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Interview with David Courtney (Revisited)

1st interview | 2nd interview | 3rd interview

by T.A. Reddy, MD

image of tabla

T. A. Reddy conducted this interview with David Courtney following the annual summer camp in Midland, Texas (2003).

TAR: David it has been several years since I conducted my first interview with you.  I am glad that I have this opportunity now to go to the second part of the interview.  Before we immerse ourselves in the world of tabla, let me start by asking you about your new found hobby of target shooting.

DRC: - Well first of all, I don't think that I could call it so much of a "newfound" hobby as much as a "renewed" interest.  As a child spending my summers at my great-great-aunts house in a little place called Altair, Texas.  I spent quite a lot of time around the place dealing with firearms, horses and all the other stereotypical aspects of life in Texas.  As I grew older and spent much more time in the city, it was not possible to maintain my interest in these subjects.  However with the rise in popularity of indoor shooting ranges, it has become practical for me to renew my interests.

There is one other reason why I have renewed my interest in theses affairs.  The recent rise in fascism in the United States has caused me to be greatly concerned.  I have therefore embarked upon my own personal Bill of Rights project.  This is part of this endeavor.

I would like to extend my thanks to you for helping me get back into it.

TAR: David, what would be a good age to start learning tabla and what would be considered too old to start learning?

DRC: - 6-8 years is a good age to start.  I will try as young as 6, but I find the majority of children are simply too young; they simply do not have the fine motor skills.  At 7 years, it is roughly 50-50, while at 8 I found that only about 25% of the students are too young.  As far as an upper age, I really do not think that there is an age where one is too old to start.

TAR: Being a late starter myself, I am curious to see what your experience has been working with older students.  Amongst older tabla students what physical problems have you noticed?  What do you perceive to be the cause for these physical problems and do you have any remedial advise for the older beginner.

DRC: - I think the older student actually has some advantages, but a lot has to do with ones expectations.  If you are 40 years old and you suddenly get the urge to quit your job and become one of the world's top ranking tabla players in the next year, it simply is not going to happen.  However, if your desire is to just do some simple accompaniment for bhajans at the local mandir, an older student actually has an advantage.

The advantages that the older students have over the younger ones are in their mentality.  Adults have the ability to take a task and sit with it for as many months or years that it takes to complete it.  Children do not have this capacity.  Adults can do the necessary practice by themselves without being coaxed, threatened, or having to be bribed with toys, children do not.

Admittedly there is a marked decrease in neural flexibility, but I think that this is more than compensated by the increased ability to focus and practice.

This is not to say that there are not some difficulties.  The most common difficulty is sitting cross legged on the floor.  However with a modest amount of practice anyone can do this with ease after a few months.

TAR: David, now I would like to go into the tabla instruction itself for clarification.  I do not look at this as "dumbing down" but by judging the enquiries posted on the tabla site I felt there is a need.

I would like to start with the "Gharana" concept first - Can you please, (a) simplify the gharanas in a nutshell and  (b) what is your feeling about the gharana based talim (education) in modern times.  (c) what are the fundamental differences in the technique (d) and the utilization of different gharanas' technique in the art of playing.

DRC: - The gharanas were complex social structures that were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries that were roughly comparable to guilds.  They had a number of components, some educational and some political.

However today, the gharana is largely just a token.  If one attempts to strictly adhere to the style and technique of any particular gharana it is professionally "the kiss of death".  No single gharana has sufficient tools to allow one to do everything that is expected of a tabla player in today's world.

When we talk of fundamental differences in techniques we find that in the old days there were very different approaches to technique.  We can generally group them into two overall philosophies, the Delhi (dilli) approach and the Purbi approach.  The Ajrada and Delhi gharanas tended toward the Delhi style, while Lucknow, Farukhabad, and Benares tended toward the Purbi style.  The Punjab Gharana became a tabla gharana at a very late date.  In the process it acquired both Purbi as well as Delhi characteristics.

Today the professional tabla players routinely mix the techniques.  I feel that in the coming decades, we will see the technical differences disappear entirely.

TAR: Who is the creator of TiRaKiTa, is it Ustad Ahmad Jahan Tirakwa?  How are the words played to get the crisp sound?  How is this compound word used in playing?

DRC: - This is indeed a complex topic.  To begin with Ahmad Jan Tirakwa did not invent the TiRaKiTa.  It has been around for a very long time.

Now the use of TiRaKiTa (also known as TiRaKaTa or TeReKeTa) is varied.  At one time I tried to count all of the versions I had seen and I stopped counting in the mid 20s.  There are just too many.

I feel that it is necessary to know at least four or five styles or one will be at a technical disadvantage.  There is no one TiRaKiTa that is universally applicable.  Different versions have different advantage and disadvantages.

TAR: Please give some pointers as to the DhiRaDhiRa word also.  Some would like to play the left hand Ga with the first DhiRa and also the second DhiRa.  Do you have any feeling one way or the other?

DRC: - No, they are both valid approaches.

TAR: Can you say a few words about the use of right hand 5th and 4th fingers on the right drum while playing conjoint words such as GiDaNaGa.

DRC: - This is indeed a tough question.  These are linked to concepts of alternate techniques and transitions.  I am presently working on a new book / CD set in which I am devoting an entire chapter to this very issue.  I am afraid I could not do justice to the issue in a few sentences so you must forgive me if I just say nothing here.

TAR: Can you please explain the utilization of Dynamics, Modulation and Ornamentation while playing tabla.

DRC: - Dynamics, modulation and ornamentation are three very important ways in which ones playing can be brought to life.

Dynamics is a topic that deals with how loud strokes are played.  This is an artistic call so there is no one approach, however here are a few "rules of thumb".

The right hand in Tin and Dhin should be very soft, at times barely audible.  If one plays this too loudly it brings out overtones that causes it to sound like Ta and Dha.

Na, Ta, and Dha should have a right hand which is fairly strong and loud.

Whenever the boll density increases (e.g., double time or quadruple time from TiRiKiTa, Dha- TiTaGiDaNa Ga, etc.)  One should make an effort to play them loudly and forcefully while slow single times one should make an effort to pull back and resist the temptation to play these strokes too loudly.

These are of course just some general recommendations.  One should always follow ones artistic sense.

Modulations are the way in which one bends the left hand.  There is no specific recommendation that I can make except that the student should spend a lot of time on this topic.

The ornamentation is the "massala" that is thrown into ones performances, especially of the theka / prakar.  Again this is an artistic call, one should feel what is appropriate and when something should be done.  I am afraid that I have no specific recommendations.

TAR: David I hope I can ask this question in a way to express what I really want to ask.  Can you explain the relation ship or sequence of the right hand fingers to that of the left hand fingers in order to keep the words flowing smoothly, effectively and producing a pleasing sound.

DRC: - No - It is just a matter of practice.

TAR: Thank you David.  When your time permits, in the third part of the interview I would like to go in to the theoretical aspects of playing tabla.  I hope it is not going to be an other five years!

DRC: - Thank you.





Selected Videos - (Bio)

Chandra and David - (Part 1)


Chandra and David - (Part 2)


Chandra and David - (Part 3)


Chandra and David - (Part 4)


Chandra and David - (Part 5)



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For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at david@chandrakantha.com