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last updated December 19, 2010
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Making notes
  Understand tal
Correct hand position

The left hand should be relaxed, hanging naturally. There should be space between the neck of the sitar and the hand. The hand should not be holding up the neck of the sitar. See the picture at the top of this page to illustrate this.

The left side of the thumb should touch the back of the neck. The thumb should like just behind the string of the fret on which the first finger is playing - if you are playing Sa with the first finger the thumb sits just behind the Sa fret. The thumb can therefore be a very useful guide when you are learning which fret to use for which note. Look at the thumb rather than attempting to look over the neck of the sitar at the fret and the strings, to help guide your initial steps in learning.



Correct finger placing and touch

Pic of fret position

The finger needs to be placed just behind the fret. The side of the finger touches the fret. If the finger is actually on the fret the sound is deadened. If the finger is too far away from the fret the sound is dull.


Exact positioning of the finger reliably at all speeds is difficult to achieve. When you are beginning the problem is compounded by being uncertain which fret to play on, the impossibility of seeing where your finger is actually placed, and the fact that until you have got used to it your finger is likely to hurt (a bit).


The best way to start is to practice slowly, experimenting with placing the finger to get the best sound.


The tendency is also for beginners to press too hard on the string. Pressing too hard makes the note go sharp producing a harsh sound. Pressing too lightly and you will get a weak sound or no note at all. Pressing harder can be an attempt to compensate for the finger not being close enough to the string. It makes sense therefore to concentrate on placing the finger as close as possible to the string and then pressing as lightly as possible to achieve a good sound.


Moving up and down the frets

As you play different notes on the sitar your hand should move up and down the neck as a unit - as you move from say Sa to Re the whole hand moves up. You should avoid the elbow sticking out to one side - try to keep the arm hanging straight down.

Your touch should be very light on the neck of the instrument. Practice running the whole hand up and down the finger board touching the strings lightly. Your thumb should remain in contact with the back of the neck, and you will probably hear a sound as the thumb brushes the frets. You should try to minimise this sound - if its noticable then it means you are gripping too hard, and this will harm your sound and limit your ability to play fast.

A very simple exercise for this is to touch your finger lightly on the string and then slide the hand, as a unit, up and down the string. This will help you get the feeling of easy, light movement.


The finger line

As you play the first finger should stay in contact with the string all the time. The finger slides on the string. This means that a line is formed on your index finger - the more you practice the more pronounced this line becomes.

This line becomes a very important way of establishing the correct playing position and good left hand technique. The line should be:

- about 1/4" from the tip of the finger
- should extend across the whole of the finger
- should slant up slightly (but not too much)

The line is also key to playing meend - until your line is well formed playing meend will be quite painful.

You will need to adjust your finger, hand and arm positioning until you get the line correct and well established. Once it is established then it reinforces itself each time you play.

It is a good idea in the beginning phases to spend a bit of time at the beginning of your practice establishing a correct finger line.


Finding the middle octave notes

Start to learn where the notes in the middle octave are by finding Sa. You will soon learn where this note is, but for reference it is played using the 7th fret from the bottom of the instrument. Once you have found Sa practice the following exercises.

- only move on to the next line when you are reasonably confident with each line.
- at this stage your goal is finding where these notes are, so take it slow, and do not worry too much at first if the sound is not perfect: this will come later
- only use your first finger: we will learn about using the second finger at a later stage


Play the middle octave scale

Once you are reasonably confident with where the notes are, practise the following scale exercise, playing each note first 8 times, then 4 times, then 2 times and finally once:

When you play this exercise keep the speed of the strokes constant. This means that this exercise gradually speeds up how fast you have to move your left hand. To start with, you will probably find the last line too difficult, because the left hand has to move quite fast, so leave this for now.

Once you are confident with this, then practice the following exercise, which fits in to tintal (16 beats). This is the scale played at once at single speed and then twice at 2x speed:

This is the first example of a whole suite of exercises which develop your skills in playing at speed. As a warm up exercise for this, practice the rhythm on Sa, which is shown on the Playing stokes section of this website see Play 2x speed strokes. It is a good idea to alternate the scale practice with the stroke pattern - this helps to isolate any problems - you may be tempted to think your left hand is at fault when in fact it is your right hand stoke playing which is not even or faulty in some other way.

