Blowing Techniques

Blowing is possibly the most important part of any woodwind instrument. Blowing controls tone of the Bansuri (along with its physical makeup and characteristics). A cleanly and colorfully blown Bansuri enlivens the music you are creating. Even if you play a simple scale with clean blow and hitting right notes, it sounds like music.

Clean Blow

How do you define a clean blow? A clean blow should have the following characteristics at the very least –

  1. Ability to play all notes across two octaves effortlessly. This is hard for the beginners especially when hitting lower notes as well as higher notes
  2. Ability to change octaves – ma to pa jump – without noticeable break. Ma involves all holes open while Pa involves all holes closed. To go from Ma to Pa, not only one has to change fingering from all open to all closed, but also double blowing pressure. Many beginners do this by blowing inordinately harder making this break sound very harsh.
  3. Ability to play all notes without any undue hissing sounds. Hissing sounds must be distinguished from natural micro-tones that emanate from the embouchure.
  4. Ability to play the same note at different levels of volume without sharpening or flattening the note. To change volume, one usually has to blow harder or softer. This results in pitch sharpening or flattening. One should be able to compensate for that either through the lip positioning or by rotating the bansuri in or out.
  5. Ability to blow one note cleanly and uniformly, without any change in the tone of the note for at least 30 sec.

Remember, it helps to pause and think how you want your Bansuri to sound before you actually try to get that sound.

Volume Control

One of the most important aspect of Bansuri playing is the volume control. You can play the Bansuri at uniform volume, but it would sound monotonous. When you employ volume control i.e. play some notes louder or softer than others, it significantly enhances the overall impact of your performance.

At a simplistic level, blowing softer or reducing pressure makes the note sound softer and blowing harder or increasing pressure makes the note sound hard. However, in reality it is not that simple. When you either increase or decrease pressure of blowing, the note tends to move from its place and sound flatter or sharper. You will need to compensate this. This can be done in two ways. More commonly, this is done through the movement of upper and lower lips. Less commonly, this can also be done through turning the Bansuri outwards or inwards.

If you are trying to reduce volume and blow softer, you will need to compensate to increase the pitch (as the note will have tendency to play flatter). You can do this by gradually changing the relative position of your lips in such a way that your upper lip slides slightly backwards and lower lip slides slightly forward compared to the neutral position. Conversely, if you are trying to increase the volume, you will have to blow harder or increase pressure, and slide the upper lip a little forward.

You may also compensate the note by turning flute outwards or inwards. To compensate for increasing or sharpening pitch, you should turn the flute inwards. To compensate for decreasing or flattening pitch, you should turn the flute outwards.

Kampan or Vibrato

Kampan or shaking of the note is a form of Gamak or Ornamentation in Hindustani music. (more on ornamentation here). Kampan is an equivalent of Vibrato in western music. When used judiciously, it brings life and color into long notes and enhances Alaps.

To get Kampan in the Bansuri, you will need quite a bit of control on the diaphragm that separates your lung area and abdominal cavity. The syllable “Ha” uses this diaphragm and hence the orchestration of Kampan on flute almost involves saying “Ha Ha Ha Ha” while blowing. It is usually more difficult to get these oscillations in controlled slower way than faster way.

Blowing and Stamina

When students start learning Bansuri initially, they face all sorts of hurdles due to lack of stamina. The stamina to blow Bansuri has completely different characteristics compared to say, stamina required for a 100m dash. The breathing has to be very deep, uniformly controlled and abdominal. Abdominal breathing makes use of the abdominal cavity. Breathing for Bansuri also needs the ability to quickly breath in and slowly breath out – a bit like in swimming.

Many of these characteristics are similar to the breathing practiced in Pranayama (a Yogic breathing technique). It takes a while to control your breathing habbits and that is what makes this instrument rather difficult and frustrating initially. Beginners can sometimes get a feeling of light headedness, temporary dizziness etc. I used to practice a form of Pranayama called Ujjayi Pranayama and initially, I got these same feelings. These are very temporary (unless you have any cardiovascular issues, in which case, you should consult your physician before attempting this) and disappear in a minute or two from the time you take a pause.

Stamina for playing the flute builds over time as you practice longer. It also helps to take those small pauses between phrases and pieces you play on the Bansuri, recognizing that this is not a continuous instrument like say, Sitar.