This article was originally published in the ATA Fourth Annual Conference magazine - July 1996.
The Tabla is an ancient percussion instrument. This instrument is related to the other instruments frequently used in the Indian music such as the Mrudangam, Pakhawaj and Dholak. It is generally believed that the Tabla is a precise but a complex percussion instrument. If one knows how to play the Tabla, any other percussion instrument can be played with ease, of course with some practice.
There is much mystery attached to learning the art of Tabla playing. The reasons may be that until recently there has not been much written material about this learning process and there is no consistent, standardized pattern of playing. This was further complicated by the different stylistic schools, distinctive playing styles of individual tablists and introduction of Pakhawaj words into the Tabla language. Surprisingly, even today, Tabla playing is taught by verbal instruction without any written material. In this age of multimedia this deficiency could be easily remedied with audiovisual and text material.
It would be difficult to make a living solely by playing Tabla in the U. S. A. Since not many people can afford to spend full time learning the Tabla , it is essential that the teaching methods need to be adapted for the "part-time" student and be "student friendly". The Tabla faces, at least in the U. S. A., intense competition from "one man band" keyboard musical instruments. If this instrument is to survive the test of time, it is imperative that teaching methods should be adopted to modern times and lend itself to being played as a solo instrument for personal pleasure, and not promote it as a purely accompanying instrument.
The learning process of Tabla involves understanding of the following three fundamental concepts:
1. Learning the language: Learning the language of tabla is like learning any other language that we learnt during our lives. We start with alphabets, words, sentences and progress towards writing essays and poetry, etc. When we verbally communicate, we may utilize many variations of accents, dialects, and tonal qualities. Learning the Tabla language and playing is very similar. Knowledge of the Hindi language will be useful in learning this art. (Lack of it should not be made to stand as a barrier for the learning process as English equivalent terms may be used to convey the concept and meaning of the terms fairly well).
2. Home or Still Position: Familiarity with the typewriter, computer keyboard or piano finger positioning and home key concepts are useful. As the principle of playing the Tabla with the fingers of both hands is very similar.
3. Action of muscles: In playing the Tabla, we call into substantial action our non-dominant hand (left for the right handed person and vice versa). We use muscles and joints which we would not normally use as they are required in playing the Tabla. This is of greater importance to the older student, as a younger student hardly notices the imposition on the musculo-skeletal system.
The word Tabla is used broadly to describe both drums. Tabla is the actual name for the right (Hindi = Dayan) drum, which is made of wood and is the treble drum which keeps the time. The left (Hindi = Bayan) drum made of metal and is the bass drum used to create special effects. Besides these two names there are several different names for these instruments but remember simply the Right wooden drum and the left metal drum. Know the different parts of the drums as depicted in the pictures. Remember the computer keyboard and the home position concept.
Talcum powder is mandatory. A "hammer" is needed. Do not use the hammer if you are a beginner and are not familiar with the process of tuning, you may damage the drums. A metronome and auto tuner are optional for the beginner.
Practice sitting cross legged-yoga position. Start with brief periods. Sit with your back straight and shoulders square. Always check to see that there is no tension in the neck and shoulder muscles. If strokes are not coming right, check for these things periodically. Older students may find difficulty with this posture. Try a chair and table or a bench. The important point is to make sure the drums are not wobbly.
Remove watch from the left wrist, you may wear it on the right wrist if you so desire. It is better for the beginner to remove any rings from the fingers. The left metal drum, should be kept straight and upright on the floor. Keep left forearm parallel with the drum head and relaxed but firm. The heel of the left hand should always be touching the lower border of the black circle and never lift it from the drum. The middle and the ring fingers of the left hand should strike the drum in the narrow area between the black circle and the upper periphery in a hammer stroke fashion.
The right wooden drum is placed approximately 30 degrees tilted forward and left, towards the metal drum. The right hand fingers are positioned so that the right little and ring fingers touching the field and periphery at about 4:O'clock, middle finger in the center of the black circle, index finger at approximately 8 : O'clock position on the periphery and finally the thumb resting lightly on the braid at about 7: O'clock position. The right hand fingers should hit the drum with tension in them and the stroke is delivered from the wrist and knuckles straight in one line. Do not bring the elbow and shoulders into action at this stage of learning.
This article is intended to give an insight into the basics of learning to play the Tabla and not as an instruction for playing. This basic knowledge should help you find a teacher and talk meaningfully, follow instructions easily, and hopefully shorten the time for learning the fundamentals (shorten the learning curve!) of these exciting percussion drums.
Words - (Bols)
I. Single Words Produced only by the Right hand on the wooden drum (Dayan)
Na / Ta
Ti Te/Ti Ra
Da / na
II. Single Words produced only by the Left hand on the metal drum (Bayan)
Ga (2 finger)
Ga / ka (1 finger)
Ka (4 finger)
III. Joint words produced by the combination of Right & Left hand together
IV. Compound Words produced by the Right & Left hand - used sequentially:
Ti Ra Ki Ta
Gi Da Na Ga
Ki Da Na Ka
The author is a student of David R. Courtney of Houston (713 - 665 4665)
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© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 David and Chandrakantha Courtney
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