Keep checking that your finger line is correct and keep checking that your hand and arm position is OK, as you play these exercises.


Understanding use of the second finger

For sitar you mostly use just the first finger. The second finger is used at the top of a passage. Here are some examples of when to use the second finger:

Try to use the second finger now, for example, at the top of your scale practice, or any other exercise.

It is worth practicing the following exercise to get used to using your second finger. This exercise is easier than other combinations of notes because tivra Ma and Pa are close together and are in the middle of the range - so you don't have other difficulties to contend with. Keep your first finger down all the time.


Know the names of notes

Learn the names of the notes. Each note has a full name, but for practical purposes we use shortened names. Here they are with full names, shortened names and the notation used on this website:

It is very important to learn these names of the notes - they are key to learning passages, and co-ordinating the music you imagine in your mind and the physical actions needed to play spontaneously. Later on we will also learn to sing using these note names.


Understand notation

Indian music is traditionally learnt through oral explanation and study. This is the best way and in some ways the easiest way. Unfortunately in practice since we all tend to forget, and have busy lives an aid to memory is needed. So we use notation to help. The following signs are used:


Using finger oil

Sitarists use a tiny amount of oil on their left hand finger to lubricate the string. This is particularly helpful when you are beginning to learn sitar. Until your left hand fingers have got used to it, they can become quite painful from touching the string. Once your fingers have got used to it you can save using oil for concerts.

Sitarists have small elegant decorated boxes to keep their oil in - see the picture. When practicing just touch your first finger on the wool and then slide it up and down your baj string once or twice to distribute the oil. When you have finished playing wipe the strings with a clean cloth.

To make your own finger oil box. Find a small box about an inch or so round with an airtight lid. Put some cotton wool or a small piece of sponge inside it. Put a few drops of baby oil on the cotton or sponge. The best oil is coconut oil, and some people add scent to their oil. However, ordinary baby oil is perfectly ok.


Placing the finger accurately (easier)

This exercise focuses attention on exact positioning of the left hand finger - make sure you have established the correct finger line before you start and keep your focus on getting the best sound by maintaining the correct hand position and placing your finger near the fret. Try to minimise the pressure on the string whilst still getting a good sound, keep the left hand thumb light so that the movement up and down the finger board can be smooth.

The importance of this exercise is that the notes change very slowly, but as the speed of the strokes increases the movement between the notes has to be faster and defter. It is also good for your right hand building on the Playing strokes exercise Playing 1x,2x,4x speed strokes,

Set your tabla or metronome to slow speed - about 45 beats per minute. The transitions between the speeds needs to be exact. When you have played the whole exercise repeat without a break.

Because the exercise is in 16 beats, it also builds knowledge of the feel of vilambit tintal with simple scale passages.

Playing palta at 1x and 2x speed

Palta is something played many times for practice. So far we have been using a simple scale for practice. This exercise uses an ascending and descending pattern of notes from Rag Yaman to base your practice on. Ascending it omits Sa and Pa, and it fits into tintal 16 beats. Obviously it can be adapted to any rag. Once you have learnt this exercise, it should be a key part of your practice every time you play. It builds on the exercise Play the middle octave scale above.

The exercise introduces two new notes: low Ni and high Re. Take a little time to find these notes before practicing it. High Re can be a hard to reach at first since it will require your sitting position to be improving, however, it shouldn't be too bad because you can use the second finger on this note, which makes it easier. If you can't reach Re then, to start with, replace high Re with high Sa.

Set your tabla or metronome to slow speed - about 60 beats per minute. Start by practicing the first line, until you have mastered that, then the second line just plays this pattern twice at 2x speed.

As a warm up exercise for this, practice the rhythm on Sa, which is shown on the Playing stokes section of this website see Play 2x speed strokes.


Playing palta with bol patterns one note to a beat

This exercise combines different stroke patterns with the palta. Here is an example of this which uses the first line from Playing short bol patterns from the Playing strokes page on this website. Start playing the whole bol exercise on one note a time.

Then play it with one note on each beat.

Once you have mastered this try the same exercise with other bol patterns. Learning to combine melodic patterns with bol patterns is very useful both for playing compositions and for improvisation.


