When I moved to Zürich last year, I was drawn to percussion in general. I played around with a drum-kit, and I loved it. The coordination required to keep time and play the right notes takes my mind somewhere else. I get to focus only on the current moment, because if I don’t, I’m going to miss the next beat.

I find the tabla unlike many other percussive instruments in that:

  • One of the drums (the daāyā) has to be tuned to the tonic of the scale on which the melody is based and,
  • The other drum (the baãyā) is also tuned, but its pitch is manipulated during play using the heel of the player’s hand.

It is the second point above that really drew me to the tabla. For instance, this jugalbandhi between Hariprasad Chaurasia’s flute and Zakir Hussain’s tabla where he mimics the flute on the baãyā, or this piece where the player uses the bass drum to add a playful and fluid envelope around the percussive and unpredictable daāyā.

Finding a Tabla teacher in Switzerland was surprisingly easy for me. I just posted on an internal mailing list at work, asking for a teacher, and got a contact. We first evaluated whether the instrument really was for me, and it turns out that I enjoy it a lot. It requires full concentration from me. I thought this could be an artifact of novelty, but I am told that this may not be the case, since there is always a way of stepping up the difficulty of any piece by breaking it down in different ways, or by accentuating different parts.

For me though the most difficult part so far has been to play a clear and loud Na. You see, each note that you can play on a tabla has a name, and together, they form a little language. In the Hindustani tradition, a tabla player must, in addition to playing them, be able to say the notes. The next step is then to string together these notes into phrases, and players must also be able to sing these phrases. As an example, check this piece out where the tabla.

To avoid picking up bad habits, one has to be extremely careful with the hand positioning. The problem for me is focusing on strength building in the hand while also making sure the hand is held in the right way, with the little and ring fingers relaxe, and the middle finger stretched out, and with the thumb not swaying too far from the index finger, and with only the tip of the index finger hitting the very edge of the drum,… you get the idea.

But I now have a nice tabla. My teacher picked it for me, and it is beautiful.

Here’s a video of a friend (a very good tabla player) and me playing a basic piece he taught me. Notice how I struggle with my right hand to keep the ring finger straight, and how I forget to play the bass drum sometimes (the piece is Dha Dha Thi Ta Dha Dha Tin Na; Ta Ta Thi Ta Dha Dha Dhin Na):

I will make another video like this next year and play like my friend (and possibly be able to play faster).