Practicing Scales

We now come to one of the most important and interesting aspect of learning Hindustani Classical music. In many forms of world music, composition and rendering is done by two different persons. In Western Classical music, for example, a piece may have been composed by Bach or Mozart and is rendered on an instrument by Classical instrumentalists. In Hindustani Classical music by contrast, the music is composed and rendered simultaneously. While structure, temperament and mood of a raga is conventionally defined, a good Hindustani musician would present it in a completely different manner every time he interprets the raga. In other words, he composes and renders the raga at the same time.

For this process to work flawlessly, two things are of utmost important:

1)      Creativity of developing musical ideas, themes and patterns in the brain one after the other rapidly, and

2)      Having strong command over the instrument or voice to reproduce these creative ideas seamlessly

If a musician lacks in either of these, his musical progress will be severely impaired. For example, say you have a wonderful musical brain, but no command on the instrument, you are likely to get bogged down in reproduction of ideas, and chances are that your ideas will dry out as your mind gets preoccupied with the reproduction part of it. Similarly, it does not help to have excellent command on your instrument if what it produces does not form musical themes.

The concept of Alankaars helps certainly with getting command over the instrument. It also arguably helps with musical creativity in that practicing various Alankaar patterns trains your brain to think musically. I am sure there is a lot of controversy about this last point, but Alankaar practice is a time tested phenomenon. All leading Hindustani musicians would tell you how they spent long hours practicing Alankaars.

The word Alankaar literally means “Ornament” in Hindi. In other words, these are musical ornaments created to decorate a scale or a raga. Alankaars are also known as paltas.

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Practicing to play Alankaars in Hindustani Music is bit like weight training. Basic rules of weight training are to start with simple exercises with light weights. As you get comfortable with light weights, you increase repetitions and/or increase the weight you are lifting. You also focus on muscle group you work on. You go to heavier and more complex exercises after you feel comfortable with the basic exercises.

Just like with weight training, you start with simple Alankaar combinations in slow tempo. As you get comfortable with the tempo and feel that you can play the combinations successfully with each note equally spaced from the other, you increase the tempo slightly and repeat the combination. As you get comfortable in playing the combination in fast tempo, you can increase the speed further till you can really play it well in fastest possible tempo. You can then add more complexity to the pattern or work on a new pattern. Every time you add a newer pattern to your practice, make sure that you are exercising some combination that you are not comfortable with.

As you do this over a long period of time, you will find that your comfort with the instrument increases and even a completely new pattern that you had never played seems easy to play. You will also notice that your thinking in producing these patterns in your mind becomes faster.

If you are learning to play Bansuri, do spend as much time on this practice in the beginning as possible. Before you attain at least some level of comfort with this, do not even bother to proceed to play ragas.

Table below provides a few simple Alankaars for practice. These tables show patterns and their articulation in Kalyan scale. However, same patterns can be practiced in any other scale.

While tables below provide full articulation, try to think the articulation through based on pattern. Convention used in this table is to denote notes in lower octave with a comma (i.e. P, means Pa in the lower octave) and notes in higher octave are succeeded with apostrophe (i.e. P’ means Pa in the higher octave). Notes in the middle octave are simply represented by the letter itself (i.e. P means Pa in the middle octave.

Another important thing is to try and play these patterns without referring to the articulation. The idea is to train your own mind to create these articulations “on-the-fly”.

Lastly, you may also try to combine these articulations with one another. For example, you may mix and match ascent and descent (i.e. ascending pattern of 12 while descending pattern of 123). Another way to mix these is to make them little more complex (i.e. ascending pattern of 121212, 232323 etc. instead 12, 23).

Patterns of Two Notes

Pattern 12

Articulation

P,D,; D,N,; N,S; SR; RG; GM; MP; PD; DN; NS’; S’R’; R’G’; G’M’; M’P’

M’P’; G’M’; R’G’; S’R’; NS’; DN; PD; MP; GM; RG; SR; N,S; D,N,; P,D,

Pattern 21

Articulation

D,P,; N,D,; SN,; RS; GR; MG; PM; DP; ND; S’N; R’S’, G’R’; M’G’; P’M’

P’M’; M’G’; G’R’; R’S’; S’N’ ND; DP; PM; MG; GR; RS; SN,; N,D,; D,P,

Pattern 13

Articulation

P,N,; D,S; N,R; SG; RM; GP; MD; PN; DS’; NR’; S’G’; R’M’; G’P’

G’P’; R’M’; S’G’, NR’; DS’; PN; MD; GP; RM; SG; N,R; D,S; P,N

Pattern 31

Articulation

N,P,; SD,; RN,; GS; MR; PG; DM; NP; S’D; R’N’; G’S’; M’R’; P’G’

P’G’; M’R’; G’S’; R’N; S’D;’NP; DM; PG; MR; GS; RN,; SD,; N,P,

Pattern 18

Articulation

P,P; D,D; N,N; SS’; RR’; GG’; MM’; PP’

Patterns of Three Notes

(Try writing down the articulation for the patterns listed below. Coming up with pattern and articulating it on the fly is an important part of Hindustani music. It takes some practice both of the instrument and that of the mental mathematics, but it is important that you move away from writing down articulations before you play).

