Indian Music: Accompaniment on the Tabla

Accompanying a Vocalist: Notes for Beginners in Tabla

by Mukul Shri Goel

Having learned the basic rhythmic cycles and the first few kaidas, imagine you encounter a vocalist who asks you to accompany him or her and play the theka. What do you do? You may feel that you are short of the required training, but the truth is – you are not. You can begin by asking the vocalist which tala the composition is based on; the days of poor communication between the lead musician and the percussionist are gone. If you have learned to recognize the laya (tempo) of a composition and have a feel of where the sam (first beat) is, you are ready to spell out the rhythmic cycle. However, a small plan for this opportunity beforehand can make your task easier.

In the early stages ofaccompaniment, the theka, which is the basic definition of the rhythmic cycle, is blended together with three simple improvisations:

1. Prakaar (the variety)

This is the simplest type of improvisation one encounters in the world of tabla. It is a variety of the theka that maintains the core structure of the tala. Because the flow of the theka cannot be altered, a boundary exists to prevent too much creativity in a prakaar: Even if you never get back to the theka after a few repetitions of the prakaar, the lead instrumentalist shouldn’t have a problem recognizing the rhythmic pattern.

In the examples given below, the first prakaar includes only an extra syllable at the finishing beat of every division (taali/ khali) and can easily replace the theka. As more syllables are added to the theka, as in Prakaar-3, care has to be taken to maintain pressure on the original syllables of the theka so that the tala can always be recognized by the lead musician. For example, extra weight on ‘DhinDhin’ in Prakaar-3 can distract the vocalist. And why are we concerned whether the lead player recognizes the theka behind the prakaar? Because most musicians/ vocalists need the theka to get back to the ‘sam’ after they are done with their own variations.

(‘Ti’ in DhaTi is played with the middle finger.)

2. Mukhda (the face)

These fillers are the tiniest pieces of music for tabla. They are usually 3-16 beats long in teentala and add style to how the percussionist reaches the sam. All three examples below are eight beats long.


3. Tihai (the triplicity)

Any piece of music repeated three times makes a tihai. Unlike a full size composition, the mukhda and tihai are figures of speech in the language of tabla which beautify the rhythmic cycle. In percussion accompaniment in teentala, vocalists often prefer a tihai-length not greater that one rhythmic cycle. In the examples below, the first one is eight beats long and the other two are 16 beats each.

With some practice, you can start making your own mukhda and tihai from the kaidas and paltas that you have learned.

Accompaniment goes a long way from here. In its later stages, it may include the perfectly selected laggi and rela and impromptu creativity of bols according to the ‘flow’ of the composition, which includes the speed variations along with the relative weights of the musical notes and lyrics. Yet accompaniment starts and concludes with the clarity in the theka.

Some Tips:

    • The major sam of the composition, which occurs in the first line of the sthayi, is in greater need of a mukhda/piece of music than any other sam of the composition.
    • Try not to pick up a tihai and land on the second or third line of the composition.
    • Play longer pieces of music, if any, only in the sthayi of the composition.
    • When the lead musician starts showing finer variations, it is time to holdback your own show. Continue with the simple prakaars.
    • Playing the theka with an instrument is similar to vocal; actually, you have more freedom to improvise.
    • Practice material for every tempo: slow, medium, and fast. Prakaars may be different at each tempo.
    • Practice the theka daily. It will fix the feel of the rhythmic cycle in your mind and enable you to make your own prakaars.
    • Try creating small pieces of music while practicing the theka even if they are not too pleasing in the beginning. This may develop impromptu creativity, which is a must for an effective presentation.
    • Accompaniment is about using your own expertise to raise the lead player’s performance. If you accompany a child or a beginner, be ready not to show any variations.
    • Rules in music or any other art can only provide initial hints. Eventually, learn to escape them.

If you are a beginner in Indian Classical Music, some entries on the music section of my blog may be helpful. Please check out my music notes on this site.

Copyright © 2007  Mukul S. Goel

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