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martin spaink

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This text deals specifically with the act of tuning and getting all the hardware under control. I revised the text in february in view of publication in 'Samakalikam Sangeetham' may 2012, which I give here below, along with my regards.

Practical tanpura tuning instructions from an old-school tanpura-artist and jivari-maker

In these modern times that are marked by the increasing use of electronic conveniences, it may be useful to take stock of what we would like to preserve before the detailed practical knowledge that is rooted in tradition is forgotten. Modern ways of doing things are not necessarily ‘better’ but often this is realized only after something has become lost or otherwise has fallen into a state of neglect. As I see it, as concerns tanpura tuning and playing, there is not enough practical information and instruction available and thus it seems hard to pass from mediocrity to the professional level. Yet improving the quality of both tuning and playing is the only way the show the superiority of the tanpura.
In the following lines I want to share my experience and understanding concerning the ´Lore of the Tanpura´ with those who want to improve on their tuning and playing habits. Of course, this is much better learned through example when two people sit together around an instrument. Going solely from written explanations and instructions is not my idea of an ideal learning situation, but I could have made good use of the practical instruction described below when I started out long ago. In the following lines I try to pass on to the interested reader what I have learned during the many concerts where I tuned and played tanpura for visiting masters-musicians from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions. To all these sensitive and appreciative musicians I dedicate this article. For practical reasons, wherever I wrote ‘tanpura’, tambura or tamburi may also be read. (for the different types and detailed information, see the Wikipedia article to which I heavily contributed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tambura

Tuning a tanpura properly is a precise and practical task, to be performed in a reasonable amount of time, and also the act of attuning oneself, with the instrument, in preparation for a performance of a particular raga. The following lines will deal mostly with the practical side of tuning and playing, checking that the instrument in its vital parts is set-up properly and explain all steps of the process. As such, it addresses the physical parts in action, where my other text (some reflections…published in the previous issue, oct. 2011) goes more into the what and why of things, this is definitely a ‘how to’ text.

For practical reasons, I will divide things into three sections
1 short checklist, is all as should be?
2 tuning up from scratch, basic plucking advises
3 fine-tuning

1 Everything depends on what state the tuning is in before you start, who's doing the tuning and what the situation is. Checking the tuning of a regularly played, well-maintained instrument, or just having finished dusting off one that’s been neglected, present different challenges.
Before tuning by the large pegs, make sure that the fine-tuning beads below the bridge are almost in their highest position, leaving some tension so you can lower the pitch as well if you need to. Also before tuning, remove the jivari-threads. Better even, if the instrument has not been played recently, take all 4 threads together and loop around a string, pull it to the bottom part of the bridge, go up and down a few times and you will have cleaned and polished the string/bridge contact area. Clean all strings this fashion. Tune up all four strings, still without threads, starting with jora, then karaj, then pancham. When this will involve serious retuning by way of the large pegs, I usually lay down the instrument across my lap, tumba to my right, supporting the dand on my left upper leg somewhere below the pegs, as you need some controlled force and pushing when tuning with the pegs. On unfamiliar instruments I always check whether the strings have been set up correctly and if it looks messy, I do it again. For tightness and neatness, I use the same stick through, fold the end over, half a turn, hook over the string and pull the hook fully tight in the hole -method to fix the string to the peg as is used fixing the lower end of the string to the tailpiece. Wind up the string in neat, regular windings without crossings, with the string leaving the peg close to the neck, 5-10mm., no higher, where the peg is most comfortable resisting the pull of the string. When setting up a new string, handle the string with great care, uncoil it carefully and do not cause any twists or bends. Pull the string to keep it tight when you have attached it to the peg before you start turning it up, so that the windings will lie tight on the peg. Keep the string tensed manually while you are taking up over-length slack. Guide it, check it, before tension locks it in position. Tune the string slowly up to its proper pitch, squeeze and twist the windings, give a small but energetic pull on the string somewhere in the middle and tune up again. The idea is to have no play in the string attachment anywhere, so that the tuning will remain stable.
If the instrument has been neglected for a while, its best to polish the jivari-area on the bridge as I describe below, tune up without threads and then put fresh thread in place. Cotton of at least three filaments is best, for large male nr. 40 thickness is just right, use a bit thinner on ladies' instruments. Check the strings for dirt and corrosion, if they’re not smooth and shiny, clean them. Take a cotton or linen rag, release some of the tension from a normal tuned string, fold the cloth over the string and pinch it firmly without any twisting or rotation (which would create internal stress) and rub the full length of the string, surpassing the top nut and the area over the main bridge. Check the cloth, it's probably marked with a black smear. Refold the cloth and continue until no marks are left on the cloth. Only if the surface of the string has been eaten into you'll want to change them. That is, if their relative thicknesses are right for tuning at your selected pitch for sa. String gauges will be selected according to the sounding length of the string and the desired pitch. Low Sa (karaj) and pancham strings) I prefer to have in brass or phosphor-bronze, the pair of octave sa's (jora) in white steel (not inox, too hard).
I have a full size male tanpura, I tune to B-Bflat and use (in mm.) .92 / 2 x .50 / .60. The idea is to have approximate equal tension on all strings. For same size, higher pitch, say C#, .75 / 2 x .40 / .50 . Standard sets often have a brass karaj and 3 equal steel strings, which is in my opinion more suited for an occasional NI sa sa SA tuning. The brass / bronze 1st string has a better matching timbre and will easily allow to go to madhyam as well, which a steel string won't do. There is a certain margin as to what exact pitch you can tune to, which mostly depend on the length of the open string, what kind of metal and the diameter. First of all, there should be balance in amplitude, each string vibrating fully and blending well with the others, which it can not do if one is too tense or too slack. This is mostly a tactile/aural sensation. For the resultant sound when played in full, it is of prime importance that with a regular touch the strings will respond with the same amplitude, and so produce the continuity in the sound.


