Sitar Lesson Nine
by Ashwin Batish
Proper Hand Position and Sitar Holding Technique
Start your Sitar Engines
Before you get carried away, in deep meditation, to the most celestial of places promising nirvana, yes, there are a few more chores to work on. Repetition is the key to getting it right. My kids, a 6 year old and a 3 year old have the same attitude when I ask them to brush their teeth. “Oh no, it’s the same old brushing again!” They would rather not do it. What they don't understand is that to keep their teeth clean is not a once only job. It a daily activity that will provide fruits in the long run. They are not to blame, after all they have a Lambrogini and are being told to drive in the 25 mph zone.
Such is also the nature of learning an instrument. It takes daily practice and constant "Dhyaan" or meditation to make it bear fruits. So, When you take your sitar in your hands, remember, you are in it for the long haul. Question what ever you do and do what you have to with full concentration. If there is a teacher present, good, but if you are on your own, be your own best critic. Many students are asked to sit and play while facing a mirror. This actually gives them an insight on their sitting positions, if their hands are looking correct, their sitting posture etc. Many catch themselves making silly gestures and faces that they can then correct before presenting themselves in public where they might trigger redicule or laughter..
Well, sitar playing requires a lot of prep work. It might seem like a lot of drudgery but if you don’t get it right now you will never have the fluidity that a lot of your favorite sitar players emanate.
Let’s look at some of the basics and see where you are at:
- You have a sitar with a quality set of strings of the right gauge for your playing style.
- You have it tuned well.
- You know how to hold it right
- Next, you need to make sure your hands are placed properly.
It is critical that both your hands be placed properly on your sitar else you’ll have tired hands and fingers and your tone will be un predictable. Initially, it might seem awkward but with practice it’ll start to make sense and you’ll learn to believe in it.
Whatever holding position you are are going to use, here are a few things you should keep in mind.
1. make sure the sitar is at least 10 - 12 inches away from your chest. Many students will hug the sitar so close to their chest that it is almost impossible to maneuver over the fret board.
2. Don’t make the mistake of looking over the fretboard as you play the sitar. There is a natural tendency to look at your fingers as they run over the various frets while you try playing your sitar. Avoid this behavior. It’ll not only give you a sore neck but will totally destroy your hand positions. No folks, this is not a guitar! Ideally, one should do so much practice that their eyes don’t have to do the playing. One should be able to look away from the instrument and still keep playing without errors. Yes, that takes a bit of practice but the music starts to sound more from the soul than a technical routine. But, there is a way to look at what you’re doing in the event you need to have a handle on visualizing the next sitar lic and here’s how this works. Hold the sitar away from you as mentioned above, now look at the back of the sitar. Do you see those fret tying threads? Well, there you have a visual! right behind these threads are your sitar frets! So forget about looking at the front of the sitar fretboard. You can look at the fret tying threads at the back of your sitar’s fretboard and know which fret you’re playing. Isn’t that cool secret? OK, now you can stop making those frequent trips to the chiropractor to straighten your neck!
3. Now, as you are looking at the back of your sitar, at the various fret tying threads, count the threads from the top of your sitar until you reach the 7th fret. Place your index finger on this fret and visually you should see your thumb resting on the back of the fret board right behind the fret thread. You index finger should be resting, pressing down on the string, right behind the fret. Remember this well. It should not be “ON” the fret or somewhere in the “MIDDLE” of the 6th and 7th fret. The reason for this is that if your finger is “ON” the fret the tone will sound dull and muted. If it is in the middle of the 6th and 7th fret, the tone will not be stable. It’ll rise in pitch as you press down on the string. This is a common problem with beginning students. It is hard to get accuracy and play exactly at the right place behind each fret. The normal tendency is to play a little further behind the fret and this pressure on the string tends to deflect the string pitch. The result is a horrible up and down deflection that can make a listener want to run to the nearest heavy metal shop and cleanse their ears on Metalica! Well maybe that is too drastic. :)
But if you play right behind the fret, where if you were to go any further towards the fret the tone would start to dull, then that’s the right place to be. This can be a bit of a challenge
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