the sitar project  
last updated December 19, 2010
Technique           The music
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Playing strokes
  Understand tal
Wearing the mizrab

The sitar is played with a mizrab (plectrum) worn on the index finger of the right hand.


To start with it is a good idea to use a mizrab like the one shown with a protective plastic or wire covering. As you get more experienced you can move on to professional mizrab which doesn't have this - these are stronger but can hurt a bit whilst you are getting used to them.


It is very important to get a mizrab which fits you. It should be a firm fit, with its ‘wings’ just fitting beyond the first joint of your index finger.

The tip should protrude about 1/8” beyond the end of the finger. It needs to be tight, otherwise it will wobble as you play, spoiling your performance.


If you are ordering one from a shop measure how long your finger is from the first joint to the tip and explain that you want a mizrab to fit you.


Making strokes


Your right thumb rests on the finger board at the joint between the ivory decoration and the wood of the neck. The thumb stays here all the time that you play - it stabilises the hand.


The wrist is bent to position the hand in front of the strings ready for your mizrab to strike the strings.


You make strokes with all the fingers working together, the main movement should be from the second finger-joint. The stroke should be straight across at right angles to the string - but you can't check this unless you look in a mirror or ask your teacher if it is correct.


You should play the both the baj and the jora string together. The jora provides the drone sound accompanying every stroke.


Your stroke should be of medium span - too large a movement wastes energy, slows you down and risks hitting the drone strings. Too small a movement means you cannot properly strike both strings and will produce a weak sound.


The names of the strokes

Each stroke (bol) has a name. You need to learn these names because they are used to recite bol patterns. 'Bol' means word or syllable.

Da is the stroke made by closing the right hand
Ra is the stroke made by opening the right hand
Dir is Da followed by Ra rapidly
rDa is Ra followed by Da rapidly


Play single speed strokes

The basic exercise for making strokes is extremely simple, but very important. Simply play the following exercise every day for a few minutes. Start with say 1 min and then build up to 5 mins or longer. To keep your playing steady, use your tabla or metronome. To start with try a moderate speed - about 80 beats per minute.

You should be listening for evenness of rhythm and sound, and for the two strings to be sounding together. But just take it easy, if it is not perfect don't strain to correct it, just focus on making the movement of your fingers correct and even.

The longer you do this exercise the better - it combines refining your rhythm and your sound, strengthening your hand and meditation.


Make an even sound

Most people find it easier and more natural to play the Da stroke and therefore their Ra stroke tends to be a little weaker. This is the most common cause of unevenness in their sound. The best way to solve this exercise is to play any exercise first with all Da strokes and then with all Ra strokes. Alternating these strokes will very quickly improve this aspect of your playing.

Start with the most basic of these exercises - 8 Da strokes followed by 8 Ra strokes on Sa:


Play 2x speed strokes

This exercise alternates single and double speed strokes. It is very simple again, but is the foundation for many other exercises, and fits into tintal (16 beat cycle) - see Understanding tal for more about time cycles.

To start with set your tabla or metronome quite slow at about 60 beats per minute. Once this is established you can speed the exercise up. This exercise should be played with alternating Da and Ra strokes throughout.


Play short bol patterns

These short patterns of strokes help to develop your right hand technique introducing 2x speed strokes (Dir) and can be used with alenkar or melodic exercises. They are also one of the key underpinning techniques for improvisation. Practice them in their simplest form with just the note Sa.

To start with keep the speed very moderate - about 80 beats per minute. As you improve your technique and stamina you can gradually speed these up.


Play chikari strings

The chikari strings are a very important part of the sitar sound. They play different roles in each of the different sections of a sitar performance, being very prominent right at the beginning of the alap in sounding the Sa and main notes of the Rag from which the whole performance grows and in jhala at the end of the performance where they add rhythmic excitment. The chikari strings are played with a Ra stroke.

As you practice the chikari strings you should vary the angle of your stroke to get the right sound. For jhala the sound we are looking for is mostly just the chikari strings, with just a bit of the other drone strings.

The stroke still comes from the second finger joint and all the fingers move together. The stroke should be quite short. For jhala you should play the chikari strings slightly further up towards the finger board than the normal playing position.

To achieve the right sound for jhala you need to aim your stroke slightly upwards. Think of the target being just the very last string - the chotte chikari string. If the stroke is too low then you will sound all the drone strings too loudly and this tends to make too much noise for the very rhythmical accompaniment for the baj string melody that we are aiming for.


The basic jhala pattern

Practice the basic jhala pattern which is - c means a chikari stroke.

To start with practice this at a very moderate speed - about 100 beats per minute. Gradually increase the speed as you improve. To start with keep it slow and concentrate on the correct movements.

If your thumb starts to drift away from its position, then move it back - it should stay exactly where it is normally placed. This is important because later you will be alternating jhala strokes with normal strokes so the thumb needs to be in the right position.

In order to play this effectively your hand pivots slightly on the thumb so that you alternate between the normal playing position for the note Sa and the playing position for the chikari strings which is slightly further up towards the fingerboard.