2 tuning up, basic plucking advise

In playing order the tanpura is tuned pa sa sa Sa, the pancham string being called the first string, then the 'jora' ( meaning 'pair'), the middle two strings tuned to high sa, and lastly the fundament or key-note, 'karaj' or 'mandra', for low Sa.
From some outward reference, check the desired pitch of sa. I may carry a tuning-fork or an electronic tuning device around, I use it only to give me the reference tone.
I leave it on only to tune the first of the jora, then I silence it immediately as it will interfere with harmonic effects emanating from the strings and their respective interplay and dynamic shading.

When a tanpura is out of tune, it's good to start with ss, ssS, ssSP and after that pluck PssS. When it’s basically OK but you want to focus on some details, you can start tuning from the jora (ss) and then go to P to get out that particular blended sound of P sounding in to ss, and afterward put karaj S under it so that it fills the sound from the bottom up.

Pluck carefully with your right hand index finger, somewhere in the middle of the string-length. Plucking is an art in itself, and is guided by touch and ear. The aim is to bring the strings in full swing in sounding cycles as a continuum, which requires a delicate, and almost un-heard ‘pluck’. Also you need to maintain a short-filed nail to avoid the harshness of a nail-plucked tone. The best point of contact is the top-most fleshy bit just under the side of your nail-bed. Rest the tip of your r.h. thumb on the edge of the side of the neck to steady your hand. The best place for plucking is somewhere below the middle of the open length of the string.
When you play the repeated full cycle, whether you use two fingers or only the index, keep your hand in the same relaxed position as you lay your hand on your lap palm up, with the thumb on the edge of the neck as a resting and pivoting point while your fingers point upward, in the direction of the pegs, though they are a little bent. When plucking the full cycle, rotate your hand from the underarm around the pivot of your thumb. When done right, it's a very small, flowing movement.
Push the string down toward the neck and release. Find the proper amount of pull before release to produce a good and steady tone. After having tuned the second string, the first of the jora, tune the other high sa so that is exactly the same, without beats. When you find the exact point where the two tones flow into each other the resonance should open up. The instant two very rich tones merge together all the shared harmonics are reinforced. Then you put karaj right under it. Mind the timing of the plucking, keep it in the same tempo, with the same time-interval between consecutive plucks. Jora is plucked 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2. When jora is fine, you extend the same plucking rhythm to the karaj. After karaj you let it sound at least for the duration of an 'empty' pluck, so 1 2 3 rest, 1 2 3 rest. Once this is stable you pluck the pancham and adjust. Whatever you do, maintain the steady flow of plucking, keep it up while you adjust something and make the adjustment at the right moment after the pluck, don't wait till the sound has almost gone unless it is the end-resonance your are fine-adjusting. When (re)tuning a sa string, pluck only the jora. When stable, include karaj etc.
When you first include pancham in your cycle of plucks, it in turn becomes 1 so you adapt to: 1, shorter rest, 3, 4, 5, longer rest for the karaj to fully open and then back to pancham. One word of caution concerning the relative rhythm of plucking: Please note that I don't think it's a good idea to start counting, that an idea of fixed rhythm or timing should be the guiding principle. Instead, let the sound guide your finger. The evolving sound of one string will have a particular effect on the next string when it is plucked and therefore the timing is both significant and critical for a particular blending which creates a resultant 'harmonic halo', the cyclical dance of the harmonics that unfold in the dynamic and complementary interplay among the three Sa-strings, jora and karaj and one other svara such as ma, pa, dha, ni. This duality, having another fundamental with its own scale of harmonics joining in the already very rich harmonic build-up from the octave-pair and the low Sa, is what makes tuning so much more interesting and versatile. Having only Sa strings would be very static and a bit empty and flat. Note that (at least on a 4-string instrument, 5-string gives more possibilities) the jora is treated as an entitiy, being twins are always tuned to octave of low Sa. Even on 5-string tanpura, it is not advisable to tune a string to gandhar, as in the three sa-strings many harmonics will sound ga in different octaves (nrs. 5,10, 20).
3 fine-tuning


