My First Tabla Performance, Tabla Niketan

Getting ready to play!

Oh boy! This has been one of the busiest times I’ve had in my professional career. I’ve had international and domestic recordings, travel,  and concerts up the wazoo since August. The tabla lessons  I started in February 2016, were on hold during February 2017.

In March, Satish, my teacher and head of  Tabla Niketan,  started lessons again. He wanted me to play on the concert he holds each year in April or May  to honor his late father and tabla mentor. Do I have time to perform in a tabla ensemble? Not really, but I wanted to so very much.

He gave me two Kaidas in Teental (16 count groove), one based on TiTa, and the other based on TiRaKiTa. What does that mean?  A Kaida is the variation part of Theme and Variations, we Western musicians love so much. The Theme part is similar to a melody or harmonic structure a classical or jazz composer  uses to create music. TiTa and  TiRaKiTa represent certain bols (words/strokes) on the tabla that are expanded from the basic theme of the Teental “groove”.

“These Kaidas will be very easy for you to play”, said Satish. Guess what. They were. However!!! I was so pressed for time, what with the commissions, concerts, and recordings, I was only able to attend one rehearsal. I pleaded to be let off. “I really want you to play, ” he said. Now, I’m terrified. Nope, no, no. I had to participate or lose respect for myself and dis my teacher.

Not only do I not know exactly if we’re playing single speed or double speed, I will have to sit on the floor, on stage, in front of a zillion people. I have arthritis in my ankles, my knees are iffy. Getting up and down gracefully…ugh, major anxiety. I have a drum throne and tabla stand at home; no can do at the concert. Satish appoints another student to help me up and down, I am relieved.

I don’t remember the order of the variations, so I brought a ‘cheat sheet’ with me on stage. I am not embarrassed because I know the kaidas, but it’s why I keep looking down on the video. After we finished playing, several people asked me why I tipped the Bayan (small drum, right hand) so far to the right, instead of to the left in the usual way. Answer: I broke my arm when I was a child and can’t pronate it.

The stage is set in tiers with tablas lined up, all tuned together. Between sets, a ton of tabla tuners descend and get all the drums back to the correct pitch.

My group on stage performing

If you look to the sides on the video, you will see Satish clapping, hoping against all hope, that we will all stay on tempo. The two women teachers on either side, are chanting the bols as we play them. Unfortunately, we students couldn’t hear them, while the recording picks them up perfectly. Why do we have teachers reciting and clapping? Because, that’s how we practice at home, and it’s comforting to hear.

An important element in learning to play tabla, is to recite the bols while clapping or playing, to fix them in your mind. When I’m learning a new theme or kaida, I recite it in rhythm over and over while clapping or playing with the Lehra, a metronome melody.

Western percussionists also use this method.  Here’s a Paradiddle example.

I’m 65 years old. I’m a beginner. The youngest player in my group is 6. His mom is one of the teachers chanting the bols. He’s adorable. I just wanted to scoop him up and hug him.

Watch the video right here.

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