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Indian Classical Music - Philosophy

"Music is a conduit to the pure essence of the universe. Free yourself of all obstacles and distractions and tap into it."
-- Kerry Kriger, August 4, 2013

On learning music

What it takes to learn music

Indian Classical MusicI think that any intelligent person can learn music, given three things:

(1) The desire to learn: if you don't want it, it will never come.

(2) Dedicated practice: preferably daily, and the more you play the better you'll be. Professional musicians practice 4-8 hours daily...or more. I feel the first hour of the day is only getting you to the point you were at the day before, so it takes an hour just to break even, more to see improvement!

(3) A competent teacher (guru). A serious musician should always find the best teacher possible. A "self-taught" musician has as much chance at learning the complexities of music as a person has of learning calculus without ever having gone to math class. Private lessons will almost always be more beneficial than will group lessons.

"Mastery is not a function of genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge".
-- Robert Greene

"I'm not too musical"

I do not think people are born with musical talent. Those who are quicker to learn an instrument have likely just been exposed to more music in their life: one subconsciously learns music every time they hear it.

Nobody is born knowing how to do calculus. Calculus is learned through years of math classes that entailed countless hours of homework, all of which was taught in a systematic fashion, beginning with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, moving through geometry, algebra, and then trigonometry. Similarly, nobody is born knowing how to play music. While some people pick up an instrument faster than others, or appear to have better rhythm, or a better sense of pitch, this is likely due to that person having been exposed to more music in their life: listening is learning, whether the listener is consciously trying to understand and analyze the music or not.

"I'm too old to start learning music"

I do not think anybody is "too old to learn music". If you're lucky enough to have started playing music when you were seven years old, that's great; however, when you're 60 years old, how much difference will it have made whether you started when you were 7 or 27? And if it only takes a couple years to play quality music that people enjoy, why would it be a problem to start at 60?

"My hands aren't big enough"

Yes they are. My flute teacher was about 5'2" and played flutes much larger than mine. Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead guitarist) was missing part of a finger; Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath guitarist) was missing parts of two fingers; Django Reinhardt had two fingers badly burnt and consequently took all his guitar solos using two fingers. The point is, whatever you have is what you have: practice and make the most of it.

Your instrument

You should always have the best instrument possible, as your music will only be as good as the weakest link, which will either be your playing or the instrument. There is no reason to compromise all your hard work by having a poorly made instrument. A beginner who chooses an inexpensive "beginner's instrument" is more likely to quit solely because their music was bound to sound bad due to their poor quality instrument.

Reading music

It is imperative that any musician be able to read music. This enables you to more easily visualize the structure of the melody, and thus more thoroughly understand the intricacies of the music. It also enables you to play music at a future date, even if you had partially or entirely forgotten it, in which case it would have been lost forever.

Go see live music

It's good to have a vision of what you want to sound like or be able to do. Go get some inspiration: try to see at least two live musical performances every month. Meet other music lovers, enjoy yourself, immerse yourself in the music. It's fun and part of your learning experience, plus it supports the musicians you are seeing.

Can one teach themself music?

Music is so complex that there is no reason one should attempt to figure it out on their own. Some people think that being taught music would only hinder their personal expression as they feel they would be acquiring somebody else's style. I disagree. Being taught music allows you to more fully express yourself because you are able to conceptualize the music and make it into what you want it to be. Without the skills to make the music, how would one be able to fully express themselves?

Portable instruments

One of the best things about the bansuri (and one of the reasons I decided to play flute) is that it is portable. You can and should travel with your bansuri. The more it is with you, the more you will play and the better you will get. This means you can play music:
-- During lunch break outside your office;
-- while waiting for the bus, train, plane (some of my best music has been played in airports);
-- on your vacation
-- on the beach, mountaintop, or other beautiful place.

Build a case for your bansuri: I use PVC with a screw-on cap at one end; I drill holes in it so the flute can breathe and dry out, and I put a carabiner on it so I can attach it to my backpack.

