the sitar project  
last updated October 15, 2009

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  Understand tal
Play composed alap phrases

Your teacher will create a series of short phrases - of three or four notes each. These phrases will explore the rag in the traditional way - starting with a series of phrases ending on Sa and eventually covering the whole range of the rag. Each of these phrases will be separated by playing chikari strokes.

Key to playing alap is unhurried concentration - taking your time to explore, without any kind of discernable rhythm, the notes of the rag.

Learn these phrases until you are confidently able to reproduce them as your imagination takes you. Add meend, consistent with the rules of the rag to emphasise the vocal quality of this stage of the performance.

It is impossible really to notate alap, so I make no attempt here, though it may be useful to make your own notation of the key phrases as a memory aid.

Play mohra

The mohra is a short phrase to be played at the end of each section of alap. It is like a full stop, or the end of a paragraph. It is not a fixed thing - you can vary it - but it has a characteristic rhythm. It is partly this rhythm and the sharper chikari stroke used that distinguishes it from the arrythmic character of alap itself.

You play the mohra after you have explored a part of the rag and have returned to Sa.

Understand structure of alap

The typical structure for a performance of alap is to start by exploring Sa: this means to play four or five phrases ending on Sa. Once you have finished Sa, you should then play the mohra.

Then explore the notes in the lower register. Choose the next main note of the rag and play four or five notes finishing on this note. For example in Rag Yaman this would be lower Pa. Then return to Sa and play the mohra.

Then start to explore the middle register up to Pa in exactly the same way, and finally ascend to high Sa. You can then either explore the higher octave if you wish. You should then return to Sa and play the mohra.

You can if you wish play sanchari which means a slightly faster free improvisation using the whole range of the instrument. You should in any case complete your alap by returning to Sa and playing the mohra.

At the same time as following this basic structure, you should make sure you reveal each note step by step with higher notes only appearing after the lower notes have been revealed. It is very common to touch very slightly a higher note, for example, with meend and then descend and play several more phrases before eventually properly introducing that note.

The key to alap, however, is not really this kind of structuring. It is the concentration and focus on the notes themselves and the gradual unfolding of the rag. There should be a real feeling of inevitability but also surprise as each note is revealed step by step.


Play basic alap outline

A good way to practice alap is to take each step in the structure at a time and really concentrate on your ability to explore each main note of the rag separately. Over several days just develop more and more different ways of exploring just the note Sa or low Pa. This helps you so that in performance you can sound completely spontaneous, because you have many ideas ready and you have practised the techniques to play them so that they appear without hesitation.

It is worth playing each phrase you invent several times to make sure that your meend is exactly in tune and to experiment with different pacing for the different notes. You can add other ornaments such as sparsha to your alap as you get more confident.

Set yourself the task over a few weeks to explore each of the main notes of the rag in your daily practice, and only once your exploration of the notes in every part of the range of your sitar is well developed, start stringing them together to play a well structured complete alap.


Question and answer

A common way to develop alap is to think of each of your phrases forming a pair with the first asking a question and the second answering the first. You don't have to do this all the time, but it does help to get you into the idea of a natural flowing 'speech-like' pacing of alap. A common mistake is for alap to become either too obviously rhythmical or too chaotic and complicated. Each alap phrases albeit often very highly decorated should also be clearly a simple phrase of a few notes.