Monday, March 8, 2010

Parts of bansuri

Bansuri parts
The bansuri as the chosen instrument of Lord Krishna, is one of the oldest musical instruments of India.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Tonguing Technique

While fingering is the most visible aspect of Bansuri playing, tonguing and blowing are less visible but equally important techniques. Let’s discuss tonguing in this section.

The obvious purpose of tonguing is to create breaks in a continuous note. A less obvious purpose is also to create different colors to the break.

The idea of coloring the break is is almost like accents of English all over the world. If you listen to the same English phrase spoken by an Englishman or an Indian or an American, you can make out the difference. The thing to appreciate in this example is how much variation each of these accents creates to the basic phrase. And in music, as indeed in English speaking world, more the variation, the better it is.

Consider this example, let’s say, we want to break a note using tonguing.

First let’s play a simple note –long and continuous.

Then, let’s break it using continuous rhythmic pattern by using syllable Ra Ra

Now, let’s break it using the same pattern but by using syllable Ta Ta

Now, let’s make a combination Ta Ra Ta Ra

Now, let’s use the syllable Ka

Now, let’s use the syllable Pa

What did we observe? While the periodicity of break and the pattern of break is exactly identical, they do sound different with each type of syllable.

Let me elaborate this even further by using just the syllable Ta (as in tiger). When you say Ta, your tongue touches pretty much the top most part inside your mouth. Now say different accent of Ta (as in Taal). In this case, your tongue may be touching your front teeth.

Now play a long note on the Bansuri and then break it using both these variations of Ta.

Ta (Tiger) first

And Ta (Taal) next

Now, gradually move breaks from one extreme to the other (i.e. move the touch of your tongue from your front teeth to inside your mouth) and notice various accents that each break creates. Some of them are very discrete while others are very subtle.

This is the basic idea behind tonguing, using various syllables you can create different effects. While these effects differ very subtly, they do result in overall richness of the presentation.

Some specific deployments of tonguing techniques

Tonguing is extensively used when you present your music in Dhrupad style. (More on styles here.) For example, when one presents Jod Alap, one uses tonguing to create the pulse of rhythm.

Now comes the most underestimated aspect of tonguing. Like fingering, you should be able to control your tonguing to a rhythm. So, when you say all the syllables mentioned above, you should also be able to say them in a rhythm. This takes some practice. You can use a metronome or electronic tabla machine to set pulse and try keeping up cleanly to that pulse with your tonguing.

Another special form of tonguing is called fluttered tonguing. It is extensively used to create the effect of Jhala. It involves saying the phrase Tu-Ku-Tu-Ku-Tu---- very fast but rhythmically.

Finally, you can also deploy tonguing in conjunction with fingering. This is especially hard to do at fast tempo since your tonguing and fingering has to be exactly coordinated.

Blowing Technique

Blowing is possibly the most important part of any woodwind instrument. Blowing controls tone of the Bansuri (along with its physical makeup and characteristics). A cleanly and colorfully blown Bansuri enlivens the music you are creating. Even if you play a simple scale with clean blow and hitting right notes, it sounds like music.

Clean Blow

How do you define a clean blow? A clean blow should have the following characteristics at the very least -

  1. Ability to play all notes across two octaves effortlessly. This is hard for the beginners especially when hitting lower notes as well as higher notes
  2. Ability to change octaves - ma to pa jump - without noticeable break. Ma involves all holes open while Pa involves all holes closed. To go from Ma to Pa, not only one has to change fingering from all open to all closed, but also double blowing pressure. Many beginners do this by blowing inordinately harder making this break sound very harsh.
  3. Ability to play all notes without any undue hissing sounds. Hissing sounds must be distinguished from natural micro-tones that emanate from the embouchure.
  4. Ability to play the same note at different levels of volume without sharpening or flattening the note. To change volume, one usually has to blow harder or softer. This results in pitch sharpening or flattening. One should be able to compensate for that either through the lip positioning or by rotating the bansuri in or out.
  5. Ability to blow one note cleanly and uniformly, without any change in the tone of the note for at least 30 sec.
Remember, it helps to pause and think how you want your Bansuri to sound before you actually try to get that sound.

Volume Control

One of the most important aspect of Bansuri playing is the volume control. You can play the Bansuri at uniform volume, but it would sound monotonous. When you employ volume control i.e. play some notes louder or softer than others, it significantly enhances the overall impact of your performance.

At a simplistic level, blowing softer or reducing pressure makes the note sound softer and blowing harder or increasing pressure makes the note sound hard. However, in reality it is not that simple. When you either increase or decrease pressure of blowing, the note tends to move from its place and sound flatter or sharper. You will need to compensate this. This can be done in two ways. More commonly, this is done through the movement of upper and lower lips. Less commonly, this can also be done through turning the Bansuri outwards or inwards.

If you are trying to reduce volume and blow softer, you will need to compensate to increase the pitch (as the note will have tendency to play flatter). You can do this by gradually changing the relative position of your lips in such a way that your upper lip slides slightly backwards and lower lip slides slightly forward compared to the neutral position. Conversely, if you are trying to increase the volume, you will have to blow harder or increase pressure, and slide the upper lip a little forward.

You may also compensate the note by turning flute outwards or inwards. To compensate for increasing or sharpening pitch, you should turn the flute inwards. To compensate for decreasing or flattening pitch, you should turn the flute outwards.

Kampan or Vibrato

Kampan or shaking of the note is a form of Gamak or Ornamentation in Hindustani music. (more on ornamentation here). Kampan is an equivalent of Vibrato in western music. When used judiciously, it brings life and color into long notes and enhances Alaps.

