Dec 18 2009

As One Adventure Ends.. So Another Begins…

Hello folks,

Well the last few months have indeed been an exciting time. As you’ll know from my last post, the National’s production of Mother Courage & Her Children has officially finished now. I must say it was a rather sad day when we played the last two performances. They were definitely the best shows of the run and the audiences were fantastic. There is all manner of talk regarding the possibility of touring the production next year and I shall of course let you know when anything becomes definite. I’m pretty sure that it won’t be the last we hear from Mother Courage.
Incidentally, there is a marvelous article on Fiona Shaw in todays Independent. Well worth a look if you have a spare five minutes. And don’t forget to order your copy of the Mother Courage album form the Duke Special Store. We’ve had some great feedback about the album. And an exciting development is afoot on the Duke’s website. Fans can now become more involved with the release of the new three-disc boxed set via Duke Special Pledges. This is a brand new way to get hold of the Duke’s music and gain access to exclusive demos, rough mixes and live tracks to videos, tour diaries and photographs from the road. And a percentage of the Pledge will be donated to DePaul Ireland. You can find more information on the Pledge Music website.
As one adventure ends… so another begins…
I have been interested in Indian classical music since I was a teenager and have always listened to classical artists such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Vilayat Khan, as well as the more jazz-influenced artists such as Trilok Gurtu and John McLaughlin’s band Shakti. As Mother Courage came to a close, I was looking for a new project to occupy my (now considerable!) free time. So I decided to learn sitar!
A couple of weeks ago I ventured forth into Southall to the fantastic Jas Musicals where I met the lovely and very knowledgeable owner Harjit. I discovered that they hold classes (both individual and group lessons) in a space under the shop and then went about the tricky business of buying an instrument that I have no idea how to play!

Luckily Harjit was incredibly helpful and put me on the right track. I went for the slightly more expensive ‘Super Deluxe’ model (essentially a prettier version of the one below it seems) and booked my first lesson. I returned to the shop last week to meet my teacher Gush without a clue as to even sit with the instrument properly. It is amazing how much misinformation there is online regarding playing the sitar. I have found numerous websites giving me completely different accounts as to the tuning, sitting position and playing technique. I was also determined to learn properly from a teacher from the outset rather than form a host of bad habits from YouTube!
In my first lesson Gush showed me the proper half-lotus sitting position and how to tune the sitar properly with the aid of an electronic tanpura. Having demonstrated various playing techniques, we then moved on to the Indian solfege (the Sargam) and a series of exercises to get me used to playing up and down the neck. Just so you know (and partly to remind myself), the Swaras are as follows;
Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa.
These are the Shudha notes (ie; natural). And seeing as the Sitar is generally tuned to a C#, they translate to Western notation as follows;
C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C#
In Indian music notation, the Swaras are represented by the letter names rather than notes on a stave as in Western music. Flattened notes are known as Komal (only Re Ga Dha and Ni can be Komal) and Ma can be sharpened to Ma Thevar. Singing is integral to learning the music so learning the Swaras will be my main objective this week through the exercises I have been given.
I have already booked my next session with Gush for next week and have been practicing all week. In fact, I haven’t enjoyed practicing like this for such a long time it has already proved incredibly therapeutic. Gush also recommended listening to lots of different musicians which has given me a great excuse to walk around with my iPod for hours on end. Joy!
I’m intending to post fairly regularly here about my experiences as I learn to play the sitar. Both as a kind of online practice diary for myself but also for anyone who might be learning. I have discovered some useful websites (having sifted through all the dross) which may prove useful to anyone with an interest in either the sitar or Indian music in general;
Sharda has possibly the best beginners lessons and some useful Alankars for those interested in learning the sitar.
SitarsEtc has some good information as to some of the tuning alternatives (Ravi Shankar or Vilayat Khan style)
The University of California at Berkeley has a great Hindustani music resource page which I have used to download free tanpura loops to practice with (until I get an electronic tanpura). And let me tell you, practicing with a proper tanpura drone is a joy. I really recommend it if you are starting out.

And here are a few of the exercises I am currently working on…
S.ND, NDP, DPM, PMG, MGR, GRS (The dot after/above Sa denotes the higher octave)
Should keep me busy until next Tuesday. I’ll let you know how I get on. Until then…