There are lots of other small instruments that can fit in your bookbag: darabuka (drum), jew's harp, harmonica. I also suggest iPhone users get the Thumb Jam app by Sonosaurus and the Ocarina app by Smule, not only because they make nice music but there are times when it is not feasible to play flute -- in particular when volume must be kept down. The Thumb Jam app you can actually play music on with output to your headphones, perfect for use on the airplane! And why not put an instrument next to your computer for those times you're on the job with a few free minutes, or maybe you just need to de-stress a bit.


On learning and playing Indian Classical Music


Always play Indian Classical Music accompanied by a tanpura. Beginners should purchase an electronic tanpura, or download some tanpura tracks here. Your sense of pitch will develop much more quickly if you practice with a tanpura. To begin with, work on perfecting Sa, Pa and Ma, as they are the notes for which it is most noticeable when one is incorrect.

If you have an IPhone or ITouch, I highly recommend iTablaPro, which has great sounding, fully adjustable tanpura and tabla tracks...and it's probably with you at all times. Here are my iTablaPro Presets (last updated March 17, 2013). I suggest downloading them to your computer, emailing them to yourself. opening that email using your iOS device and then choose "Open in iTablaPro". NOTE: This will overwrite any existing preset(s) with the same name. I have "corrected" many of the default presetas by adjusting the mix of the volumes such that the swarmandal is generally around 20%; the tanpuras are lower volume than the tabla; so that the swarmandal melodies sound better to my ear; so that the tanpura notes are tuned to Sa, Ma or Pa depending on the raga. I also created presets for a few ragas that were not included with the original download.

Digital Tuner

Since we're on the topic of pitch, I strongly recommend every musician has a Korg CA-30 tuner: it's small, portable, cheap, and does everything one needs for Indian Classical Music. Otherwise, your iPhone or Android have tuner apps.

Tabla Machine

Another investment one should make early on if they plan to play Indian Classical Music is a tabla machine. It allows me to play in different taals (rhythms), in different layas (tempos), and has adjustable pitch, for different flutes. A tabla machine will reduce the time it takes before you are comfortable playing with a real tabla player, and will allow you to practice tricky rhtyhms without a tabla player, thereby engraining in your head the sounds and feels of the various thekas (drum "notes" used in the taals). If you have an IPhone or ITouch, I highly recommend the iTablaPro app, which has great sounding, fully adjustable tanpura and tabla tracks. Prior to the days of iPhones, I used the Riyazmaster tabla machine.


One of the primary differences between Indian Classical Music and western music is that the former uses "gamak" or other ornamentations on virtually all notes (except during "taans", which are fast runs). A gamak is generally played by putting a grace note on the main note that's being played. This grace note usually comes from above. Thus if I wanted to play Sa Re Ga, I would put a quick (barely audible) Re connecting to the Sa, a quick Ga connecting to the Re, and a quick Ma connecting to the Ga (assuming Ma is in the scale being played; if not, I would likely use Pa): RS, GR, MG. Similarly, to play Ga Re Sa, I would precede the Ga with a quick Ma, the Re with a quick Ma, and the Sa with a quick Ga: MG, MR, GS. I use gamaks on virtually all notes other than during taans. Gamaks produce a rounded feel to each note, and essentially double the amount of notes you are playing in each phrase. Gamaks are one of the most fundamental concepts of Indian Classical Music.


"The best tutorial for Gamaks on YouTube...Your way of presenting the material is par excellence...just can't wait for the next one :)"
-- Devinder Sethi

More coming

Coming soon, some general thoughts on meend, patterns, 4's, scales, etc...

Tchaikovsky on inspiration

"There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavoring to meet it halfway, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination." -- Peter Tchaikovsky

Poem by Rabindranath Tagore

The fairy mistress of dreams is coming towards you, flying through the twilight sky.
The world-mother keeps her seat by you in your mother's heart.
He who plays his music to the stars is standing at your window with his flute.
And the fairy mistress of dreams is coming towards you, flying through the twilight sky.