To get Kampan in the Bansuri, you will need quite a bit of control on the diaphragm that separates your lung area and abdominal cavity. The syllable “Ha” uses this diaphragm and hence the orchestration of Kampan on flute almost involves saying “Ha Ha Ha Ha” while blowing. It is usually more difficult to get these oscillations in controlled slower way than faster way.

Blowing and Stamina

When students start learning Bansuri initially, they face all sorts of hurdles due to lack of stamina. The stamina to blow Bansuri has completely different characteristics compared to say, stamina required for a 100m dash. The breathing has to be very deep, uniformly controlled and abdominal. Abdominal breathing makes use of the abdominal cavity. Breathing for Bansuri also needs the ability to quickly breath in and slowly breath out - a bit like in swimming.

Many of these characteristics are similar to the breathing practiced in Pranayama (a Yogic breathing technique). It takes a while to control your breathing habbits and that is what makes this instrument rather difficult and frustrating initially. Beginners can sometimes get a feeling of light headedness, temporary dizziness etc. I used to practice a form of Pranayama called Ujjayi Pranayama and initially, I got these same feelings. These are very temporary (unless you have any cardiovascular issues, in which case, you should consult your physician before attempting this) and disappear in a minute or two from the time you take a pause.

Stamina for playing the flute builds over time as you practice longer. It also helps to take those small pauses between phrases and pieces you play on the Bansuri, recognizing that this is not a continuous instrument like say, Sitar.


So far we focused on getting the foundation right by getting clean discrete notes out of the Bansuri. However, Hindustani Classical music is all about the slides, glides and smooth transitions between notes. As a matter of fact, many prefer to see the octave as a continuum of notes rather than discrete notes.

The beauty of music comes out better when the musician glides over notes, prolongs them, shakes them or varies volume. When all these possibilities come together, the music produced sounds much richer.

These variations that enrich the Hindustani music are called gamaks. Gamaks are very aptly described as ornamentation. A tasteful ornament enhances beauty. Tasteful use of Gamak, has the same effect on music. Without gamaks, music would sound monotonous.

In Bansuri, there are three basic ways to produce these ornamentations:

  1. Fingering – These ornamentations are produced by playing sequence of notes in a specific manner with varying weights given to each note. Many of these are discussed in this chapter.
  2. Tonguing – These ornamentations are produced by using tongue to break the flow of air being blown into the Bansuri. Different effects of sounds can be produced by using different syllables such as tu, ku, ru etc.
  3. Blowing – There are mainly two types of ornamentations produced by varying breathing. These include vibrato or controlled shaking of notes and volume control or varying the volume of the note without changing its pitch.

There is of course, the forth possibility. An ornamentation can be a combination of two or more of these basic ornamentation.

Types of Ornamentation

The concept of Gamak is essential to understand for any performer of Hindustani classical music – in both vocal and instrumental forms. The term Gamak refers to controlled shaking of notes. In the process, other notes may or may not be used. The important Gamaks are:

Meend is a slow slide from one note to the other. Both starting and ending notes are equally articulated and played as if there is a continuum between the two. Meend may or may not involve adjacent notes. If it skips notes (e.g. S->G), the notes skipped in between are not significantly articulated but are treated as part of the continuum between the two notes.

In Bansuri, meend is played by slowly shifting fingers from one note to the other. Because of the break between Ma and Pa, it is not possible to play Meend between them or across (Ga to Dha for example) with conventional Bansuri. Many Bansuri players have used innovations in grips or extra holes to overcome some of this limitation.


Andolan literally means “Oscillation”. Andolan Gamak involves slow oscillation of the note with higher or lower note in such a way that emphasis is still on the main note. Andolan is articulated in Bansuri mainly through fingering.

Kampan literally means “vibration”. In western system, this is called vibrato and it is articulated in Bansuri through blowing. One should alternately blow harder and softer in such a way that the note “vibrates” around its normal position. Andolans or oscillations move the note much more than Kampan or vibrations.

This refers to a grace note. If for example, you are playing kan of Ni for Sa then the Ni is articulated for very small duration. The grace note is usually adjacent to the main note but does not have to be so. It can also be on either sides of the main note. Intensity of the grace note can vary.

Murki is fast ornamentation around the main note and may have a number of swaras. It refers to a short, sharp figure of two or three notes so uttered that it occurs within a short span of time, wrapped around the central note. It can be described as quivering notes, including microtones. Murki is used more commonly in lighter forms of music, such as Thumri.

When a series of Murkis are performed in quick succession, they lead to the Jamjama, which is like a spiraling fast pattern.

This is similar to both the Murki and the Kana. The Khatka is a faster improvisation of the principal note. The speed of execution gives it a jerky movement.

Monday, February 22, 2010

How to hold a bansuri

Different people have different ways of gripping the flute. The only thing that you should keep in mind is that you should be comfortable while holding the instrument.

If you are right handed then you would use the left hand to cover the top three holes of the flute and the right hand for the bottom three or four holes depending upon what style of playing you follow.

There are at least two common ways of holding the flute - The Pt. Panna Lal Ghosh style and the Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia style.
Pt. Pannalal Ghosh Technique

In this style the holes are covered by the tips of the fingers. By using the finger tips to close the holes the right hand can be stretched to cover the seventh hole of the bansuri. The following picture shows Pt. Pannalal Ghosh holding the flute.
Pt. Pannalal Ghosh style of holding the bansuri
Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia Technique

In this style, the flat portion of fingers, and not the tips, are used to cover the holes.
Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia style of holding the flute

In order to understand this style better, role over the following image to see what portions of the fingers are used to cover which holes. Also, keep in mind that the lines on your fingers should not be over the holes as that will lead to leakage of air.

See the proper holding technique here .