The fine-tuning is preferably done upright on the floor with a cloth or carpet under the instrument, never set it directly on a hard surface, which will create irregularities in the resonance at the slightest movement . For a posture, I prefer to set the instrument before me, with the back of the tumba against my crossed legs, turning it a little bit clockwise so that the front axis is at 1-2 o’clock relative to me. To get used to the right position, you might practice with an empty wine bottle, sticking the neck between your left foot and right thigh, resting your elbow in the convenient cavity at the bottom of the bottle. I do not smother the resonance of the instrument by doing any unnecessary clamping with my other arm and hand, which for the while have no function except tweaking a twitching nose or some such thing.
Go over the tuning again doing micro-tuning with the tuning beads, repeat in same order.
Then insert new threads in the same order by which we tune, very carefully pull it under the string while you keep plucking this same string in a regular rhythm. Pull the thread with thumb and index and put other fingers on the lower edge of the bridge for support as you need to pull ever so slowly such a small bit and listen what happens to the sound. This is why the jivari-maker carefully polishes the surface of the bridge, that the thread may slide smoothly. You want to control the pull on the thread so that you can find the spot where the first harmonics start to open up, slowly to where the harmonics are again muted. Go back up, do it again, even more slowly and find a pleasing tone-color that has a long resonance and is steady when you listen to the sustained harmonics, and pay particular attention to the sound being ´straight´ from beginning to end. Pluck the string repeatedly, listen to the sound in all its parts, the beginning, middle and end, what svaras present themselves? When the string is in full swing, you will probably hear pa’s and ga’s most of all. Try to have as little Nishad (komal, nrs. 7, 14, 28.. or shuddh 15, 30..) as possible from the jora and karaj, meaning that if any of these are relatively loud try to shift them out by micro-manipulating thread and bead. This relates directly to the constancy required in the players’ touch. If you over-pluck, for instance, the sound will be a little bit raised in pitch at its first onset, to gradually release into the fundamental tone. Go through all strings, then carefully retune with beads to align the harmonics. Always do the plucking in a regular tempo. I allow a little rest after the pancham and again, somewhat longer, after the karaj. The pause is mainly to allow the resonance of the pancham or karaj to build up, as the thicker strings and lower pitches of pa and low Sa take somewhat longer to come to full bloom. When you succeed in creating a steady, rich 'humming' sound from the tanpura you may find it gives wonderful support to the voice.

When you get to finer levels of hearing and tuning, you might want to start tuning and plucking from Pa (or Ma or Ni), aiming for a particular dual resonance when the Pancham blends with the jora. This is probably where you start realizing that the timing and dynamics of plucking influences the actual resultant sound. So experiment, vary the timing between the first and the second pluck, listen very carefully how the harmonics of the first plucked string develop for repeated plucks in a regular tempo, then go to 2nd and 3rd pluck. The sound you now create with pa and jora is enabled by the pattern of plucking, so if you like what you hear, keep it up. Ustad Sayeeduddin Dagar used to say ' listen with your fingers and play with your ears' when he caught me dreaming away in the beginning. I was plucking all right, but I was not mindful of it, I was playing absent-mindedly and he could hear it straight away. When you finally have finished adjusting the tanpura, there's always yourself to struggle with. Hopefully this does not involve sore knees or sleeping legs. Zen and the art of tanpura playing, it´s all about focus and concentration, balanced by sensitivity and intuition. And then there is the result: a majestic, inspiring and soulful (jiva!) sound from the tanpura, divine bliss and inspiration all around. Mind you, Sarasvati, through her divine presence, exalts those that are good of ear and exposes the weaknesses of those who are not. If you are educable and persistent, she will teach you, every time you take up the tanpura and start tuning and listening with focused attention.
With firm belief that the traditional oral knowledge concerning the unique lore of tanpura is a part of India’s great cultural heritage worth cherishing and preserving, it is thus to be kept alive, and that means that some of us must do the work, and remain steadfast in these times of ‘electronic conveniences’. It is my hope that these notes may be helpful to some of my readers to help keep alive the tradition of the tanpura in teaching and on the podium, and to show its beauty to the world as a unique contribution to music and learning .
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