' version is the 4th generation, minimum. I've probably, over time, introduced baya inflections, accents etc etc that are my own, either through my physical limitations (what actually sounds good with my hands) or my choices of the path I take through the material, the relationships I hear between strokes etc (and I continue to refine it each time I play it) and what I like. Similarly, Ritesh probably injected his own personality when he taught it to us, and so on down the line.

I have played 'my' version to a few different tabla players, and each time, an interesting thing has happened: "oh, that's good, but the correct version is this" and they play a different version of the same composition. The soul of the composition is the still has the same groove, flows well at the same speed, BUT, some of the strokes are different, the accents are different, the structure is different, and because of this, the variations, the pathways for improvisation are necessarily different. I was taught to play a sur stroke for the phrase that starts the second half (TageTete). None of the other versions I've heard have TageTete in them, and none of them use a sur stroke anywhere. It's all kinar. Now...I like the sur, I've worked on it a lot, and it's something I do well, if I can say that. So, naturally, I'm going to focus on, and expand on the variations that show my strength.

And this is my main point: That's ok.

I'm not saying neglect anything that's hard, or doesn't come naturally, but it's ok to specialize in certain focused areas of technique, repertoire, or sound production because that is what makes us unique...that is our 'style'.

Both Swapan Chaudhuri and Suresh Talwalkar told me almost the exact same thing at different times, and I'll paraphrase:

Don't imitate. If you imitate, you will never 'own' what you do, because it's not yours. You will always be weaker than the person you're imitating. It will always be a facsimile of the original. Carve your own niche, and you'll automatically be the best within that niche.

I think that the fact that tabla, with all its strict rules and freakishly hard technique, has room within it for everyone to contribute their own voice is a testament to the richness of the tradition. It's not frozen in time. It's evolving right now, as we speak, with each and every person who is practicing or performing at this very moment. That's why there are thousands and thousands and thousands of different compositions, each different from the other, and that a single kaida (for example) is a universe unto itself.

To be honest...knowing this makes it easier for me to practice. Drilling something 300 or 1000 times is daunting, boring, hurts-physically, but also mentally, and is frustrating at times. But practicing something to make it my own, rather than trying to sound *just* like X or Y tabla player is way easier. I can play, in the little kid sense of the word. I can do what I like over and over again, and I don't even notice the hours going by.

So...technique is important! You must practice!! (sound of a whip cracking). But practicing is hard! It's no fun! (sadface) BUT...if you introduce 'style' to that equation, then practicing will be easy, and technique will automatically follow.

Also...practice with other people. It really helps.

/end gooey inspirational post


  1. Awesome video! This wonderful advice could be applied to learning any instrument, or any art for that matter. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Dear Ed,
    This blog reminds me of yoga in a way. We are taught postures traditionally and once we learn them, we express them in our own way. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to hear you play at The Gathering, A Spiritual Woodstock in July 27-August 3, 2012!

  3. Very nicely said.

    You are right, technique is indeed very important, but there is so much more to being a good musician than just technique.

    1. indeed there is. This post was specifically about technique though. The more nebulous stuff is harder to write about :P

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this! I am always looking for more ways to communicate the double edged sword of hard work/ joy and inspiration that must both be present for great music to happen, and this is one of the best I've seen! I love your blog.
    -Josh Humphrey (Eugene, OR)

  5. If I asked you to start speaking in a language that you didn't know, quite naturally, you would simply be unable to do it. But if you learned the language, its grammar, vocabulary, cliches, and so on, after awhile, you could express yourself quite fluidly in this language. This is exactly the case with tabla, other instruments, and art in general: you have to learn to "speak" the language before you can express yourself meaningfully. And when you have "mastered" it (which no one ever does), your own personality, thoughts, and feelings will manifest themselves. Learning (tabla) technique is analogous to learning grammar, syntax, diction, etc., of any language.

  6. Hello,

    Love this post, and your blog! Thanks! I studied South Indian music and mridangam with Poovalur Srinivasan (Trichy Sankaran's nephew) for a little while in the mid 00's.

    Looking forward to more from this site!


    1. Thanks Dustin! I've met Poovalur Srinivasan a few times...great guy. I'm in a slow period these days, but rest assured, more is coming!