the sitar project  
last updated March 6, 2010

Technique           The music
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Holding sitar Playing strokes Making notes Playing patterns Maintenance   Understand Rag
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Holding the sitar
  Understand tal
Respect for the sitar

Indian musicians believe that music and the practice of music is a spiritual matter. It is a special privilege to play an instrument and the sitar itself is alive. So we have to treat all instruments with especial care and respect.

So please: don't step over instruments; don't touch or push them with your foot; and don't walk with shoes over the carpet where music is practiced/performed. If this is not possible cover the carpet with a sheet while practicing.


How to sit

Sit upright in a relaxed and natural manner on a hard surface to ensure a stable posture. Your spine should be vertical.  Both the shoulders should remain at the same level, in a relaxed position, neither drooping nor raised.


Rest your right leg over the knee of the left leg. Your foot should just about touch the floor. Slight variations are required for each person, so just keep trying things out till you feel comfortable.


Practice sitting like this without sitar when you are doing something else (eg watching TV).


Most people find it hard to establish the position straight away at the beginning of each practice session. Take your time and ease in to it every time you sit down to practice.


An alternative position has the right foot on the ground in front of the left knee - this is perfectly acceptable, but it tends to be more difficult to establish a really steady, secure position for the sitar.

Holding the sitar

Rest the main tumba on your left foot. The curve of the tumba fits into the curve of the sole of the foot. It's easier to hold the sitar if you take your sock off because then the sitar does not slip. If its cold you can take the sock half off.


Rest the right arm on the tumba.  The right knee fits into the concave curve at the joint of the main gourd and the fret-board. The sitar should need no support from your left hand which needs to be free to move up and down the frets.


Hold the sitar at an angle of about 45° from the ground.  The sitar should be roughly parallel to your body. To check this, look at yourself holding the sitar in a mirror. The front of the sitar - the tabli - should be roughly vertical.


When you are playing you should look out straight in front of you at the audience.


There should be plenty of space between the sitar and your body - key to this is that your left foot should be quite far forward.


It is a almost irresistable temptation to try to look over the neck of the sitar at either your left hand to see which fret you are playing, or at your right hand to check you are striking the string correctly. Both of these are actually impossible and unhelpful - apart from anything else you are likely to hurt your back. To help you find the right notes, look at the back of the sitar and where your left hand thumb is. This is the best clue to being on the right fret, until you can place your hand correctly by feel.

Reaching the high notes

Most people find it hard to reach the high notes to start with. The problem is that the right knee tends to be too high and gets in the way of reaching the high frets correctly.

This can only really be resolved by gradual practice over months and years and increasing the flexibiity of your hip and leg joints so that your right knee can be lowered and married correctly with the curve of the tumba. Keep practicing very gently to improve this aspect of your sitting position.

Various workarounds can be used to reach the top notes, but these should not be substitutes for gradual progress towards the ideal sitting position.

Lengthen the time you can sit comfortably

Sitting comfortably in the sitar playing position takes a lot of getting used to. Even after you have established the correct sitting position you will find it gets uncomfortable after a time. There is no alternative to more and more practice to lenghten the time you can sit.

The following suggestions, however, will help you to make progress:

do not treat the sitting posture as an endurance test - if you are uncomfortable you will not practice or play well - so take a break
it takes time to ease into the position so don't rush it - this applies every time you play
practice sitting in the sitar position frequently when you are not playing
it is a good idea to establish the sitting position without the instrument and sit comfortably for a few seconds before lifting the sitar - it is common for beginners to sit and lift the sitar all at the same time, muddling up the different actions
you may find a short practice to settle down into the position followed by a short break and then a second practice session makes your second practice session more comfortable
it is common for people to shift between alternative positions whilst practicing as one of the positions becomes uncomfortable

Reaching the highest notes

The key constraint on playing the highest notes is your sitting position. Practicing regularly, easing in to the correct sitting position and keeping your left hand position correct (See the secton on the finger line on the Making notes page) is the only way to make this easy. So make sure this is secure first.

To develop this, add scale and alenkar practice in the top octave up to high Ma. For example:

The very highest notes can only be reached using meend. So gradually add meend to enable you to play up to high Pa. You will very rarely need to go beyond this. Once all this is secure extend your scale practice to cover the bottom to the top range of the instrument.


Looking at the audience

When you start learning you will need to help yourself by looking at the position of your left thumb on the neck to help you play the right notes and place your left hand finger accurately. Over time you need to reduce your dependency on using this visual clue. This is important for two reasons - the less you depend on this visual clue the easier you will find it to play fast passages, to maintain accuracy when improvising and to focus on your imagination rather than the technical aspects of playing. This is also part of your communication with the audience - you need to be able to look straight out at the audience when you play - you are trying to communicate with them, not wrestle with a technical exercise on your instrument.

Key to this is developing the automatic response between thinking of a note or phrase and the correct physical movement.

Practice which will help develop this is:

saying the note names and singing the phrases you are practicing before playing them, and whilst playing them. Mentally the centre of your attention should be the phrase you want to play - the playing action should be an automatic physical response to the idea. The note names is an essential co-ordinating device to trigger the physical response.
practicing scales and paltas with your eyes closed, in the dark or consciously looking out (ie not at your left hand) to the room you are practicing in. Start these very slow and focus on accuracy - speed will follow from slow accurate practice, accuracy will not follow from fast, approximate practice.
practicing with a friend copying short phrases from one another - keep your attention on your friend - what they are playing and their movements - as they play and as you copy.
your face should be relaxed - avoid pulling faces whilst you are playing - it just distracts the audience and is a waste of energy. Particularly do not pull a face if you are dissatisfied with anything you have played - just play it again, but better.