Play 1x, 2x, 4x speed strokes

This exercise practices strokes at different speeds. It is useful to build stamina, and to develop your sense of rhythm and is the foundation for exercises combining strokes with melodic patterns.

Set your tabla or metronome to slow speed - about 45 beats per minute. The 1x speed line sets the challenge of very accurate rhythmic playing at a slow speed, whilst the 4x speed requires quite fast playing. And 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 starts to get you used to the feel of vilambit tintal with strokes played at different speeds.


Play basic jhala pattern 1x and 2x speed

This exercise is designed to increase your stamina in playing jhala - it alternates single speed chikari strokes with double speed. Again start practicing it at quite a slow speed - say 100 beats per minute, and gradually increase the speed.


Take care to keep your movements correct and your thumb in the right place - do not go for speed at the expense of these elements, you will improve much quicker if you follow this rule in all your practice.


Alternate jhala and normal strokes

This exercise is important because you need to be able to switch confidently between normal strokes and jhala. When jhala is performed tans are incorporated seamlessly, and these, of course, use normal strokes. When practicing this concentrate on keeping the thumb in position and make the change over completely seamless. As with everything start slow - about 100 beats per minute and then speed up.


Play 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, 6x, 8x speed strokes

This exercise takes the idea of playing at different speeds to the next stage introducing more complicated rhythms - it is more difficult to control but starts to develop the ability to play in all these different speeds. 8x speed gets to be quite fast so set your tabla or metronome to about 30 beats per minute.


Coordinating left and right hand

This exercise wil help strengthen the right hand, speed up the left hand and improve the coordination between the two:

Start with a tempo of about 40 beats per minute and play 8 x speed strokes. In this case the scale passage gets faster and then slower again as the exercise progresses. Repeat several times at each practice session.


Play more bol patterns

There are an endless range of bol patterns that you can practice.

Here are some 4 beat/4x speed patterns. Once you have mastered these on Sa, you can combine with palta or scale passages.
3x speed patterns are also good to practice.
Start with the simple pattern of alternating strokes.
Follow this up with more complex patterns.

Finally, learn this long, 16 beat bol pattern, which combines together several of the shorter ones:


Play accent patterns

Practicing accent patterns helps to build your right hand technique, and is very useful for combining with melodic patterns in improvisations to make exciting tans. The first exercise is based on a 3+3 pattern - there are two bol patterns for this - the first is good for strengthening your Ra stroke, the second prepares for the jor-jhala pattern below:

The next exercise is based a 3+3+2 pattern - the same pattern as is used in jor-jhala. Practice it with the normal pattern of bols but also with the jor-jhala pattern.

Key to making this a success is that the unaccented notes should be normal volume and the accented one should stand out - play them with more force. Making accents with the Ra stroke is a good way to develop your technique.

The third exercise is based on a 3+3+3+3+2+2 pattern. This is also used for complex jhala patterns. Again practice it with two bol patterns.


Jor-jhala pattern

At the end of the alap, this jhala pattern is used, combined with melody to create a very atmospheric effect. This pattern is also particularly good for developing your right hand technique. Practice it slowly to start with until it becomes automatic, and then speed up. Because it is confusing at first, start slow with your tabla or metronome set at about 80 beats per minute.

First practice the pattern just as strokes - you will have already practiced this pattern for accents.

Then replace each Ra stroke with a chikari stroke.

Take care that the chikari strokes are jhala style - aim for the top chikari string with less sound from the other drone strings

Play complex jhala patterns

In performance the basic jhala pattern dominates the early part of the jhala, but later on more complex patterns often crossing the structure of tintal are used. Practice the following patterns to establish these well before combining with melodic patterns. See the jhala section for more information about this.

The following 8 beat pattern follows the very common 3+3+2 rhythm.

This 16 beat pattern based on a 3+3+3+3+2+2 rhythm is also very commonly used


Play on jora string

You can use your jora string to play very low notes down to low Sa. This can be particularly useful for Rags where Ga is an important note - otherwise your phrases can be limited by the fact that the baj string stops at Ma.

You play the jora string using Da and Ra strokes as usual. You need to use a very narrow span to strike the string. To start with simply practice playing stroke patterns on low Sa. You can then combine this with playing notes on the jora string.


Chikari strokes for alap

The chikari stroke for alap should be softer than for jhala. You should imagine that you are starting your stroke from the second last chikari string - the bari chikari - and include more of the sound of the other drone strings - this makes a richer sound emphasising the key notes of the rag.
A very common pattern for use in alap is to play . This pattern is very useful for creating atmosphere and establishing the Sa in your mind and your audience's mind. It is simple to play but like everything else needs to be come automatic. Simply play the chikari string followed quite quickly by low Sa on the open jora string, and then pause to let the sound sink in before repeating this gesture or playing your alap phrase.


Extreme accent stroke
To be completed later.
Play ulti jhala

The ulti jhala is used at the end of the jor section. It is played as follows:

The important thing is to place an emphasis on the chikari stroke - this is where the beat is. Alternatively think about playing the Da strokes more softly. Take care to make sure the chikari strokes are jhala style - ie aiming for the top chikari string and with less of the other drone strings.