Hello again, Flute Portal! It’s been a while since my last post, but a very interesting and eventful time…details to follow in successive posts. For now, I’m going to talk a little about my recent trip to India and share some creative ideas.
In early February I traveled to Varanasi, India, where I was staying in the home of my teacher, Pandit Vikash Maharaj. a maestro of the Sarod (a fretless, plucked-string instrument more akin to the guitar than the flute). I originally sought his guidance in 2001 to learn how to apply Indian melodic ideas to my guitar playing. In the last several years, however, I’ve been working on applying sarod-style techniques to bansuri playing. The process brings up some very interesting ideas that I think anyone can apply to their own studies.
When playing any instrument, there are phrases that seem to come naturally as a result of the way that the human hand interfaces with the physical tasks involved with making music on it. I think it’s a good idea to learn to make the most out the types of ideas that come naturally on your instrument. I also think it’s a good idea to try to break out of your patterns by emulating the styles of other instruments. At Berklee College of Music, we were encouraged to learn saxophone and piano riffs on guitar as a way of expanding our melodic vocabulary beyond the usual “guitaristic” types of ideas. When I started learning bansuri with Vikash Maharaj, I decided to try to apply the same concept to bansuri playing.
Sarod players use only two fingers of their left hand for playing notes on the fingerboard. This is a self-imposed limitation that actually leads to enormous creativity. While deprived of the guitar-like ability to play complex shapes that are only possible with all four fingers, sarod players compensate by developing a very complex rhythmic language enabled by a fierce right-hand picking technique. Simply put, sarod style is fewer notes played with incredible rhythm.
Lets say that you’re going to play on one string with only two fingers. For the purposes of this example, let’s ignore the fact that you can play up and down the fingerboard. Thus, you would have the open string (no fingers) and two more notes that you can add (one for each finger). How many ways can you play those 3 notes? Let’s take a look at how complex this can actually be. Try choosing 3 notes on your flute and playing through each line below, with each note given equal duration (i.e. all 8th notes). Go at whatever speed you’re comfortable with and repeat each line several times before moving on:
Notice how each rhythm feels different? Which ones sound good to you? Now try again and substitute 3 for 2 and 2 for 3. Or substitute 3 for 1. Or chop off the last note and work with 7 beat phrases (or 6 or 5 or 13 for that matter). All of a sudden the permutations multiply and endless combinations become possible – with only 3 notes! And this is really just the beginning of the kinds of patterns you can explore. Make up your own and try them!
One favorite of mine is to use the rhythmic template of 3 beats + 3 beats + 2 beats as in:
Turn them upside down and it sounds like this:
You can also try them backwards or upside down and backwards…and any other way you can think of!
The idea of all of this is not to reduce music to a math problem. The point is to use your brain to create variations of an idea, then try them and see how they sound. Most of them you will forget, but a few of them will stick and become part of your vocabulary. With practice, you will be able to improvise with these kinds of ideas in a real-time musical environment – often with very satisfying results. When you start with a simple concept and explore variations of it within an improvisational paragraph, the other musicians and the listeners can follow your thought process easily and you will have communicated something. When that energy comes back to you amplified through the creativity of the other musicians and the feelings of the audience, that’s what we live for!
I hope you find this useful and inspiring. If so, please let me know, and I’ll be sure to follow up with more. In my next post, I’ll get into applying sarod-style right-hand techniques to flute playing as well as telling some more about my trip and some exciting career developments that have taken place very recently.