I love playing the Tabla drums. You can be much more creative on them than you can on the Western-style Drum kit and the rhythms are every bit as difficult – in some ways more so.
I have enjoyed learning the Tabla for the last two years (though I had an enforced six months off while in the UK last year) and have learned much more about Asian classical music as a result; much more than I learned when I studied ethnomusicology at university many moons ago.
Likewise, I have had lessons on the Sitar for about 1 ½ years and learned a huge amount about ragas and the general concept behind learning an ‘Indian’ instrument. I can understand why both instruments are considered to meditative – you can end up playing for hours just the same set of exercises or phrases; not just to gain control and accuracy but also to develop the nuances – a microtonal tweak here or an upper mordant there. One could argue that this should be the same with western instruments and traditional wisdom says you have to spend hours playing even small phrases on an instrument if you wish to master it.
As a music teacher for 20 years I can some truth in this though I teach my students that it is better to practise smart than practise hard; 20 minutes of careful, concentrated work is better than an hour of mindless repetitive playing. But anyway when I have practised such things in the past I always found it gruelling and simply a means to an end: to play music with control and fluency. Playing the Sitar and Tabla, however, are a joy to practise repetitively because you just get lost in the sounds and definitely feel yourself becoming part of the instrument.
Both instruments – once tuned – I can just as easily play in the dark (and did so once – see here) because of this wonderful sensation that these are not instruments to master, as we think of in the West, but partners in a dance made for just the two of you. Without wanting to sound overly erotic, it is a little like learning the Tango – with all the sensuality that comes with that.
But…pain comes with it. More than I’ve ever experienced before with any of the instruments I play – Piano, Guitar, Saxophone, Harmonica, Drum kit etc… – there is a feeling at times that I just can’t play anymore. The fingers of each hand with the Tabla are active all the time and it feels like I am exercising every single muscle in my hands, wrists and arms when playing. With the sitar – which uses one main finger on each hand – there is the pain from the main string shredding your left first finger and the mizrab (plectrum) that grips your right first finger so tightly that even my Asian teacher’s finger turns white and leaves an indent so deep it takes the whole day to lose.
Again, this pain is not unknown to musicians in the West – though I maintain it is more intense than I ever experienced while learning as a teenager. But despite being used to this and now being able to sit cross-legged on a floor for over an hour at a time when I play without losing all sensation to my lower limbs, even I wasn’t expecting the pain I was about to experience.
A few weeks ago, after a wonderful Tabla lesson, I cleared up where my teacher and I had been sitting. We had been working in my daughter’s room because there was more space there. I picked up the tea cups from the floor where we had been playing and stood up fast – right under Thing I’s door handle!
“BANG,” my head and door handle said together.
“OUCH,” said I (it is possible I used different words to that but they meant the same thing…)
“Drip” went the blood.
And it kept on dripping…lots of it. My wifey shot through, flinched at the sight and then kicked into ‘mother’ mode (for which I was very grateful) and got me to the bathroom as the blood now flowed freely to wash the wound.
An hour and a few painkillers later and I finally had a stitched head. I got Thing I to take a photo with my phone.
For 15 days it hurt like mad and for the first few ‘leaked’ every night onto my pillow. For nearly a week I couldn’t wash my hair and I ended up doing a ‘wash around the spot’ because I couldn’t bear it any longer! I was grateful when the swelling and pain went down and I could finally shampoo over it again.
Eventually the stitches fell off and I was left with a lovely scar to prove my adventure. It is unlikely to fade completely, I’m told, but that’s fine.
In the week that followed I saw both my music teachers on separate occasions. They both did the same thing:
They came into the house, were ushered to the floor where the instruments were sat ready to use and invited to sit. They positioned themselves and readied themselves to play as their water and cha were brought to them. Then they both looked up and looked at me, as if for the first time.
“Hey,” they both said to me in Bangla, “what happened to your head?”