Playing palta with jhala pattern (slow speed)

Combine together the basic jhala pattern of strokes with the palta to make this exercise. This is a first exercise to learning to play the kind of jhala that is often used to conclude a performance. It is also a good exercise in building on the work to establish accurate placing of the left hand - focus on accurate positioning of the melody notes played on the baj - you only have one chance to get these right before the chikari strokes take over. At the same time pay attention to the chikari strokes to make sure they stay clear.

Keep this exercise slow to start with concentrating on accuracy in both hands - set your tabla or metronome on about 100 beats per minute.

As a warm up for this exercise practice the basic jhala pattern from the Playing strokes page.


Playing lower octave on baj

The lower notes on the baj string should be practiced just the same as you did to learn the middle range. Apply all the same principles you have already learned - moving the hand as a unit, placing the finger just behind the fret, maintaining the finger line, saying the names of the notes etc. In the exercise below the speed of the strokes should be kept constant so that the left hand has to move quicker as you move down the lines.


Playing full range of baj

Practice the full range of the baj string. Notice the feeling of the arm moving smoothly up and down the neck of the instrument. Use the second finger on the top Re.

You should eventually be able to extend this beyond high Re, but most people find this difficult to start with whilst keeping the correct left hand position - so save this for later.


Develop use of second finger

Once your finger line is well established on the first finger, start to develop the use of the second finger. Whilst most of the time sitarists just use the first finger, the second finger is vital for fast passages, for intricate patterns and ultimately for meend. If your first finger is placed correctly then you don't really need to worry about establishing a finger line for the second finger - it should just fall naturally - however, it should not be placed on the string too near the tip. The big danger in starting to use the second finger is the tendency to twist the hand so that you lose your finger line on the first finger. In all these exercises keep checking back that your finger line isn't starting to slant too much. Keep the first finger in contact with the string all the time.

Gradually work through these exercises which are graded from easier to more difficult exercises.

The first one, exploits the fact that the tivra Ma and Pa and Ni and high Sa are close together. This makes this exercise the easiest one and the one where you are least likely to lose your correct finger line. Note the fingering at the top of the chart.
The next exercise extends this to each note on the scale. This is more difficult because the lower notes are father apart and therefore your second finger will have to stretch a little and because many of the notes are a full step rather than the half step apart we tackled in the first exercise. Note the fingering which is slightly different from the above and is slightly different ascending from descending.

This exercise is a bit more difficult because ascending you have to start with a second finger. Remember to keep your first finger in contact with the string on the note below the second finger all the time. The notes in red should be played with second finger.

It is good to practice this very slowly silently preparing the first note of the ascending sequence by putting your first finger on the note below before placing the second finger and playing the passage.

The second half of this exercise doesn't have the same problem because the first finger is already down before you play a second finger

This has a very similar problem in the ascending part to the last exercise because each line starts with the second finger, so use the same technique of preparing the first finger silently before the passage. Again note the slight change in the fingering in the descending passage.


Singing passages

The origin of all indian music is vocal, so you need to learn how to sing. This is not about vocal quality, it is more about connecting your imagination of a phrase, with the physical actions required to play on sitar. If you are not comfortable about singing, you can start just by saying the names of the notes.

Singing/saying the names of the notes is a good way of learning passages, and of improving your confidence in improvisation. Start by singing/saying the names of the notes for scales and alenkar, first without sitar, then whilst playing the sitar.

As you gain confidence in this it is a good to practice the music you are learning without the sitar, almost as much as with sitar - the sitar should become merely the vehicle for whatever you imagine. This is, of course, a long journey ...

Placing the finger accurately (difficult)

This exercise takes the idea of combining very slow left hand movement for accuracy with fast right hand strokes to the next stage by adding faster and more complicated rhythms. The foundation for this exercise is the equivalent exercise under the improvers section above and the exercise Playing 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, 6x, 8x strokes on the Playing strokes page. It is worth playing that exercise beforehand and even mixing the two exercises up, alternating strokes just on Sa with this exercise.

8x speed gets to be quite fast so set your tabla or metronome to about 30 beats per minute.