Pattern 123

Pattern 321

Pattern 132

Pattern 213

Pattern 12-

(The dash represents pause for that beat)

Pattern 112

Pattern 121

Pattern 131

Patterns of Four Notes

Pattern 1112

Pattern 2121

Pattern 1212

Pattern 1211

Pattern 1231

Pattern 3213

Pattern 1234

Pattern 1321

Pattern 123-

Pattern 1221

Patterns of Five Notes

Pattern 12345

Pattern 12123

Pattern 12121

Things to Watch Out for

Since the objective of practicing Alankaars is to bridge the gap between mind and the instrument, Bansuri presents some peculiar challenges. These are:

  1. Depending on the scale we play, fingering in Bansuri will present more or less difficulties. To play Kalyan scale (explained later), one opens all fingering holes fully and therefore, it is much easier to play than Bhairavi scale (also explained later) wherein you open each fingering hole partially. Then there are some other scales where you can open some holes fully and some partially. Each of these scales presents different fingering challenge. If you can play fluently in Kalyan scale does not automatically mean that you can play fluently in Bhairavi scale. As a result, it is important to practice the Alankaars in multiple scales.
  2. When you play the full octave on Bansuri, the jump from Ma (forth) to Pa (fifth) requires change of register. To do this, you will have to change fingering from all six holes open to all six holes closed[1] and blow a bit harder. This presents a challenge, especially when you do it to play fast patterns. It will be even more challenging if the scale you are playing does not have Ma and you are required to jump rapidly from Ga (third) to Pa. In every Alankaar, provide a special emphasis to this jump so that this jump does not sound any different from any other combination you play on the Bansuri.
  3. The most important thing about practicing the Alankaars is to get the fingers moving and get the clarity in notes that you are playing. It is NOT about playing patterns fast, even though that will be the byproduct of your practice. Remember, the clarity means that you get a sense of flow in whatever you are playing. The sense of flow develops when the notes you are playing are exactly equidistant in time. This means that if you are playing the pattern 123, 234 etc. the distance between 1 and 2 and 3 should be exactly identical. Also the distance between the two blocks (123 and 234) should be identical in time. If you try playing too fast, you will not get the flow. It is best to start slow, make sure that you get the flow at slow pace and then try to go fast little at a time.

Creating your own Alankaars

Now that you have practiced these few simple Alankaars, you can learn to create your own  Alankaars. Since one of the objectives of playing Alankaars rapidly is to train the brain to think the patterns rapidly, we stop spoon-feeding here and just show the patterns. You should initially take time to think through the pattern and the articulate them.

If you carefully study Alankaars shown in tables above, you will realize that they have certain building blocks[1].

1)      Repeating consecutive notes rapidly such as 12345.

2)      Skipping notes like 132435 or 142537 or even 18 (octave notes one after the other)

3)      Repeating notes like 112233 or 111222333

4)      Inserting pauses like 12-2, 23-3

5)      Creating patterns out of one or more above concepts and repeating these patterns such as 1231234, 2342345 etc. or 12121212, 23232323…

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[1] Indeed Alankaars themselves have no meaning except in the context of a Raga. For now, we are just practicing them to gain comfort with the instrument.

5 Responses to “Practicing Scales

  • How Can we practice these alankars with Taals? I mean how to set the taal compatible with the each alankar?

    • This is topic for a much longer discussion. Stay tuned for a couple of blog entries on this topic that I plan to write soon.

  • I have been practicing the bansuri since 2007 still I have little incomfort while playing the tivra Ma and suddh Ma and also difficulty in playing komal swaras of all notes give tips to me to overcome the problems

    thanking you

    • Mallik,
      There is only one answer – Practice, practice, practice. But I know you’ve heard that many times so I’ll try and add a bit from my own experience that might be of help. Take all the alankars you have and practice in the scale of Bhairavi. But, when you practice, pay attention to your notes not just by hearing but also visually by practicing in front of a mirror. Pay close attention to how your fingers are closing and opening and how that affects your notes. Play especially alankars that jump across notes but also play a lot of sapat.

      What pitch bansuri are you playing? Bansuris with slightly larger finger holes are easier to play komal swaras (at least initially) than bansuris with smaller finger holes. Finally, do you have a guru? If not, I’d highly recommend finding one since this is “gurmukhi vidya”.

      Just my two cents!
      Prasad – feel free to correct me or add to what I have said.

      Bibhas

      • I agree – takes lot of practice for komal notes. Apart from alankaars, try playing songs from Ragas like Bhairavi. It breaks the monotony of alankaars but also makes you think about slides across komal notes.

        Regarding tivra ma, make sure you are not playing it while your finger touches the bansuri. If you do that, you will not be able to play fast patterns cleanly.