Keep focusing on the positioning of the left hand, because this is what this exercise is really aiming to develop, though of course it is also very good for your right hand and for your general stamina.


Playing palta at 1x, 2x, 4x speed

This exercise helps you to speed up your playing and helps grow your sense of 16 beats tintal. It is the next stage of the exercise above Playing palta at 1x, 2x speed simply adding playing the palta 4 times at 4x speed.

Set your tabla or metronome to about 45 beats per minute. Start slower and work up to this. There is no point in trying to play too fast: accuracy is the route to speed. As a warm up or to alternate with this exercise play the stroke exercise Playing 1x, 2x, 4x speed strokes on the Playing strokes page. When you have finished the exercise start over again so it plays continuously speeding up and slowing down.


Playing palta with bol patterns 1 note to a stroke

Another variation on the palta is to combine together this melodic pattern with a pattern of strokes, but this time play one note to each stroke. The bol pattern and palta probably won't synchronise neatly, but this gives you good practice in different combinations of notes and strokes. Here is an example with the bol pattern: Da Dir Da Dir.

As a warm up, practice the bol pattern you have chosen on Sa as in the exercise Play short bol patterns on the page Playing strokes. You can make ever more elaborate combinations of melodic patterns, alenkar etc and bol patterns. All of these are very good preparation and material for improvisation.


Playing palta with jhala pattern (medium speed)

Speed this jhala exercise up to gradually gain confidence and stamina - set your tabla or metronome on about 130-140 beats per minute.

To develop stamina still further alternate single speed and double speed chikari strokes. You may need to play this a little slower in order to fit the double speed patterns in accurately.

As a warm up for this exercise practice the basic jhala pattern from the Playing strokes page.

Playing palta with jor-jhala pattern

Combine the palta with the jor-jhala pattern with 8 beats to each note as follows. As a warm up practice the jor-jhala pattern on Sa as shown in the exercise Jor-jhala pattern on the Playing strokes page.

Practice this at medium fast speed up to about 150 beats per minute gradually increasing the speed.

Single note meend

Meend is when you connect two notes together. It is a key aspect of indian music that notes glide into each other. Its origin is, as with all aspects of indian music, vocal. On the sitar we achieve meend by pulling the string, and whilst this has limitations compared with vocal meend, nevertheless can achieve extremely expressive 'singing' effects. The technique can also produce a huge variety of ornaments characteristic of instrumental music and sitar in particular.

Before starting to practice meend, revise again all the aspects of left hand technique, particularly make sure:

- your finger line is correct
- that you are touching the string very close to the fret
- that you are not pressing too hard
- that your left hand elbow is not sticking out towards the left

Also make sure that your taraf strings are in tune - this will help enormously get your meend in tune and sound good - when you pull to the right pitch your taraf string will resonate in sympathy.

Meend exercise can be painful to start with, until your fingers have got used to it, so practice little and often, and keep your practice slow.

[Insert picture of left hand doing meend] To start with just practice making the meend movement on the Sa fret with your first finger. At this stage do not worry about hitting the right notes - this will come later. Play Sa and then pull the string. You should pull it simply by curving your finger. Make sure that all the fingers work together - this gives strength to the hand. Do not move the left hand elbow or the wrist to play meend - the movement comes from the hand only.To start with just pull a small meend and gradually extend it as you gain in strength. Use a Da stroke only to strike the string.
The easiest meend to play are those from Ni to Sa and from tivra Ma to Pa. This is because these notes are very close - only half a step apart. Practice these exercises taking a long time over them. Start by playing Sa on the fret with your second finger. This gets the right sound in your head. Then play Ni with your first finger and pull to Sa. The play Sa again on the fret with the second finger to check whether you managed to get the meend in tune. In the notation shown in the example the circle shows which fret you are pulling the meend from - this will be useful for later exercises.

If your taraf strings are in tune and your left hand technique is good then you should hear the taraf string ring out when you have pulled the string the exact right distance - hunt out this resonance.

Practice these meend the same way until you are confident with these. Take your time, and focus on your technique. If you find the sound of the meend gets muffled it is probably because your elbow is sticking out, or you are not close enough the the fret etc. (Making meend easier is one of the reasons why these subtleties of technique are worth spending a lot of time on in your basic practice.)

This sort of meend is called 'sidhe' meend. This means straight meend and is where you pull from a lower note to a higher one.

Once you have mastered the easiest meend, play sidhe meend on each note of the scale. At first you may find this too much to practice in one go. In which case just practice a few meend, each one a few times and then come back to the rest of the scale later or next time you practice.

More than any other aspect of sitar practice meend is definitely something to be practiced little and often. But it is such a wonderful sound that it is tempting to overdo it.

Ulti meend is more difficult - in this case the meend moves from a higher note to a lower note. The difficulty here is that you have to pull the note before you strike the string. You have to judge how far to pull it for it to be in tune. Practice this focussing on the sound you want to make and noting whether your pulled note is too sharp or too little and adjusting the amount you pull next time you play.

In this case note the notation - the circle shows you which fret you are pulling the note from. Note the fingering.

Then add these two meends as we did before.

Finally, practice ulti meend on each note on the scale.

You have to pull the string farther to reach Re from Sa than you do to reach Sa from Ni. One way of helping yourself pull the right distance is to think of how far apart the two notes you are aiming to connect are if you are playing on the frets - use the fret strings as a visual clue to remind you which notes you have to pull farther.

You can then combine these meend together to play sidhe meend followed by ulti meend and the other way around. It is worth playing these kinds of meends both rhythmically, but also as in alap, with concentration on the sound, letting the sound of each note die away before going on to the next one. Also add alap-style chikari strokes to your meend practice to help keep the Sa in your mind. This creates a real atmosphere of the rag.


Playing taraf

Grow your right hand little finger's nail a small amount. You can then use this to play taraf strings. The glissando effect, when the taraf strings are in tune, is a wonderful effect that creates atmosphere and can form the backdrop to your presentation of the rag. It is a common effect - although not everyone uses it - though it should not be overdone.


Playing palta at 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, 6x, 8x speed

This exercise is the next step up from previous exercises for speed. At 8x speed this is pretty fast, so set your tabla machine to 30 beats per minute or slower. Again make sure you start at a speed at which you can play the whole exercise and only once you have mastered it speed it up very gradually. At these slow speeds even an increase of 1 beat per minute makes a big difference so just take it gently.

As ever focus on all the aspects of left hand technique to make the most rapid progress.


Playing very low notes on jora

The jora string is useful for playing very low notes particularly for rags with phrases needing notes lower than the Ma which is the bottom note of the baj string. Revise playing on the jora string from the Playing strokes page. Start off by practicing the following exercise:

Then practice scale exercises from bottom Sa on the jora string.


Playing full range scales

Now you can play full range scales from the lowest note to the highest notes on your sitar.

You can extend this practice to include alenkar or other patterns.


Playing palta with complex jhala patterns
To be completed
Single note meend exercises

Once you have mastered playing single note meend slowly, you can practise meend exercises systematically up and down the scale. Treat these as a palta to gain confidence in playing meend, and train your fingers to judge how far to pull each meend. It is a good idea to play each meend several times before moving on to the next one. Do not play these exercises too fast - accuracy of pitch is more important than speed. In these exercises I have used the traditional notation of a curved bracket above the notes to show the meend.

In each case in these exercises the first note is played on the fret to get the correct sound in your head. Use the first finger on this note to start with to help ensure the correct position of the hand. Later on you can use the second finger instead.

Sidhe (straight) meend exercise
Ulti (reverse) meend exercise
Sidhe followed by Ulti meend

Ulti followed by Sidhe meend

2, 3, 4, and 5 note meend
To be completed
Sparsha and zamzama

In some traditions this ornament is called sparsha. It is played by making a stroke on a note and then hammering the second finger onto the fret above. If the second finger strikes in the right place with the right force and pressure then the second note shimmers out. Practice this first with frets that are close together. For instance:

The first note should be short and allow the second note to ring out before repeating the exercise. Note there is only one mizrab stroke in this ornament. Once you are confident of this practice scale exercises with this ornament.

Repeating the same hammering action rapidly creates the ornament called zamazama:

Hold the first finger down throughout this exercise. Note that there is only one mizrab stroke in this ornament. Once this is mastered practice this on scale exercises. You can repeat the hammering action several times to extend the ornament.


To be completed